A Short Economic History of Modern Japan, 1867-1937

By G. C. Allen | Go to book overview

Chapter I
The Disintegration of the Old Régime

THE rise of Japan to the position of a great Power ranks along with the reconstruction of Germany as the most significant of the political changes of the fifty years before 1914. To many Westerners the Japanese achievement, in the economic as well as in the political sphere, seemed so astounding as to defy rational explanation. Consequently, some of them were at times inclined to acquiesce in the views of those Japanese who sought the clue to their new-found glory in the realms of mysticism, while others attributed Japan's advance to a series of lucky accidents and prophesied that time would presently reveal an essential mediocrity. In the economic sphere especially, forecasts of imminent disaster and decay have been numerous and impressive at every stage of her modern history, and it was not until she plunged into war with the United States and the British Empire that a shrewder estimate of her strength became common in the West.

Some acquaintance with Japanese history during the Tokugawa era is necessary for an understanding of the circumstances that made possible the country's transformation after 1867 and her more recent progress. The popular conception of a people living for centuries under a system of picturesque feudalism and suddenly awakened to practical ambitions by the guns of foreign warships is far from the truth. The Japanese did not suddenly acquire that energy and restless ambition which have so disturbed the Western nations. Throughout their history they have shown a gift for rapidly assimilating new ideas and practices, a boldness in executing large projects and, above all, a trained and frequently exercised capacity for organization.1 Furthermore, modern Japan inherited from her past certain political and economic institutions that could be easily adapted to serving the nation in its new rôle. Her social organisation, rooted in a special kind of family system, and the long centuries of feudal discipline, helped to produce a capacity for extreme self-abnegation on the part of individuals and an aptitude for corporate effort which served the country well in a time of rapid social and economic change; and the institution of an Imperial House which mythology invested with divine attributes provided a focus for patriotic fervour. Japan entered upon her course as a Great Power with an inheritance of political ideals and emo

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1
Cf. J. Murdoch, A History of Japan, Vol. I, pp. 1-30.

-9-

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