Interwar Japanese Economists - How Did They Pick Their Questions?

By Hein, Laura E. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Interwar Japanese Economists - How Did They Pick Their Questions?


Hein, Laura E., Journal of Economic Issues


This project explores the ideas of a group of economists trained at Tokyo University between 1910 and 1927, mainly Ouchi Hyoe and his students - Sakisaka Itsuro, Omori Yoshitaro, Arisawa Hiromi, Wakimura Yoshitaro, Takahashi Masao, and Minobe Ryokichi.(1) Except for Omori, who died young, these men all became highly respected and influential figures in the postwar era, although in different ways. Arisawa was an influential policy analyst, Wakimura became one of Japan's leading business historians, and Ouchi was a high-profile public intellectual on subjects as diverse as social welfare, city planning, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Sakisaka championed doctrinaire left-socialism for the Japan Socialist Party for 40 years, and Minobe is best known for his 12-year service as Governor of Tokyo. They also trained many of the government and business leaders who supervised Japan's postwar economic development. They wrote and studied collaboratively and socialized together for decades.

This essay focuses on two issues - their understanding of social science and their intellectual relationship to Marxism in the prewar era. While many people have argued that Japanese and/or East Asian capitalism is unique, most have made that claim on the basis of different outcomes or policy decisions by mid-level bureaucrats, rather than theory, which leaves unanswered two questions: Did influential economists and policymakers theorize capitalism differently? Did they reject certain ideas as inappropriate to Japan or Asia? This essay argues that these economists theorized their society in much the same ways as did their European contemporaries. Their thought is most distinctive for the ways they mixed various aspects of international theory, which was as much a response to the restrictive political climate [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] as it was because of careful theoretical conclusions. More generally, this essay assumes that, while the claims that Japanese capitalism is fundamentally different from U.S. or European capitalism are frequently overstated, they hold some validity.

The Nature and Values of Social Science

These men were among the first to approach economics as a codified body of material. Sakisaka was the only member of his 1918 high school graduating class to choose economics. Arisawa, one year behind Sakisaka, later expressed astonishment that so few of the students then wanted to study the Japanese economy directly, even though the post-World War I price increases, rice riots, and economic collapse were perceived by all to be huge problems [Arisawa 1989, 3-4; Sakisaka 1975, 134-5].

This was the second generation of modern social scientists in Japan. Their teachers had also championed rationality, empiricism, and social science as the answers to a rapidly changing society. However, the earlier generation, typified by economist Kawakami Hajime (1879-1946), had struggled for decades to align their interest in social policy with their deep belief that personal moral commitment and individual integrity were the driving forces in social interaction.

This is evident in Kawakami's most famous work, the Tale of Poverty. Kawakami published this critique of the persistence of poverty even in rich countries in 1916. The Tale of Poverty was a huge bestseller, reprinted 30 times by 1919. Kawakami was a trailblazer in several ways. First, he argued that poverty did not go away as nations industrialized but should be treated as an intrinsic problem of capitalism itself. This observation rang true to Japanese observers throughout the 1920s, as rural poverty intensified despite urban prosperity. Second, he used quantitative data to buttress his argument, providing a methodology for choosing between theories that the future economists found very satisfying. Third, his stance was motivated by a moral position on two levels: he argued both that community leaders had a moral responsibility to eliminate poverty and that the main problem with capitalism was that it justified, as well as created, economic inequality. …

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