Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Science and technology in the history of modern Japan: imitation or endogenous creativity?
The idea for this paper came from a discussion at the Asian Symposium on Intellectual Creativity in Endogenous Culture, which the United Nations University held from 13 to 17 November 1978 in Kyoto, Japan. A sharp discrepancy emerged between the speakers from Japan and those from the other Asian countries in their attitudes toward science and technology, in particular toward science and technology in modern Japan.
Japanese speakers liked to talk about the various shortcomings connected with Japan's rapid industrialization and high economic development: pollution of water and of the atmosphere, disturbance of the ecological system, destruction of traditional culture, and so forth. These same shortcomings also were regarded as the results of big science and big technology. Generally speaking, Japanese speakers tended to focus on the destructive effects of science and technology, regarding them as exogenous borrowed factors in Japanese culture, and to stress the value of endogenous traditional elements.
The attitude of speakers from other Asian countries was different. They regarded science and technology far more positively as instruments of social change. They looked for new models of social change which were not constrained by replication of western experience, but dependent on the diffusion of science and technology among the masses for the eradication of poverty, ignorance, disease, superstition, and the hegemony of oligarchic groups. It was from this angle that they were interested in science and technology in modern Japan. How was Japan able to assimilate so rapidly exogenous western science and technology; how were they utilized for Japanese industry; and how has Japan diffused modern science among the masses? These are the questions they wished to have answered, but none of the Japanese speakers could reply.
However, these two markedly different attitudes shared one view about science and technology in Japan; that is, that science and technology in Japan were exogenous, borrowed, imported elements. Starting from this, one group stressed the destruction of the endogenous cultural elements by the exogenous, and the other stressed the assimilation of the exogenous by the endogenous. My position is a little different from both. I think that we cannot answer the questions through such an approach. In the symposium I said: "It would be more relevant for us to discuss the way - like Japan after the Meiji Restoration - of reacting to the exogenous and developing the endogenous."
For lack of time, I could not go further then. Now I would like to pursue the question of the relation between exogenous and endogenous influences in scientific and technical development, exemplified by the particular case of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.
On this subject we have an excellent pioneer work, Professor Kazuko Tsurumi's "Some Potential Contributions of the Latecomers to Scientific and Technological Revolution - Comparison of Japan and China.'' This paper discusses a dynamic relationship between traditional culture and modern technology based on the comparison of the industrialization process of Japan and China, and includes stimulating propositions which help one to understand the general relationship between technology and culture as well as the specific problems of early Japanese industrialization in the Meiji Period.
Professor Tsurumi rejects the view which considers science and technology as entities independent of the culture of any particular society. Each culture has its own traditional ways of knowing and of making. Then, in so far as they are the means of knowing and making, science and technology must have their own roots in the culture to which they belong. This means that there will be a conflict between all borrowed technology and the indigenous culture of the borrowing country which cannot be overcome until the technology has become integrated into the culture. On this premise she begins with an investigation of conflicts between the indigenous iron-manufacturing technology and the imported western technology in Meiji Japan. This approach strongly recommends itself as a method in techno-sociology. Comparing the various conflicts brought about by the importation of technology into some countries we can expect to find many keys to understanding the relationship between technology and social culture.
The historical event on which Professor Tsurumi concentrates is the failure of the government-owned Kamaishi Iron Works. She writes:
When the Meiji Government launched into the first modern iron manufacturing factory in the City of Kamaishi in 1875, they set aside the traditional technology, and hired a British engineer to lay out the plan and supervise the whole process strictly according to British technology. Less than one hundred days after two modern blast furnaces were lit, operations had to be stopped due to a shortage of charcoal. In 1882, the British engineer resumed the operation of the blast furnaces, by replacing charcoal with coke, which caused congelation of iron and coke in the furnaces, resulting in the closure of the entire plant. The British engineer was dismissed.2
This description is so compact that it would be better to add a few comments. Before the period described, there had already been ten small, charcoal-fired blast-furnaces at Kamaishi. The oldest one was constructed in 1857 by Takato Oshima, a military engineer who belonged to the Nanbu feudal clan and was well-informed about "Rangaku" (Dutch learning). These small furnaces were again based on a foreign design, but were constructed without any help from foreign engineers. A few of them were owned by the Nanbu clan, but the others were private and managed in a capitalistic way. Management of them was difficult financially, but technically the furnaces worked well until the beginning of the Meiji Period. Thus there were 20 years of experience behind the pig-iron manufacturing technology at Kamaishi when the new Meiji Government bought these factories and established the government-owned Kamaishi Iron Works.
They put a German engineer, Ruisu Bianhli (Japanese pronunciation, the original spelling is unknown), and Takato Oshima in charge of its modernization plan and the selection of a new location. But the opinions of the two differed in many respects. Oshima proposed rather small furnaces (though of course larger than the old ones) and a location different from the adopted one. Finally, the western oriented minds of the government chose Bianhli's plan and Oshima left Kamaishi. Two large new furnaces with steam-powered blowers and 15 miles of railroad on which ran a locomotive made in Manchester were built. All these were of the most advanced design of that age and imported from Britain. Their construction was directed by six foreign engineers, and they were operated by ten foreign engineers, most of whom were British. The domestic technology at Kamaishi was completely neglected. Production by the new furnaces started at the end of 1880, and after two runs stopped in the first half of 1882 as Professor Tsurumi described. The whole plant was abandoned afterwards.
Later technological and historical research points to the following as the causes of failure:
1. There was a large gap between the performance of the new furnace based on the latest technology and the old-fashioned method of charcoal making.
2. Neither the location of the furnaces nor the total transportation system was satisfactory for rapidly supplying raw materials. (In these respects, Oshima's proposals were far more feasible.)
3. The design of the furnace had a fundamental defect and its operation by foreign engineers completely neglected the characteristics of Japanese domestic iron ore and coal.
This third factor was the cause of the congelation of iron and coke, the process of which was investigated afterwards by Kageyashi Noro and his student Koroku Komura. Through their investigation they succeeded in finding a way to continuously operate one of these blast furnaces which had lain idle for 12 years.
This story from the dawn of the modern Japanese iron industry raises many points about the exogenous and the endogenous factors in the industry of developing countries. It warns us of the dangers of importing technology without considering indigenous conditions. It also teaches us that the advantage of domestic technology lies in its homogeneity with indigenous conditions: environments, the characteristics of domestic raw materials, customs of workers, and perhaps indigenous culture. In so far as domestic workers speaking the native language operate the plant and domestic raw materials are used in domestic conditions, technology cannot disregard all these factors. Therefore, we must point to, as the fourth and most essential cause of the failure, the worship of the West by the government which scorned the indigenous technology, rejected Oshima's proposal, and adopted the British design in toto.
It is Professor Tsurumi's important contribution to have noticed this and, based on a further comparison of Japan and China, to have elucidated the meaning of the "self-reliance" policy for the "latecomers to the process of industrialization." Her point about the possible relation between Japan's imitation-oriented attitude and its environmental destruction is especially noteworthy. However, there is still something which worries me about her arguments. That is her evaluation of the process of the imitation. Comparing the "imitation model" of Japan and the "self-reliance model" of China, Professor Tsurumi stresses the importance of self-reliance too heavily while at the same time too strongly denying the importance of the imitation model. She never discounts the imitation in general. She allows for imitation or borrowing of technology in some circumstances. I must approve of this. But in the whole context of her argument, "self reliance" always appears as a symbol of positive value and "imitation" as a symbol of negative value. She will not refer to any positive aspect of imitation. As a result, one cannot but gain the impression that imitation is in general rejected here. At least this rather rigid approach seems to me to be a reason why Professor Tsurumi has failed to grasp a possible dynamic relation between "imitation" and "self-reliance."
Is it possible for the developing countries to make any progress in their industrialization without any imitation or borrowing of technology? Impossible, I believe, and so the most important problem we must solve is the relation between the imitation indispensable for their progress and their indigenous conditions. Imitation is an important procedure in a child's learning process. History teaches us this also is true for nations or cultures. In the early part of this millennium, Europe learned much from the highly advanced science and technology of the Arabic, Indian, and Chinese cultural areas. This process included abundant examples of imitation and borrowing, the most important of which was the adoption of Arabic numerals. But once rooted in European culture these exogenous elements triggered off the energy latent in the European domestic conditions, and Europe rapidly began to develop.
The dynamics of the exogenous elements and domestic conditions through which European medieval technology and society started on its way to the modern industrial stage has been elucidated by the works of Professor Lynn White, Dr. Joseph Needham, and many others. There is no need to repeat or to paraphrase their arguments here. The aim of my argument is only to show that the same sort of dynamics can be seen in the very example discussed by Professor Tsurumi.
The history of modern Japanese iron-manufacturing technology has its starting point in the social disturbance brought about by the "Kurofune" (western warships). Many Japanese feudal lords anxious to strengthen the defences of their coastal regions launched into the western-style casting of cannons. During the 1850s I count six attempts to construct western-style reverbatory furnaces: in Saga, Kagoshima, Mito, Nirayama, Tottori, and Hagi. The extraordinary feature of these attempts was the fact that all the work involved was carried out in strict accordance with the directions found in one book alone: "Het Gietvezen in s'Rijks Ijzer-Geschutgieterij'te Luik'' by Huguenin. This Dutch book contained instructions for casting cannons and balls and boring barrels, plus some engineering drawings. It was the only western manual which Japanese could refer to in the late Edo Period. There was an engineering scale drawing of a reverbatory furnace in this book. They tried to construct the furnaces following this drawing as exactly as possible, and to operate them following the book's instructions word by word. How can we classify this sort of technological endeavour? As the imitation model, or as the self reliance model? It may well be called the "self-reliance imitation model."
It is not surprising that such endeavours should have resulted in many failures. Yosuke Sugitani, the chief engineer in the Saga feudal clan, left a detailed record of construction and operations of their reverbatory furnace. This account can be summarized as follows:
The first run: 12 December 1850, tried to melt about 900 kg of domestic pig iron, half of which did melt but the remaining half would not. Perhaps because the temperature was too low? The second run: 2 February 1851, trying to melt 1,200 kg. Result was the same as above.
The fifth run: 10 April 1851, the first success in casting a cannon with a 3.4-inch bore and 2 feet 8 inches long. The firing tests were held on the 18th of April. The barrel burst at the first shot. The sixth run: 20 April 1851, the second success in casting a cannon with a 3-inch bore and 3 feet 5 inches long. The barrel burst at the first shot. The seventh run: 14 May 1851, the first success in melting almost 100 per cent of the iron. The barrel burst at the first shot.
An endless series of trials and failures. They could not achieve even a modicum of success in the firing tests until the end of that year. The twelfth run on the 12th of January of the next year again resulted in a burst barrel. No historical description can tell us so vividly as these records the difficulty of their enterprise. But it must not be overlooked that in the midst of innumerable failures they made steady progress.
In the first run they could melt scarcely half the iron, but after the seventh run they always managed to melt 100 per cent of the iron. They found that pudding the melted iron helped the melting of the remainder. Further noticing that Japanese domestic pig iron made by the Tatara method was not suitable for melting in a reverbatory furnace, they developed a process for pre-treating the domestic pig iron which not only made the melting process easier but also remarkably improved the quality of cannons so cast. The first cannon was cast using a would with a core corresponding to the required bore. The bore of the fourth cannon was made using a boring machine made in Saga which was again a copy of a design in Huguenin's book. In 1852 they began construction of two water-powered boring machines, based on Huguenin's instructions, which worked well when completed.
All this was done, checking again and again the relevant descriptions in Huguenin's book after each failure, borrowing from their own experiences in casting bronze cannons since 1842, and gathering any useful information they could get from Dutch officers and merchants with whom they came into contact only at Nagasaki. It is truly striking to see that in 1852 they succeeded in casting 14 cannons fit for the purpose they were designed for and by the end of the Edo Period they had made about 200, including three cannons with rifled barrels which were the latest development in contemporary Europe. In spite of the innumerable failures recorded by Sugitani, the speed with which they assimilated new exogenous technology seems to us astonishing. Why was such rapid assimilation possible?
There has been much debate about the cause of this speed. But here I will focus on an opinion proposed by Professor Shuji Ohashi. Professor Ohashi, drawing on his detailed studies on late-Edo iron metallurgy, has shown three distinct stages in the formation process of Saga cannon-casting technology; each of these stages had its own counterpart in the European development.
The first stage was the casting of bronze cannons from 1842 to 1859. Since 1641, the Saga clan had been in charge of the defence of Nagasaki; this defence was of the highest importance, because Nagasaki was the only port opened to the West in Edo Period Japan. The Saga clan was, therefore, comparatively advanced in artillery for contemporary
Japan, and had its own technology for casting bronze cannons. On this basis it proceeded to imitate Dutch bronze cannons in 1842,8 and had successfully produced about 150 before 1850. As we have seen above, this experience in bronze-casting helped the clan much in its iron casting. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, European cannon-casting technology remained at this bronze stage which also constituted the basis for their iron cannon-casting technology. The second stage proposed by Professor Ohashi was the casting of iron cannon from 1851 to 1859 (described above), which corresponded to European development from the middle of the eighteenth century to the 1850s. And the third stage was the attempt from 1863 to make rifled cast-steel barrels; this stage corresponded to European development since the 1840s. It must be noticed that although each stage covered only a brief period of time, Saga had passed through exactly the same stages, and in the same order, as Europe.
This reminds us again of a child's learning process. A child grows through imitating the behaviour of adults. But this requires the maturation of the preceding stage in this learning process. Only when a child has been well-prepared in the preceding stage can imitation help his leap to the next stage. Similarly the engineers in Saga had been prepared for iron-casting by their experiences with the casting of bronze cannons; only because of this did their extraordinary attempt to copy Huguenin's design in toto aid them in making their leap to Western technology. However, we must emphasize that it was not only their experience with bronze which aided them: the engineers in Saga also received much help from the various fields of their indigenous technology.
Firebricks used for the construction of the reverbatory furnace were made in Arita, which is still famous for its traditional ceramics. As to the use of water power, they had no difficulty in finding skilled millwrights. in the late Edo Period the use of water power had been diffused widely in the Japanese food industry as well as in agricultural irrigation systems.
For engineering calculations concerning the curved inner surface of the furnace, Japanese indigenous arithmetic was successfully used. And above all, I must point out the role of domestic Japanese iron manufacturing technology, the core of which was the Tatara method. Tatara furnaces were operated at a temperature comparable to that of blast furnaces and could produce pig iron and steel simultaneously. This pig iron and steel was used for manufacturing a wide variety of products, ranging from arms such as swords and guns to agricultural implements such as hoes and sickles. Therefore, the craftsmen who worked under these engineers were considerably skilled in the art of casting and forging and were well-informed about the behaviour at high temperatures of melted iron and various other materials.
Professor Ohashi estimates that the technical level of iron work in Japan during the late Edo Period was approximating that of Britain just before, or during, the first stage of the Industrial Revolution. He also emphasizes that the most important background factor for their success was their indigenous iron technology. Here again we come to the recognition of the importance of indigenous factors in technological progress. Without solid support from indigenous technology and from their own experiences in the preceding stages, any attempt at imitation could not be expected to succeed.
But, on the other hand, we can ask whether Japanese domestic technology and the Saga engineers could have reached the iron cannon casting stage without the attempt at imitation. Surely they could, but perhaps only very slowly. The attempt to imitate the western reverbatory furnace imposed upon them many new and unencountered problems which Professor Ohashi summarizes as follows:
1. building big heavy structures with bricks;
2. producing firebricks able to withstand a temperature of 1200°C;
3. attaining a temperature of 1200°C uniformly by charcoalfiring, this temperature being necessary for melting pig iron;
4. operating two or four furnaces simultaneously and pouring melted iron successively from them to a mould in order to make a huge homogeneous barrel;
5. constructing a water-powered boring machine and boring with it;
6. casting a barrel which never burst.
Solutions to these problems could not be expected to arise spontaneously from Japanese domestic technology. Exactly because the attempt to cast these cannons was an imitation of exogenous technology, it was accompanied by such new and previously unknown problems. Moreover, there was a considerable gap between the technological level required for solving these problems and the one the engineers had actually attained - this is the reason why I prefer to use the word "leap" to express their attempt to "progress." If this gap had been too large, their endeavour would have resulted in a severe failure such as that of the early Meiji government in Kamaishi. Fortunately the gap was sufficiently small for them, and they could overcome it successfully. Their success was accompanied by an apparently endless series of failures in the early stage of their endeavour; but they were able to learn from every experience of failure, and finally they leaped over the gap by their own efforts.
Thus we can summarize the lessons from this historical process as follows: If they had not been well-prepared in the previous stage, the attempt at imitation would have resulted in failure; but if they had not attempted this audacious imitation, their casting technology would have remained at the bronze stage at least for several decades longer. It seems that Professor Tsurumi has missed noticing this last point.
New technology thus acquired and assimilated begins to evolve on its own. Saga iron-casting technology not only proceeded to the next stage of making rifled barrels but also was diffused to many other feudal clans. All attempts to construct reverbatory furnaces in the 1850s were more or less influenced and aided by Saga's engineering. The lord of the Saga clan presented the Japanese translation of Huguenin's book to the lord of the Satsuma clan and helped him to construct the furnace at Kagoshima. For the construction at Nirayama, Yosuke Sugitani himself went there with skilled craftsmen and successfully directed the operation. Furthermore, these other feudal clans began in their turn to develop this technique on their own. The Satsuma clan tried to construct a small blast furnace, which, after having been successful in several test runs, was destroyed by the bombardment of a British squadron before it had achieved continuous operation. But the feudal lord of Satsuma then sent one of his military engineers to collaborate with Takato Oshima in his attempt to construct western-style reverbatory and blast furnaces. This collaboration led them to the first Japanese success in the construction of a charcoalfired blast furnace at Kamaishi, again based on a design found in Huguenin's book. The date they first fired this blast furnace, 1 December 1857, is now considered as the birthday of the modern Japanese iron industry.11 To be sure, we can specify this date as marking the completion of Japan's first leap in iron technology - a leap which had begun with the work of Saga feudal clan and had been diffused to and assimilated by the whole country.
One characteristic of modern Japan's technological development was the presence of many such leaps; and the early history of modern Japan's iron-manufacturing technology can be roughly understood as passing through a series of three such leaps. The first was of course the one discussed above. The second was the already-mentioned importation of British technology by the new Meiji Government. The third leap was the construction of the government-owned Yawata Iron Works, begun in 1896 and based on a German design. These iron works were the antecedents of Shin Nippon Seitetsu, now one of the world's biggest iron manufacturing companies.
As I have already shown, the second leap was a severe failure in contrast to the first. But it cannot be overlooked that this failure also prepared Japanese engineers for their next leap. We have mentioned that 12 years after the failure Kageyoshi Noro and his student Koroku Komura collaborated and succeeded in operating this British furnace with coke. While they were collaborating on this attempt, Noro, as a member of a governmental committee, was simultaneously preparing the plans for Yawata Iron Works. To him the attempt in Kamaishi served as an experiment for the construction of Yawata Works. In fact, the report which he presented to parliament was based on much data gained from the Kamaishi Iron Works.12
From early- to mid-Meiji we can count a number of attempts to import foreign technology into the iron industry. Some of them succeeded; some of them failed severely, such as the one in Kamaishi. But by this time there had grown up in Japan several engineers trained in modern science and able to analyse matters scientifically so as to draw many useful lessons from the failures. Thus before the year 1901, when the Yawata Iron Works were first fired, Japan had experienced almost all the successes and failures which the western iron industry had experienced in its own development from the bloomers to the Bessemer converter and the open hearth. By these experiences Japanese engineers had been well-prepared for their third leap.
This characteristic (that is, a series of small leaps) in Japanese technological development is, I suggest, extremely important for developing countries now. In so far as developing countries aim to reach the same technological level as developed countries have now in a shorter time than they took, their development plans must necessarily be designed as a series of leaps. One example of this is the Chinese pattern of technological development since the establishment of the People's Republic of China. It has been made up of a series of alternate great leaps and periods of adjustment. China seems to have pursued this pattern far more intentionally than Japan. Whether it has been successful and whether it will prove the best model for developing countries are separate questions. What I am going to suggest here is that this stop-go pattern does offer one possible course of development, and that a study of the technological leaps and their related social problems in the history of modern Japan should be of interest to countries embarking on their own development.
Here I would like to point out briefly three important areas for future investigation and discussion. The first concerns the historical situation around each leap or sudden advance. Though in itself a technological endeavour, each leap was always an inseparable part of some historical agitation. The first leap grew out of the agitation which began with the social shock brought about by the Opium War and the appearance of western warships and ended with the fall of the Edo government. Many cannons cast during this time of advance were fired against the Tokugawa army as well as against western squadrons. The second was of course associated with the great social change after the Meiji Restoration, and the third with the international tension in the period between the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars.
Therefore, it must be said that to gain truly practical lessons from the Japanese experience, we have to consider these technical leaps in their whole social and historical contexts, and not see them in isolation. But, broadly speaking, it is true that Japan always succeeded in harnessing the nationalistic passion aroused by such periods of agitation and using it as the driving force for the technological leap. This is still true now. For instance, the Japanese leaders made full use of the oil crisis of 1973 to build up a feeling of emergency which they were able to turn to the development of energy-economizing technology.
From this viewpoint, the period between the two world wars is an especially interesting period in the history of modern Japanese science and technology. From the above argument we could expect that World War I should have started another leap in Japanese science and technology. In fact, this war marks the beginning of an important movement in science. While bringing general prosperity to the Japanese economy, the war, since it stopped imports from Germany, meant severe difficulties for some areas of Japanese industry. For instance, the textile industry suffered badly because of a shortage of dyestuffs. Medicines, soda, and iron also were in short supply. This threatened people's daily lives as well as industry. This experience gave rise to an inclination toward "self-sustained industry," which characterized the whole of Japanese policy in the period between the two world wars.
The late Professor Hiroshige wrote:
What the First World War impressed strongly on Japanese leaders was the fact that modern war was war of attrition. Victory depended exclusively on the ability of the country as a whole to stand up to attrition, i.e., on the country's general productive power. What impressed them particularly was the fact that Germany could have endured against almost the whole of Europe and America for as long a time as over four years. They concluded that this was due to science; Germany was able to invent substitute materials of every kind because of its scientific excellence.
The German situation was contrasted with their own, in which industry, without resources and without science, suffered badly from only a short interruption of imports. Thus Japan was impressed by the virtues of science.
Professor Hiroshige characterized the trend which began with this war by the words "Science for Resources," which meant science for the insurance of resources and science for the invention of substitutes as well as the science of resource materials. Rapidly developing industry in the extremely small Japanese islands was beginning to suffer from the lack of resources in many areas. This on the one hand spurred Japan's aggressive drive for resources in China and on the other encouraged the promotion of science in this period. Here we should notice that the overwhelming interest was in "self-sustained science and technology." The problem Japan had faced during the war (1914-1918) was the sort of "technological dependence" seen now in the third world. Therefore, independence from western technology was stressed.
It is ironic to see that the dynamic interaction of exogenous and endogenous forces, which had operated quite well when Japan concentrated mainly on imitation of the West, began to operate rather destructively as soon as Japan aimed for independence from the West, perhaps because of too much weight laid on the endogenous side. The familiar Japanese method of stirring up nationalistic feeling also had a strongly negative effect in this period. Calls for self-reliance and for Japan's own science and technology evoked too much chauvinism and too rigid an adherence to the indigenous culture and traditional methods, among the masses as well as the leaders. Moreover, the social pressures arising from rapid industrial development were growing in this period so as to threaten the government. From these sprang two opposing social movements: on the extreme left a radical revolutionary labour movement, and on the extreme right a nationalistic movement which claimed that all social evils were the results of western capitalist industrialization. The government hoped to use the extreme right to repress the extreme left. In doing so, it encouraged the chauvinistic, spiritualistic, and oriental elements of the right wing. All these various elements were aggregated into the movement of so-called "Japanese fascism," which was very effective in mobilizing the masses for war but extremely inhibiting to the development of science and technology.
In spite of these restraining factors, the attempts made in this period to promote science and technology helped considerably to build up latent energy for the subsequent great leap in Japan. Professor Hiroshige has made clear that many advanced techniques developed in Japan after World War II have their origins in basic research of this period, most of which was subsidized by the Japanese Association for the Advancement of Science. Subsidizing basic research, promoting the development of indigenous techniques, improving the system of scientific education, and diffusing scientific knowledge among the masses - these steady, basic efforts resulted in raising the level of popular scientific culture and prepared the way for later development, but the vast popular energy was oppressed and inhibited by the mystical and chauvinistic elements of Japanese fascism. Only when Japan's defeat in World War 1I had brought about the democratization of Japan and eradicated these restraints could Japan begin to develop rapidly. This experience also may be instructive to the third world.
Lastly, I must speak a little about the social structure arising from the national effort in making the technological leap. Japanese historians of technology and science have talked a great deal about the "biased structure" of Japanese technology. This concept has various implications, but, roughly speaking, it means a social structure in which only a few areas of industry have been developed to a high technical level, while others remain at a very backward, or even a pre-industrial level. For example, taking the period between the two wars as a midpoint, Japan might be said to have reached a fairly high technical level in iron-manufacturing, ship-building, some areas of chemical industry, and so on, but was considerably underdeveloped in the most basic machine industry. For machine tools, Japan still depended almost entirely on imports. Japan could not produce automobiles of its own design except for the test production of a few poor-quality cars. It was not until 1935 that Toyota successfully completed its first test car after many set-backs. Furthermore, the important agricultural sector and its related industries remained at an almost pre-industrial stage.
The same structure can be seen in particular areas of industry. For example, in the iron industry, the government-owned Yawata Iron Works might be ranked at the world's highest technical level, but the large private companies had no pig iron-manufacturing technology and were only producing steel from imported scrap and from Yawata pig iron by means of open hearths. Further, we must notice that the vast and varied sector of iron-working was occupied by innumerable small workshops called machi-koba [blacksmith factories].
Japanese scholars always explain this structure as a mirror image of the structure of Japan's "armament-biased capitalist industrialization." But I think that it should be interpreted as a socially transformed mirror image of the technological leap. It would be impossible for any developing country to make the technological leap at the same time in every industrial area. Furthermore, formation of techniques in certain areas, for example in the machine industry, is a very slow process which is difficult to accelerate artificially. Therefore, it is quite natural that a Japanese-type national endeavour to promote rapid industrialization through a series of technological leaps should have produced such a biased social structure.
I think this structure, the gap between the advanced areas and the backward areas of the economy, has an important role in itself. If the gap is not too large, in some circumstances it can itself stimulate progress in backward areas. But if the gap becomes too large, some conflicts can arise. It must be noticed that the gap not only exists between the technological levels in two areas of the economy, but may also affect people's attitudes and the social requirements associated with the two levels, such as a highly advanced synthetic chemical industry and agriculture at a pre-industrial stage.
To illustrate, I take a historical case. Between the two world wars, one target of Japanese industrial development was the chemical industry. New large chemical plants were constructed in combination with hydroelectric power stations. As a result, they were situated in or near high mountain regions, where pre-industrial social conditions had remained unchanged since the Edo Period. From the combination of a new large chemical plant and pre-industrial social elements, there grew up a strange type of industrial town which is now called in Japan the company castle town." In short, it is a town which is governed by a "feudal clan": the company. The town's tax revenue comes almost entirely from the company. The inhabitants of the town are the families of workers in the company and in the associated small companies which grow up around it, with only a handful of people unconnected with the company. These workers are drawn from the surrounding pre-industrial communities with their traditional customs and attitudes, the leitmotiv of which is loyalty to the community to which one belongs. The workers naturally tend to regard the company as a substitute for their native community, and are willing to be integrated into the company. The company is as powerful in the region as a feudal lord would be. It can strongly influence even the prefectural governor, not to mention the city mayor. One typical example of such a "company castle town" is Minamata - the city of the notorious Minamata disease.
Many Japanese argue that there was a strong connection between the way in which Minamata disease was diffused and this regional structure.
Of course, the direct cause of Minamata disease was the organic mercury contained in a factory effluent. No one can deny this. However, we also can see that, had countermeasures been taken as soon as the first symptoms appeared, the number of patients could have been held to a minimum. In fact, events proceeded as follows. In 1956 the first patient appeared. Immediately, many people suspected effluent from the factory, but their opinion was strongly refuted by the company, which denied that the cause of the disease could be found in the factory and refused to take any countermeasures. In this, the company received the tacit support of the Kumamoto prefectural authorities. By 1959 scientists at Kumamoto University and a medical doctor employed by the company had succeeded in finding the cause. The disease was the result of a destruction of nervous tissue by some sort of organic mercury, which was found in the effluent produced by the synthesis of aceto-aldebyde in the factory. Yet, even at this stage, the company continued to deny responsibility. It forbade the doctor to speak publicly about any scientific data he found, and attempted by every means to prevent public recognition of the facts.
This attempt ultimately failed, but it contributed greatly to the delay in carrying out basic countermeasures, resulting in the tragic diffusion of the disease. The company's attitude was largely conditioned by the "company castle town" structure. The history of Minamata disease can be described as a struggle by scientists against this structure. In this structure, the man who criticizes the company is the man who revolts against the community, and therefore one who deserves no protection by the community. The work of the scientists, in discovering the cause and diffusing information about the disease among the inhabitants, was blocked by obstacles at every turn, and the scientists could not proceed unless they overcame these. This resulted in delay and contributed to the fatal spread of the disease.
This is not the place to tell the whole history of Minamata. What I intend here is only to show that this famous tragedy of Japanese industrialization also is connected with the problem of exogenous and endogenous influences and technological leaps. I must stress that Minamata is not an exceptional example. Japanese efforts to make the series of leaps have been accompanied by many similar social conflicts or disasters. Perhaps this is the reason the observers of these leaps in Japan cannot be so favourable to them as observers from outside. And this also is the background of the attitude of the Japanese speakers at the Asian Symposium.
As to my attitude, I regard the technological leap as an element of dynamic progress in society. In favourable conditions it can work as an excellent incitement to endogenous creativity; in other conditions it can become the starting point for serious conflicts. What these conditions are must be the object of further investigation.
Contents - Previous - Next