November 01, 2010

Japan takes off (with or without us)

Steve Sailer notes that "Japan [from 1601 to 1852] was not taking off, accelerating, the way Europe did, with Britain increasingly in the lead, especially with the Industrial Revolution. Japan was much farther behind the West in 1852 than in 1601." So, he asks, "Without the West, would Japan have yet achieved science and the Industrial Revolution?"

I left a few comments, but here's my long answer.

The isolationism of the Edo Period lasted as long as it did was because the Tokugawa shoguns were so good at doing what they did. The Darwinian contest of the previous Warring States Period, combined with a fairly rational (for its time) feudal order and a high literacy rate pretty much left the best and the brightest in charge.

And later on, a blind eye was turned toward supposedly prohibited movement (up and down) between the classes.

Successful merchants bought themselves samurai credentials and samurai married into merchant families to bail out their flagging fortunes (the muko-iri marriage allowed a lower-class groom to marry a upper-class bride and take her surname). This replenished the gene pool and dampened frustrations over social mobility and primogeniture.

In Japan, Mr. Bennet would have found for his eldest daughter a man of means but with a slightly lower social status and adopted him into the family.

Japan staved off Malthusian pressures with infanticide and the occasional famine, which reduced the number of restless, unlanded sons running around starting revolutions.(1) As a result, the Edo Period is now regarded with great nostalgia. The Edo Period melodrama occupies the same cultural space as the American western and is a staple of Japanese television.

One reason Japanese don't worry that much about the "birth dearth" is that, hey, the Edo Period wasn't half bad! So maybe a Japan with half as many people would be an improvement! But this kind of contentment is inimical to "progress."

Satisfied citizens and competent bureaucracies do not prompt paradigms to shift, just as unstressed ecosystems tend not to promote evolution. However, by the early 19th century, the Tokugawa's hold on power was growing frayed. Inbreeding took its toll. Powerful domains like Satsuma chafed under the draconian trading restrictions, or simply ignored them.

The governor of Satsuma married his adopted daughter into the Tokugawa line. When that failed to change the political tides, Satsuma joined forces with the even more fractious Choshu, and the emperor (still a puppet in Kyoto) was convinced to do the unheard-of equivalent of dissolving parliament, with the promise of holding real power in the new government.

The Tokugawa regime subsequently collapsed in one of the shortest, most decisive civil wars in history.

Perry's arrival was the straw the broke the camel's back. But it'd been creaking for decades. The adventurous curiosity of the Meiji Era reformers--some of the most brilliant minds of the age traveled around the world gathering all the political ideas, science and technology they could lay their hands on--would have perhaps erupted later, but inevitably.

At which point those enormous reservoirs of pragmatism allowed the Japanese to make up a two hundred year industrial and technological deficit in a single generation.

1. The irony here is that Japan kept out of the Malthusian trap during its isolationist phase only to fall into one at the end of the 19th century, when the government started encouraging emigration to South America and the colonization of Manchuria. Japan's Lebensraum problem, more substantive than Germany's and similarly poisoned by a political ideology that was more a state religion, led to WWII.

Having learned its lesson, Japan's post-war baby boom was much shorter in duration than America's, which is why Japan is aging so quickly now. [return]

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# posted by Blogger Joe
The error Sailor and several commentators make is the failure to understand that Europe was set on course for the industrial revolution with the Black Plague in 1350 and it still took 450 years for it to happen.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Black Plague. It upended centuries of stagnate civil and religious power structures. Even at its height, the Roman Empire was a fundamental failure incapable of a true reformation of society. Just like you say with Tokugawa shoguns were too good at what they did, so were the Romans. The oft ignored lesson is that bureaucracy kills innovation, freedom and societal advancement more thoroughly than anything else. (A lesson a certain church needs to, but completely fails to, understand.)
11/01/2010 1:12 PM

# posted by Blogger Joe
(**Incomplete theory warning**)

A point I failed to make is that the desire for bureaucracies and institutions is so strong that even with the power leveling disruption of the Black Plague, people still gravitated back to stagnation. In the power vacuum, enough alternative, pragmatically radical institutions were set up to allow the revolutionaries to survive and prosper.

One point is that with a concerted (and bloody) effort, Europe could have squelched all this and Japan would have had no where to go. After their civil war, it would have been only a matter of time before the Tokugawa-like leadership reasserted itself (which it did in the early 20th century, but modernization is hard to roll back and so, like communism, it was doomed to failure.)
11/01/2010 1:19 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
The old order in Europe ended with the Protestant Reformation and was capped off by the Thirty Year's War. But Luther could do what he did because the German princes had room (left by the Black Death) to maneuver in. The Inquisition attempted to march things back, but was too late.

The surprising thing about the 20th century is how short-lived so many centralized state bureaucracies were. Ideology has to be leavened by a good deal of slop, such that it feels voluntarily embraced, and can still deal with statistical outliers without resorted to productivity-sapping purges.

At the same time, abandoning ideology completely leaves people with no vested interest in preserving the status quo. A Japan committed to being Japanese actually has good odds of long-term survival. China throws these silly diplomatic temper tantrums in an effort to define a national identity.

But as China is proving, finding unity in a common (though much smaller) enemy is pretty weak tea. Sort of like a certain church tilting at transitory political causes in order to rally the troops (most of whom would be utterly unaffected by said causes in any case).
11/01/2010 2:44 PM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
P.J. O'Rourke's book on "The Wealth of Nations" provides a good perspective on factors that helped tear down trade barriers and create economic freedom.

It does seem that once people have a taste of prosperity they want more of it. There is an excellent book out there by a bond trader who made a good living trading bonds and currencies in third wold countries. One point of emphasis is that no matter the trade restrictions people will find ways to make a market for the goods they want or have. Thus the imperative of institutions who see prosperity as a threat to deny its existence (ie North Korea).
11/03/2010 3:46 PM