Japan’s Industrial RevolutionHistory
Securing Sole Control
In 1871, the recently established Meiji government sought to stave off a feared collapse of its nascent authority by abolishing Japan’s domains and replacing them with prefectures subordinate to the center. The 270 or so domains had each had their own military forces and political wills within a decentralized power structure. Removing that structure at a stroke was a form of coup d’état. The Meiji leaders had resolved that their government needed to be the sole political power in the land so it could perform the urgent task of constructing a modern state.
Their deepest concern was that Japan might become a colony under the control of one of the great powers. This had been the fate of much of India and Southeast Asia, while China had been forced to yield Hong Kong to Britain in 1842 after losing the First Opium War. Consequently, they believed that the country needed to modernize as rapidly as possible, building up its economic strength to reinforce its military and protect itself from invasion.
This was why many of Japan’s leaders and other important government officials set off on the Iwakura Mission, a journey of observation and learning to the United States and Europe, just a few months after the revolutionary switch to prefectures. The mission also carried many students, and its participants contributed greatly to the country’s modernization on their return to Japan.
Trains, Ships, and Telegraph Wires
Around the same time, the Meiji government concentrated its efforts on promoting industry and introducing modern forms of enterprise with the aim of fostering capitalism in Japan. One early stage was to sweep away the feudal system of internal checkpoints, post stations, and merchant guilds as barriers to industrial development. New infrastructure included the first telegraph line between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1869. Five years later, the telegraph network stretched from Nagasaki to Hokkaidō, while an undersea line further connected Nagasaki to Shanghai. In 1871, a modern postal service replaced the former courier system, and post offices were established around the country, selling stamps and postcards at set prices. In 1877, Japan joined the Universal Postal Union, linking its postal service to the world. It imported its first telephones the same year.
A rail service started between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1872. This initial route relied greatly on British assistance, as the European power supplied financing, train cars, and even the chief civil engineer Edmund Morel. In 1874, a new line linked Kobe to Osaka, which was connected in turn to Kyoto in 1877. By the turn of the century, the network had spread across the whole of Japan. The government also invested in upgrading the country’s major roads, enabling smoother transportation of goods by carts and other vehicles.
Firm government backing for the private company Mitsubishi did much to ensure that Japanese shipping could compete with Western companies. According special privileges to specific organizations was one way the Meiji leaders aimed to foster modern industry. Companies like Mitsui and Ono were also notable beneficiaries.
The government also set up and operated many factories and establishments in fields like light industry and agriculture to boost the development of private industry. In the industrial sector, these included the Shinagawa Glass Factory, Aichi Spinning Mill, Fukagawa Cement Works, and Sapporo Brewery. Perhaps the most famous is the Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma Prefecture, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built in 1872, incorporating 300 silk reeling machines of the latest design, imported from France. Paul Brunat headed a team of French technicians, mainly female, who oversaw operations and trained Japanese workers. In their turn, these workers passed their knowledge on at mills across the country.
Industrial Revolution and Capitalism
Cases like the railways and Tomioka Silk Mill demonstrate how Western technicians and academics hired by the government made great contributions to the vigor of Japanese industry. Some 3,000 foreign specialists came to Japan in total, with more than 500 present in the peak year of 1876. While they were highly skilled, their services came at a price. For example, when the Japanese high official Sanjō Sanetomi was earning ¥800 each month as grand minister of state, the British engineer Thomas Kinder received a monthly salary of ¥1,045 for his work at the imperial mint. The bounteous rewards on offer to Western experts indicate the fervor of the Japanese government to modernize the country’s industry.
The Home Ministry organized its first Domestic Industrial Exposition in 1877 at Ueno Park, going on to hold five in total, with the last in 1903. These took inspiration from world’s fair events in other countries and helped to promote modern industry and trade. The first displayed 84,000 products in six categories, including agriculture, horticulture, and machinery. It was highly successful, attracting 450,000 visitors over 102 days.
In the early 1880s, Minister of Finance Matsukata Masayoshi introduced deflation policies that set the prices of agricultural products tumbling and bankrupted many farmers. Some wealthy individuals benefited, however, by buying up cheap agricultural land from those who had gone under and becoming “parasite landlords” able to reap large profits by renting the land to tenant farmers. Together with rich city merchants, they started buying and selling stocks and setting up new companies. The three years from 1886, in particular, were a boom time for establishing companies.
Spinning, silk reeling, and other light industries were soon thriving. The privately run Osaka Spinning Mill incorporated many British-made spinning mules, pioneering large-scale, steam-powered mechanized production. Employees worked in day or night shifts, keeping the mill in operation 24 hours a day and allowing for successful production of large amounts of cotton yarn each day. Incidentally, many of the workers laboring long hours for little pay were the children of bankrupt farmers who had fallen victim to deflation policies. As the yarn was extremely cheap to produce, others saw the potential profits involved and set up similar companies elsewhere. Major production and export of cotton and silk yarn ensured Japan achieved an industrial revolution in light industry in the late nineteenth century. Less than 30 years after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the country had established a capitalist economy.
The Edo Period Roots of Modernization
The groundwork for Japan’s rapid modernization in the early Meiji era (1868–1912) was, however, laid in the Edo period (1603–1868).
In addition to the samurai elite who studied at domain schools, a large number of common people learned to read and write at terakoya, or local temple schools. The publishing industry flourished, allowing for further self-improvement and education through reading. Japan also developed its own advanced form of mathematics, called wasan. The country’s primary education was arguably the best in the world at the time.
US Commodore Matthew Perry wanted to display the wonders of Western civilization to the Japanese when the two countries signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1854. He made gifts of American weapons, a telegraph, and a model steam train that could travel at 32 kilometers per hour.
Just a year later the domain of Saga managed to build its own steam train. Satsuma and other domains are said to have produced trial steam engines even earlier. Uwajima soon built a steamship, and Saga was among the domains that established armaments factories to make weapons modeled on the latest British Armstrong guns.
Thus, in the last days of the shogunate, Japan was not greatly lagging behind the West and was able to quickly imitate its technology. Perry also apparently saw the potential, predicting that after the country was opened up, “the Japanese would enter as powerful competitors in the race for mechanical success in the future.”
Japan’s highly developed Edo-period education system was a key factor in its swift turn to industrialization and a capitalist economy after the Meiji Restoration, as well as its subsequent position as a major world power.
(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Meiji Restoration leader Ōkubo Toshimichi, at center, addresses Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken at the opening ceremony of the first Domestic Industrial Exposition. Yōshū Chikanobu, 1877. Courtesy of the National Diet Library.)