East Asian success models: Meiji Restoration – Japan’s path to economic growth

The ongoing struggle of Bharat to launch itself onto the path of economic development has been patchy and obstacle-ridden even more than 70 years after Independence. We tend to look towards Western nations as role models for attaining our goals, but perhaps we need to look closer to home, that is, within Asia.

This multi-part series will cover the economic development journey for many East Asian countries. Part 1 will deal with Japan.

One country whose model of economic development and progress we perhaps need to study and draw from is Japan. Though not identical, but Japan and Bharat share some religio-cultural features. Japan was one of the first non-White, non-Christian countries to become a global power.

The 1970 article by Jeff Baugh emphasizes that Christian nations have a Biblical context and even communist Russia has Christian roots which is why Marxism also has a Biblical context. In the case of Japan, what makes it different is:

In general, traditional societies can be understood as more or less autonomous, religiously legitimated, extended kinship groups. In such groups, far greater emphasis is accorded to collective than to individual interests. … in spite of its modernization, Japan remains such a society.

He adds:

The Japanese have created a thoroughly modern, highly technological, capitalist civilization whose religious foundations rest upon animistic and polytheistic traditions that adherents of the biblical regions normally assume to be discredited, primitive, and idolatrous–a remnant of a far earlier stage of religious “evolution.” From the Japanese perspective, such views are, of course, utterly without substance.

In the Tokugawa period between 1638 and 1867, the Japanese society was a feudal one where hereditary military commanders called shoguns ruled over their respective fiefdoms and all were answerable to a nominal head, the emperor (Mikado). The Japanese society was stratified into classes consisting of warriors (samurai), traders, artisans, and farmers, with no mobility permitted between these social classes. This appears to be similar to Bharat’s varna system, labelled as ‘caste system’ by the European colonizers.

Prior to the onset of the Tokugawa period, Japan had around 300,000 Christians whose rebellion in the Shimbara peninsula was crushed with a heavy hand followed by closing down the country to outside contact including to Christian missionaries. Trade with Western nations was also banned but Japan maintained a close relationship with China and Korea.

Economic growth was steady and significant in this period. Agricultural production grew and manufacturing was also strengthened which led to a wealthy merchant/trader class and this led to the growth of many Japanese cities like Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka that showcased urban culture. These cities catered to the merchants/traders and the samurai rather than to the nobility (shoguns) and their vassals or warlords (daimyo). The urban culture saw the growth of the Kabuki theatre and Bunraku puppet theatre and woodblock printing.

Over time, when agricultural production did not fare as well as the mercantile and commercial activities, followed by famines, this caused peasant uprisings which further weakened the shogun and samurai class.

When unequal treaties were imposed by stronger nations on countries of East Asia including Japan, ‘Japan had the choice of either radically restructuring her society or suffering defeat and humiliation by the predatory Western powers.’

What led Japan onto the path of progress was its response in this situation. ‘As we knew, the foreign threat was met speedily and successfully by perhaps the most radical restructuring of any society the world has ever known.’

The Choshu and Satsuma clans which were anti-Tokugawa, combined forces and toppled the shogunate in 1867. This is called the Meiji restoration. The emperor was the head of the state but the shoguns were the functioning head of the government. Owing to this division of power, the shogunate could be overthrown while the supreme sovereign could remain without being discredited. This allowed for introducing new policies which appeared to have the sanction of the supreme sovereign, considered by the citizens as a revered source from antiquity. Without this division of power, Japan would not have been able to survive the denigration of its indigenous institutions.

In spite of the loss of an active political role, the imperial institution gained overwhelming new importance. As a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu-omi-kami, the emperor symbolized national continuity, identity, and sovereignty at a time when foreigners threatened these values more profoundly than at any other time in Japan’s history. The emperor also symbolized national unity and the harmony between the rulers and the ruled.

The Charter Oath of 1868 pledged greater equality between classes, a much needed reform. But it is important to note that classes previously on the lower rung of society were not given special privileges  aka ‘reservations’ that have been granted under Bharat’s Constitution to so-called lower castes. In Bharat, those privileges have only become further entrenched and acquired perpetuity in the decades following independence, with ever-increasing number of groups, including powerful land-owning classes, clamouring for the ‘backward’ label.

The slogans used in Japan were: ‘Rich Country, Strong Army’; ‘Civilization and Enlightenment’; and ‘Encourage Industry’. The imperial institution ensured historical and civilizational continuity. Japan’s transition could be achieved in a largely bloodless fashion in contrast to transformation in the Christian West such as the 17th century English revolution and the 18th century French revolution.

Japanese leaders determinedly resisted destruction of the historic continuity of their civilization.

By utilizing a seemingly conservative doctrine, that of the emperor’s divinity, to legitimate a radical social and political revolution, the elite was able to create a strong central government, abolish all estate distinctions, eliminate warrior privileges, open military service to commoners hitherto forbidden to possess arms, establish a system of universal public education, and facilitate the entry of members of the samurai class (in general the best-educated class) into the world of business and commerce.

The peace and stability and absence of Western interference of the Tokugawa period had helped pave the way for rapid modernization during the Meiji restoration period.

By 1871, administrative reorganization was accomplished and the domains were replaced by the prefecture system, feudal class privileges were abolished, and the national army was formed. Two years later, universal conscription was introduced to strengthen the army. Agricultural tax reforms were done as was the unification of monetary and tax systems. The country was opened up to Western trade. A European style banking system was introduced in 1872. Although a modern education system was introduced, it emphasized traditional values of social harmony and samurai loyalty.

Around 1880, some of the reforms began to be met with resistance and uprisings, which were quashed by the army. Responding to the pressure, the government in 1881 promised to provide a new Constitution by 1890. In 1885, a cabinet system was formed and in 1886, it began to work on the Constitution.

In 1889, the Meiji Constitution came into effect under which a bicameral Parliament called the Diet was formed. This Constitution remained until 1947. The unequal treaties were revised in 1894 as Japan gained respect in the eyes of the western world. Within a mere 32 years, Japan had carved out a space for itself as an industrialized, modern power.

However, during the imperial restoration period, Japan began to emulate Western expansionist policies and in 1894, it defeated the Chinese Quing Empire and a year later gained control of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula, which it had to give up after a Russian intervention. Japan consolidated militarily as a response and defeated Russia in a battle in 1905.

Japan’s expansionist policies apart, through attaining economic progress, it had managed to do what no other non-White non-Christian nation had achieved before.

Featured Image Source: Japanmeetings.org

Did you find this article useful? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.

HinduPost is now on Telegram. For the best reports & opinion on issues concerning Hindu society, subscribe to HinduPost on Telegram.



Sign up to receive HinduPost content in your inbox

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

About the Author

Writer, Editor, Researcher