Japan is now about to become the third industrial power in the world. It is already the second largest car producing country. In 1955 it’s gross national product was slightly less than half Britain’s. This year it will be almost 20 per cent greater. Japan is the only capitalist country in which us capital dominates neither the oil, steels, automobiles or electronics industries. How many western socialists are aware of the sudden emergence of this new centre within the capitalist world? Yet the economic statistics do not mean a simple repetition of western social patterns.

In one year at the height of the post-war pinball craze, the Japanese blew a sum equivalent to 25 per cent of the national budget at the pachinko machines. In this same year, 1954, as in every year since the war, they also displayed a higher propensity to save than any other industrialized country. Economic statistics which disclose a social background somewhat unlike that underlying the Atlantic capitalist systems. The point may seem obvious, but it needs to be made, because in the West Japan, when not simply a subject for folklore, is usually evoked as a pure economic phenomenon.

This evocation may take one of two forms. The first hypothesizes Japan’s industrial revolution as a model for present-day under-developed countries.footnote1 The second idolizes Japan’s recent growth as a model for Britain’s sluggish capitalists.footnote2 Neither of these approaches, let it be said, is particularly revealing in itself, but since they are the ones most commonly adopted, they have a certain usefulness as a way into understanding some of the essentials of the contemporary Japanese scene. They are also indicative of the remoteness of Japan from western European political discussion.

This would hardly be worth arguing had it not established itself as a recurrent argument. In its most sophisticated form, as in Baran, it takes the form of attempting to see what allowed Japan alone of all the lands of Asia to develop into an advanced capitalist country and then inquire whether the similarities between her condition and those of other countries outweigh the dissimilarities. Yet even though Baran’s precise purpose in scrutinizing Japan and India is to draw lessons from the two third world pole-countries, he is at a loss to indicate any useful lessons at all. Similarly, the crudest neo-capitalist approach, as exemplified in Consider Japan, after setting out purposively with the statement: ‘Obviously, it [Japan] must be regarded as a harbinger of future possibilities for the rest of Asia and Africa’ flops five pages later with the conclusion that, ‘it is awfully difficult to turn the experience recounted in these las t few paragraphs into a moral for the development of other countries’ . . . ‘Goodness knows how such a policy could be implemented on a world-wide scale.’

Rather than waste effort distorting Japan’s development into nonexistent parallels, the most useful thing is to indicate briefly some of the main characteristics of Japan’s growth—and the advantages she enjoyed. The first advantage was one of time and space. Even in the middle of the 19th century there was much more room in the world for independent growth than there has been in the middle of the 20th century. footnote3 Imperialism was as keen then as now to carve up the world, but was concentrating on what looked like the most profitable areas. Japan escaped to a large degree because it was so unattractive: it had no raw materials, and as a market China seemed a much better prospect. It thus escaped the grip of contemporary imperialist countries—something which is inconceivable now. Japan’s position at the time of her industrial revolution in a world already then dominated by imperialism was qualitatively different from that of any under-developed country today. Quite apart from this, she enjoyed specific internal advantages shared by few third world countries today. As early as the beginning of the 19th century literacy was probably higher in Japan than it was in western Europe. There was a large domestic market which permitted economies of scale. Edo was the biggest city in the world at the end of the 18th century. Japan in 1868 had a population five times the size of England’s at the start of her industrial revolution. This was made possible by an efficient agricultural system: less fertile land than in England supported 35 million people as against 7. Rice yields were higher at the time of the Meiji Revolution than they are now in many Asian countries. There was a considerable economic surplus (from levies on the rice crop) which prior to the Meiji Revolution was being consumed by feudal lords and their vassals; the Meiji bureaucrats soon managed to eliminate this parasitic class and thus ‘liberate’ the surplus—a process difficult to reproduce in most under-developed countries where the surplus is already being siphoned off by entrenched bureaucrats, a class much more difficult to liquidate. Thus in the middle of the last century (the arrival of Perry: 1853; the Meiji Revolution: 1867–68) Japan enjoyed specific advantages no longer available to the less developed countries: 1. an efficient agriculture—the only possible basis for accumulation independent of foreign powers; 2. a relatively literate population; and 3. a chance to grow in a world where imperialism was a century less proficient and manoeuvrable than it is now. Not only did Japan escape being an object of colonial ambition, its ‘distance’ technologically from the most advanced countries of the time was about half that between developed and ‘developing’ countries today.

The whole question of how to date and scan Japan’s economic development is one of great complexity, often closely linked with variant interpretations of the Meiji Revolution. The nature of the Revolution has been the subject of vigorous discussion among Japanese historians, which has had considerable political consequences, unfortunately too complex to go into here.footnote4 However there can be no doubt of the importance of the Meiji Revolution in determining the country’s future development. Leaving aside economic arguments for the moment, a line can fairly be drawn at the year 1868.

Meiji policy is best seen as a response to the irruption of the outside world. The problem facing the new rulers was how to ensure independence in a tough competitive world. The two crucial features of the new régime, according to Professor Thomas C. Smith, were ‘centralized power and ruthless utilitarianism [which] go far towards explaining Japan’s rapid industrialization’.footnote5 These are precisely the characteristics which China failed to show at the time. Whereas China’s response to the irruption of the western powers was inward-looking, more concerned with preserving Chinese civilization than China as an entity, Japan was wholeheartedly and pragmatically devoted to preserving Japan as an entity, even if it meant cultural compromise. Thus while Japanese policy was essentially protectionist in every sense, it was very much, as an ensemble, the result of ‘determinations exterior to the class “situation” or “interest” . . . of the dominant group’.footnote6