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

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview

7
Social, Economic, and Cultural
Transformations

In just three decades, from the 1860s to the 1890s, the Japanese economy emerged as an Asian powerhouse. It came to be called “the Workshop of Asia,” a cliché that persisted far into the twentieth century. By the 1890s, textile manufacturers dominated home markets. They began competing successfully with British firms in China and India, as well. Japanese shippers were competing with European traders to carry these goods even to Europe.

Taking a long view, the economic takeoff of Meiji Japan was a formidable achievement. This is the case whether one compares Japan to other countries or compares the standards of living within Japan in the 1860s to those of decades later. But the immediate impact of the industrial revolution was disastrous for many people in Japan. Especially hard hit were members of two large, overlapping groups: small-scale family farmers and young women workers. Huge numbers of farmers lost their lands to moneylenders, and hundreds of thousands of teenage girls experienced the hardship of labor in the thread mills, the weaving sheds, the match factories, and the expanding brothels of the new Japan.

A divided judgment applies also to the cultural transformations of these decades. Japanese writers and artists embraced new forms from novels to oil painting, while older traditions from poetry writing to bunraku chanting showed ongoing vitality. But a profound anxiety that something was being lost in the headlong rush to a Westernfocused modernity surfaced with increasing intensity in the 1880s and 1890s. This worry pushed intellectuals to improvise new concepts of Japanese “tradition.” It also linked up with the fear of social disorder and political challenge among state officials. They responded by putting in place oppressive limits on individual thought and behavior.


LANDLORDS AND TENANTS

Agrarian society played a critical role in the economic transformation of Meiji Japan. It was a vital source of the labor power, food, tax revenues, and export earnings that made the industrial revolution possible.

From 1880 through 1900 Japan's population rose from about thirty-five to fortyfive million people. At the same time, the rural, agricultural population declined

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