A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview

9
Economy and Society

Diversity and tension mark the economic and social history of the 1910s and 1920s in Japan. The economy experienced a great wartime boom followed by a prolonged postwar bust. Economic performance differed between industrial and agricultural sectors as well as between the technologically advanced zaibatsu firms and the mass of smaller, less productive enterprises. In social life the worlds of men and women dif fered greatly, as did those of city-dwellers and rural folk. Within the countryside, the lives of major landlords, owners with smallholdings, and landless tenants were vastly different in many ways. Within towns and cities, diverse groups of wage laborers, shopkeepers, and a “new middle class” of salaried employees of large corporations and state bureaus jostled in close proximity. The cityscape was also dotted with the grand compounds of a small elite of zaibatsu owners and top political leaders.

A newly booming publishing industry, including mass circulation magazines as well as books and newspapers, celebrated the modern lives of middle-class women and men. The press reported the anxieties of those striving to keep up or get ahead. It articulated themes that gave people a sense of participating in a common experience of modern Japanese life, including pride in the achievement of empire as well as economic transformation. It also provided a forum where all sorts of critics might lament the social and political tensions that were inevitable parts of a diverse modern society.


WARTIME BOOM AND POSTWAR BUST

World War I brought unprecedented human disaster to Europe. In Asia it brought some unexpected opportunities. The war cut European traders off from their Asian customers, and this gave a huge boost to Japan's newly industrializing economy. Between 1914 and 1918, Japan's industrial output rose from 1.4 billion to 6.8 billion yen. Exports surged with particular speed. Overseas sales of Japanese cotton cloth rose 185 percent during these years. 1 Industrial employment ballooned as well, and with workers suddenly in scarce supply, wages rose sharply. Unfortunately for most workers and consumers, prices rose even faster. Japan experienced its worst inflationary surge in modern times. Between 1914 and 1920 the retail price of rice increased

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