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HomeEconomyWhere Did Early 20th Century Japan Go Wrong?

Where Did Early 20th Century Japan Go Wrong?

This year marks the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6th, 1945 “Fat Man” instantly killed 80,000 of Hiroshima’s residents, with the death toll rising to 141,000 in the aftermath. Then, on August 9th, “Little Boy” took the lives of more than 70,000 Nagasaki residents. While Japan had been on its heels for the better part of WWII, the bombings marked the death knell for the country, bringing the emperor himself to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.

The atomic bombing is rightly remembered for the destruction it wrought, but it should also be noted that Japan had been wrapped up in conflict since the 1931 occupation of Manchuria, and then the war against China starting in 1937. By the end of the war, the Japanese people had been worn down by the toils of a war and in economic shambles for almost 15 years. Yet from 1868 to the late 1920s, Japan seemed to be on the same track as the many western countries that had experienced their own industrial revolutions. The question is, then, what led Japan astray? The answer lies predominantly in the limited access to political institutions created through the Meiji Constitution, and the grip military factions had on the reins of the political engine early in the country’s modern era.

To understand how Japan failed, however, we need to know how it became so successful so quickly. The 1868 Meiji Restoration was a radical change for Japan. With the West knocking on Japan’s door, statesmen and intellectuals saw that Japan must change its ways, and change it did. In 1889 the Japanese government jumped from a feudal, yet federalist system to a constitutional monarchy. From this radical change, access to political institutions finally opened up on some margins. The lower house in the Diet, for example, consisted of elected representatives. On the other hand, nobility still played a large role, with the emperor being the supreme authority, and the upper house of the Diet consisting of only noblemen. Albeit not to the degree of the West, the tides of political thought were changing in Japan during this time.

Liberal thinkers such as Fukuzawa Yukichi played a large part in shaping societal change on the intellectual front. Having read a number of classical liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Fukuzawa promoted individual liberty and feared government overreach into the lives of private individuals. He also founded the renowned Keio University, being a strong advocate of education and business enterprise. Unfortunately, many liberal thinkers in Japan sacrificed their views for opportunities within government, leading somewhat to an abandonment of the classical liberal research agenda in the intelligentsia.

Economically, matters were much more promising for Japan as it strongly embraced capitalism and industrialization, actualizing its latent potential in commerce that had been cut off from the rest of the world prior to 1868. A number of well-known firms made their names during the late Meiji and subsequent Taisho periods. These firms embraced the competitive nature of relatively open markets at the time, working with foreign companies and scientists to enhance their production processes and the quality of their products. Mitsubishi Electric, for example, had a joint venture with Westinghouse to introduce the latter’s technology domestically. Another success story is Bridgestone, which created rubber soles for tabi, traditional Japanese sandals, before manufacturing tires. The founder of the company brought over a rubber engineer from Germany in 1929 to manufacture automobile tires, which led to a boom in domestic tire production. These were formative years for the pre-WWII Japanese economy, but the cracks in their political institutions began to seep through the fabric of the nation into the 1930s.

While the 1930s became a period of significant military mobilization and witnessed the breakdown of the peaceful transfer of power, Japan’s imperialist goals of autarkic empire building began early in its modern era. With the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan made her mark as a military might to be respected on the world stage. Following Japanese involvement in WWI, the Army Ministry began drafting plans to take inventory of Japan’s economic capabilities for future war efforts. Come the 1930s, Japan realized it was nowhere near close to attaining economic self-sufficiency, and in turn set its eyes on Manchuria to control more resources. Furthermore, fearing an attack from the Soviets, the military significantly ramped up their state development in Manchuria, and in 1937 began another war with China. Unfortunately, Japan’s imperialist endeavors only grew more fervent, and its joining of the Tripartite Pact and subsequent attack on Pearl Harbor sadly put it on the path to war with America.

The lack of access or inclusivity within the Japanese government allowed the military to take the helm of the Japanese state, slowly but surely. In the name of the emperor, Japanese eyes were set on building an empire that would rival those of the West. Certainly, the will of the people was nowhere to be found in the government during this period. The ancient remnants of the importance of noble lineage and reverence for the emperor as a divine descendant of God embedded in their constitution ultimately led Japan astray. Japan embraced economic liberalization for some time, but lacked the necessary liberal political institutions that could sustain an open economy and temper overseas aggression.

Within 50 years of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese economy exploded onto the international scene, but in a short 15-year period Japan and her citizens met an unfortunate fate at the end of the war, being the only country to have experienced the use of nuclear weapons. Undeterred, yet acutely aware of its mistakes, Japan again made a radical bounce back onto the international stage. Within 20 years of the end of the war, Japan was once again enjoying the fruits of its economic success, but this time under a liberal democracy, with greater access not just in markets, but in politics as well.