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3: Why do we begin with the Meiji restoration?

The Sixty Years towards Self-Reliance in Technology

At the beginning of the present report, I presented my own thoughts on development and technology in post-war Japan, a theme not included in our project activities on the Japanese experience in technology transfer and development.

I included it because, during many of our discussions with collaborators from the developing countries, interest centred on that aspect of the Japanese experience.

But it must be kept in mind that the technological development in post-war Japan was possible only because of the nation's pre-war legacy of development in the technology network. This cannot be overemphasized because the favorable conditions for technology transfer did not exist only in Japan. In fact, Japan was unable to attain complete self-reliance in technology until after World War II, especially in the 1970s, but this was made possible only because it first progressed through the recovery of the pre-war level of technology development. The ability to absorb state-of-the-art foreign technology was ensured by the country's first regaining the pre-war levels in the technology-supporting sectors and services. This recovery was helped by technology transfers, but more important is that it took place along with demilitarization. This differentiates the formation of the post-war technology network from that of the pre-war period.

The isolation and set-backs technology suffered during World War II caused Japan to lose much of its ability to develop technology, and the country fell drastically behind in this area after the war. Even today, Japan has much in common with many developing countries. The only difference is in the level and scope of national technology formation. That is why I have placed Japan as a front runner of the technologically less-developed group.

And yet, the Japanese experience differs from that of the presently industrializing countries in the method and time of technology network formation. In particular, the time difference has had much to do with whether technology transfer will prove easy or difficult.

Thus, our study of the Japanese experience in forming a national technology network through technology transfers should attend to the different phases of transfers, which corresponded with the changes in the level of technology in Japan. Consequently, initial attention must focus on the time when Japan began to absorb foreign technology, the Meiji Restoration, because this time factor influenced both the direction and the pace of the network formation.

The Meiji Restoration represented a political turning point. Though it was not a turning point of technology, it did pave the way for one. Only after the Meiji Restoration were there suitable conditions in terms of politics and socio-economics to domesticate and develop imported technologies. In the earlier cases of technology transfer, the Tokugawa regime had failed to create these conditions.

By the same token, the turning point in Japanese technological development after World War II would never have been reached without a series of reforms carried out as a result of another great political change, namely, the nation's defeat in the war.

The Meiji Restoration and the defeat in the war both clearly illustrate the relationship between technology and political and social factors. However, the political and social conditions of the restoration greatly differed from those of the defeat; the restoration was far more decisive for technology than the war as a turning point. That is, the Meiji Restoration represented an attempt by an agrarian society to turn itself into an industrial society, whereas the post-war development meant a change in direction and an upgrading of levels in a society that was already basically industrial. The latter experience thus was not primary, and as a secondary experience it was less painful and shorter than the first.

Technology Transfers Accelerated by Self-Reliance

Social and cultural conflict in Japan was far more serious at the start of industrialization in the Meiji period than after World War II. While the two periods are both characterized by a blind worship of foreign technology, and both experienced a flood of technology transfers, they differ in the way they absorbed them. Regarding the post-war period, for example, the formation of a national technology had already been basically completed by the 1920s, and the technology transfer after World War II was completely in the hands of the private sector.

In the 1920s and again in the 1960s, the formation (and, in the 1960s, the recovery) of a national technology network did not lead to a rejection of foreign technology; rather, it made it easier to absorb higher-level foreign technologies; indeed, it accelerated the process.

In examining this historical background, let us first focus on the period from the Meiji Restoration (1868) to the 1920s. At this time, government involvement in technology and industry was relinquished in favour of business groups.

One thing the developing countries share with Japan is that, once having set forth on the road to industrialization, all have had to tackle social and technological problems common to once basically agrarian societies. On the other hand, some of today's developing countries could choose to reject industrialization, as some in fact have. This may be a commendable choice for some, but not for all. As for Japan, it resolved more than a century ago to abandon being an agrarian society, and the national consensus on this is worth special note. Although the nation had agreed on the transformation, there was no unanimity on how it should be accomplished. Even today there is debate regarding Japan's choice to industrialize. Obviously, however, Japan has gone too far to revert to being an agrarian society.

Nevertheless, rising agricultural productivity supported Japan's industrialization and its growing population. And now, agriculture has become increasingly dependent on industry for farm machines, fertilizer, and agricultural chemicals. Japanese agriculture today could not survive without industry. So the question arises as to whether countries that have chosen to remain agrarian can continue without facing insuperable difficulties.

This seems especially true for countries with rapidly increasing populations. Since the international environment when Japan struggled towards industrialization was quite different from that of today, the developing countries may never experience many of the difficulties and pains that confronted Japan, though they will likely face others. It is our hope in presenting the Japanese experience that they will learn whatever lessons might be helpful in steering them away from, or at least minimizing, those difficulties and pains.

In this study, particular attention has been paid to the view expressed by some of the participants in our project which says that a comprehensive study of the Japanese experience should begin with the Meiji Restoration as the primary experience of modernization in Japan, but that, in regard to technology, greater relevance (for the developing countries) is to be found in the period since the 1920s, when global technological monopolies came into being. We do not agree with this view, however, because, for one reason, monopolized technologies have always been the most advanced technologies, which are not always useful for developing countries. What is urgently needed now are intermediate or alternative technologies.

From Agrarian to Industrial Society

The transition from an agrarian to an industrial society undertaken beginning with the Meiji Restoration meant that farmers were now working in the manufacturing and service industries on a nation-wide scale. This transformation entailed a lifetime of effort in acquiring new skills and experiencing conditions that were entirely new.

In the initial stage of industrialization, farmers and workers can perhaps assume each other s tasks, but as industrialization progresses, the inter-changeability of roles is gradually lost. A farmer can only hope to become an unskilled worker, and an industrial worker can only expect to perform well as a farm labourer, not as a farmer. For farmers, industrialization brought a process whereby they necessarily became principally farmers, agricultural specialists, no longer able to maintain sideline occupations. The change began with the Meiji Restoration and gradually spread throughout the country. Thus Japan became an industrial society, and it became impossible to return to what it had been.

During this period of social change, the role played by women from rural areas was great. In the textile-led transformation of Japan into an industrial society, females had begun to account for more than half the industrial labour force by around 1910. As light-industry development gradually gave way to the stage of heavy- and chemical-industry orientation, males began to exceed females in the labour market. Also, a little later in this period (late 1900s), more graduates of the imperial universities in Tokyo and Kyoto, who were expected to form an Úlite corps in the service of national interests, were choosing business careers in big zaibatsu corporations and banks rather than in the government bureaucracy.11

Nevertheless, juvenile female textile labourers, forced to work long hours under severe conditions, played a central role in Japan's development of self-reliance in technology. In families who had been squeezed out of their farm villages, the men s wages alone were not enough to support their families, and it was necessary for wives and children to earn what they could from odd jobs they could do at home. This phenomenon has been referred to as zembu koyo (whole-family employment), to be distinguished from full employment. This whole-family labour corresponded with the practice of young women labouring in the spinning mills, sending all their extremely low wages back to their home villages to support their parents.

This phenomenon and its related problems suggest the need to consider not only the economic aspects of technology transfer and development but also the social and historical changes that result. Thus, focusing on the technological development of Japan after World War II would not give an accurate and practical analysis of the Japanese experience. Such a study must begin with Meiji, when Japan was a late starter.


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