Saturday, October 31, 2009

The South Korea Story

This week at UNU-Tokyo, the topic of discussion was 'Sustainablity Challenges of Korean Development'.

A Professor from International Christian University walked us through the remarkable post-WW2 story economic development in South Korea.

Using data from the Korean Development Institute (KDI) we saw an impressive array of charts and graphs showing the tranformation of an economy that moved from producing wigs and toys in the 1960's to hi-tech semoconductor chips and ship-building in the 2000's. Within fortyseven years (1960-2007), the national Per-Capita shot up from $70 to & 20,045 (286 times!); the GDP grew from $1.5 billion to $969.6 billion (646 times!); and exports, from $0.04 billion to $371.5 billion (9,287 times!!).

During this period, employment in agriculture/fisheries reduced from 63% to 9.3% and correspondingly, the share of manufacturing grew from 7.9% to 19.2% and the service sector, from 28.3% to 71.5%!

It seems quite obvious that a vast majority of farmer's grandchildren were now designing and manufacturing semiconductor chips, flat-screen TV's, ships and mobile phones. One of the keys to this transformation has been the education system in South Korea. Between 1970 and 2000 the average schooling years of the total population went up from 5 years to 11 years (During the same period, China's went up from 4 to 6 years; Japan, 7 to 9 years; and USA from 10 to 12 years). More than 80% of kids go to collge and , at present 7.7% of GDP is spent on education!

The cynics might say that there is nothing so great about transforming a country, especially when there is a dictator to ensure that technocrats had complete freedom to work through their development plans. But the world is strewn with countries under dictators (North Korea, Gabon, Etc.) who have only enriched themselves personally.

Is USA the key? - Did the American security umbrella, training and generous scholarships set the stage for transforming the country?

It will be ineresting to know the real dynamics of this change...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Indoctrinating Children

An award winning documentary, "The Sweetest Embrace: Return to Afghanistan", was screened at Tsukuba-U workshop today. Directed by Najeeb Mirza, a Canadian-Afghan and sponsored by CIDA, this film was about a couple of Afghan youngsters who had been returning to their villages in Afghanistan after 16 years.

They had been taken away by the Soviets to an indoctrination camp in Tajikistan during the 1980's. The Soviets, having realised that it was going to extremely difficult to teach Afghans the virtues of communism, decided to take hundreds of six-year-old's to purpose built schools in Tajikistan and other communist block countries. As the children grew up in a foreign land, Afghanistan descended into chaos and the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

The film brought out the tragedy quite vividly. In the discussion that followed it turned out that such large scale relocation's had been going on for decades in all the East European and Central Asian Republics.

Apparently the Soviets were not the first to come up with this idea. The Ottoman Empire was based on the strength of the children taken away from newly conquered territories (the 'boy harvest' or 'Devshirme' system)to create the elite corps of soldiers and administrators - the Janissaries - who formed the backbone of the empire.

The Americans too tried doing the same thing with children from Vietnam.

Unfortunately, like most other South Asian and African countries, Afghanistan too is a creation of colonial cartographers. The Durand line arbitrarily splits the Pushto tribes between across two 'nations'. The Hazara's, Tajik's and Uzbek's view the Pathans with suspicion and animosity.

When loyalties are split along ethnic or tribal lines, the question is - how effective can foreign educated protege's be, in forging a national identity?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alex Kerr's Lost Japan

Excerpts and insights from the book, LOST JAPAN by Alex Kerr.

"Why can't the Japanese preserve what is valuable at the same time as they modernize?"

For Japan as a nation, the old world has become irrelevant; it all seems as useless as the straw raincoats and bamboo baskets abandoned by the villagers of Iya (central Shikoku).

In the West, contemporary clothing, architecture and so on have developed naturally out of European culture, so thee are fewer discrepancies between 'modern culture' and ancient culture'. The industrial revolution in Europe advanced gradually, taking place during the course of hundreds of years. This is why it was possible for thecountryside of England and France to be relatively unspoiled, why numerous medieval towns still remain, and why the residents of these historical areas still treat them with care and respect...

In contrast change came to China, Japan and Asia in a truly precipitous fashion. What's more, these changes were introduced from a completely alien culture. Consequently, modern clothing and architecture in China and Japan have nothing to do with traditional Asian culture. Although the Japanese may admire the ancient cities of Kyoto and Nara...these places have no connection with their own modern lives...these places have become cities of illusion, historical theme parks.
In East Asia there is no equivalents of Paris or Rome - Kyoto, Beijing and Bangkok have been turned into concrete jungles. Meanwhile the countryside is filled to overflowing with billboards, power lines and aluminium houses.

The use of space has everything to do with lighting. Junichiro Tanizaki's book 'Inei Raisan' (In Praise of Shadows) has become a modern points out that Japan's traditional art arose from the darkness in which people lived. For example, gold screens, which look garish in modern interiors, were designed to pick up the last struggling rays of light making their way into the dim interior of a Japanese house.

Tanizaki laments that the beauty of shadows is no longer understood in modern Japan. Anyone who has lived in an old Japanese house will know how one always feels starved of light, as if one were swimming underwater. It was the constant pressure of this darkness which drove the Japanese to create cities of neon and fluorescent lights. Brightness is a fundamental desire in modern Japan, as can be seen in its uniformly lit hotel lobbies and flashing Pachinko parlors...

Kabuki seems to have the perfect balance between the sensuality and ritual which are the two poles of Japanese culture. On one hand there is Japan's freewheeling sexuality, out of which was born the riotous 'ukioe' (floating world) of Edo: courtesans, colorful woodblock prints, cross-dressed men and women, 'naked festivals', brilliantly decorated Kimono's, etc.,

On the other hand , there is a tendency in Japan towards over-decoration, towards cheap sensuality too overt to be art. Recognising this the Japanese turn against the sensual. They polish, refine, slow down, trying to reduce art and life to its pure essentials. From this reaction were born the rituals of tea ceremony, Noh drama and Zen.

In the history of Japanese art you can see these two tendencies warring against each other. In the late Muromachi period (1333-1576), gorgeous gold screens were on the ascendant; along came the tea masters, and suddenly the aesthetic was misshapen brown tea bowls. By late Edo (1600-1867) the emphasis had swung back to courtesans and the pleasure quarters.

...Why did stagecraft develop to such a level in Japan? At the risk of oversimplification, I would say that it is because Japan is a country where the exterior is more often valued over the interior. One may see negative effects of this in many aspects of Japanese life. For instance, the fruits and vegetables in a Japanese supermarket are all flawless in color and shape as if made from wax, but they are flavourless. The importance of exterior may be seen in the conflict between 'tatemae' (officially stated position) and 'honne' (real intent), which is a staple of books written about Japan....Nevertheless, the emphasis on the surface is not without its positive side, for kabuki's unparallelled stagecraft is a direct result of such prizing of the outward.

...Focus on the 'instant' is characteristic of Japanese culture as a whole. In Chinese poetry, the poet's imagination may begin with flowers and rivers, and then leap on to the Nine Heavens to ride a dragon to Mt Kun-lun and frolic with the immortals. Japanese haiku focus of the mundane moment, as in Basho's well-known poem: 'The old pond, a frog leaps in, the sound of water'. The frog leaps into the pond, not up to heaven. There are no immortals, just 'the sound of water'...

...I am not partial to Kabuki's historical plays such as Chushingura (The Forty-seven Samurai); most of them involve tales of 'giri-ninjo', and for me there are more interesting themes. For an earlier audience, trained frantically to obey their superiors, these plays about sacrificing oneself for one's lord were truly heart-rending; it was what all Japanese did everyday of their lives, at the office or in the army. There is a moment in Chushingura when the lord has committed harakiri and is dying, but his favourite retainer, Yuranosuke, is late. Finally Yuranosuke arrives, only to see his Master expire with the words, "You were late, Yuranosuke."

Yuranosuke looks silently into his master's eyes and silently understands that he is to wreak vengeance for his lord's martyrdom. I have seen older audiences cry uncontrollably at this scene. But for people who have grown up in soft, affluent, modern Japan...resonances of personal sacrifices are growing faint.

Other Tidbits:

  • Jordan was a path-breaking textbook of Japanese language grounded in linguistic analysis. It was originally used by Diplomats and has since become known as the 'Mother of Japanese language textbooks'.
  • Nihonjinron (theories of Japaneseness) is perhaps the most extensive literatture by any country in praise of itself!
  • Hapax legomenon: characters that occur once in ancient literatureand never again. Eg., Chi for 'flute'.
  • Well Field System: A system of taxes instituted by the Sung Dynasty in China, based on the character for 'well' (#). This represented a plot of land with nine portions: the outlying portions were for peasants to cultivate by themselves and the innermost squqre was to to be cultivated communally and the proceeds given as tax to the government. The social turmoil caused by this resulted in the collaps of the Sung Dynasty afte a century.
  • Clutter & Emptyness: Living in a pile of unorganised things is a typical pattern of Japanese life...In the Muromachi Period (1333-1576), tea-masters grew weary of a life crowded with junk, and created the tearoom: one pure space with absolutely nothing in it was where they escaped the clutter. The culture of the Japanese is bracketed by the two extermes of 'clutter' and 'emptiness'. But when it comes to the middle ground of 'organised space', that is, space with objects organised for daily life, their tradition fails them.
  • Decline to Paralysis: The fall of the Japanese stock market was the biggest loss of wealth in the history of the world...the root of decline of their economy lies in the word 'cozy'. Cozy non-public bidding awards mega-projects to a few companies (Rokko island to Sumitomo Trust); cozy press-clubs hide the truth from the newspapers (the main paper, NKS aka Nikkei failed to report the truth about the crash); the fashion industry blocked out foreign competition (CFD case); film industry is dominated by two giants, Shochiku and Toho, which also own most of the movie 'peace in the marketplace' is maintained by supporting cartels which set high prices.The net result? - the Japanese public makes do with just eight TV channels and overpriced goods in the supermarket.As with other over-regulated systems, in time the conflicts with reality multiply, and the cracks begin to show. To prevent collapse, further restrictions become necessary. In the end, it becomes harder and harder to move - hence the present paralysis.
  • Bubuzuke: In the ultra-refined workd of Kyoto etiquette, if your host asks you, "Won't you stay and have some bubuzuke (tea on rice)?", this means that it is time to go!
  • Theme Parks: The new cultural attraction in Japan is European Theme Parks - Shima Spain Village in Mie prefecture; Huis ten Bosch, the Dutch town near Nagasaki. A pseudo-traditional is coming up near the gates of the Grand Shrine of Ise.
  • High-school students in Japan still wear black military uniformswith high collars and brass buttons, a style imported from Prussia in the nineteenth century.
  • Vermilion was the color of Chinese Taoism, and since the Sung Dynasty is has been revered as being sacred to the gods. In the Analects, vermilion signifies noble qualities. Confucius said, 'How regrettable when purple usurps the place of vermilion' - meaning, 'when the vulgar usurps the place of the noble'.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Emergence of Reformist Ideology in Pre-Meiji Japan (1800-1868)

Why is Japan so different from the rest of Asia?

Anybody who seeks an answer to this seemingly simple question will - quite invariably -  take stroll down by-lanes of history and find numerous references to `Meiji Restoration`, as well as the young Samurais from two peripheral domains of the Japanese archipelago - Choshu and Satsuma.

This small group of men – later called the ‘Meiji Reformers`, not only mounted a successful coup against the 250-year old Tokugawa Shogunate, but also went on to construct myths & traditions to unify a nation, and to implement a series of reforms that were to transform a resource-starved, largely feudal, agricultural society into one of the most prosperous, dynamic countries of the world.

The changes wrought by Meiji reformers were so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the nation that it played no small part in the resilience shown by the Japanese in the face of utter defeat and devastation that came as an aftermath of World War-II. How did such a small provincial group come to be regarded as the visionaries who changed the destiny of a nation?

This paper attempts to seek answers to the aforesaid questions. In doing so, it examines the life and times of the key players, starting with the first visible signs of dissidence in the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1800’s and culminating in the Boshin Wars and Meiji Restoration in 1868.


In the early 1800’s Japan was a largely agricultural economy with a population of about 30 million (Japan Profile, 2006). It was almost completely shut-out from the outside world by a coalition of military rulers under the Tokugawa Shogunate. This shogunate had come to power in the 1600’s after a protracted period of internal strife and turmoil (Senkoku – or the Warring States Period: 1467-1568).

Since foreign influence was perceived as one of the destabilizing factors, the rulers decided that the best way to maintain peace in the country was to keep its interaction with the outside world to an absolute minimum. Accordingly, foreign ships were barred from all the ports in the Japanese archipelago, except Nagasaki which was directly controlled by the shogunate. Feudal domains were under strict instructions to ensure that foreigners – especially European traders and proselytizers – were kept out of the archipelago.   At the same time, the Japanese themselves were forbidden to travel overseas.

The Tokugawa shogunate then undertook a series of steps to assure military and economic preponderance for itself (Najita, 1974):

  • Direct control over one-fourth of the rice yield in the country
  • Enacting stringent  laws forbidding lateral baronial alliances between the regional daimyo’s (feudal lords)
  • It allowed daimyo to retain as lords of han domains (~250), along with administrative authority in judicial, fiscal, agricultural, and educational matters .
  • Also allowed the daimyo’s to retain a separate vassalage, samurai who owed direct loyalty to them as lords of han, not to the shogun as head of the bakufu
  • Each daimyo had to visit Edo periodically and leave behind hostages (a system called Sankin kotai), forcing them to build several sumptuous mansions and for a sizable service retinue;
  • To limit mobility of the samurai class they were given the `choice` of living on land or in castle towns;
  • Retaining the unilateral prerogative to use military force against transgressors of its laws;

The Tokugawa shogunate thus managed to establish a coalition of feudal lords. Even though peace had been established after a period of protracted turmoil (Warring States Period, 1467-1568), competition persisted among the semiautonomous domains. Military traditions were preserved but the competition was increasingly of an economic sort. Each domain promoted its own version of state interest (kokueki) by through `internationally` organized commercial development. (Pyle, 2007)

The above steps, on one hand, ensured political stability to the country for about 250 years, but at the same time it made the rulers oblivious of the momentous changes were taking place on the other side of the globe. In Europe, industrial revolution in England had triggered a socio-economic transformation, as well as a severe competition for raw materials from colonies in Asia, Africa and the “New World”.

Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands had been initially at the forefront during the age of Discovery. Driven by improvements in shipbuilding technology and navigation, they had discovered new lands and returned with hoards of spices gold that spurred nations to send their ships further. Soon, other European nations followed this trend resulting in a severe competition for resources had impelled European powers across Africa and South Asia towards the hitherto unexploited markets of East Asia – especially China.

In the face of the momentous changes in Japan’s neighborhood, perhaps the only course of action to ensure survival was to was to meet the West on its own terms - i.e., to introduce modern science and technology in order to transform a traditional society on an industrial basis under the aegis of a modern nation-state .

The constraints to such a transformation were quite formidable. In natural resources, Japan appeared at a grave disadvantage - her farmlands were overcrowded; her mineral endowment was meager, except in coal and copper; It geographical location was a disadvantage with no easy access to great markets or raw materials; In terms of social capacity too it suffered the handicap of feudal traditions which, during the 250 years of isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate, had failed to create a moral basis for unity so long characteristic of China (Lockwood, 1956).

History teaches us that industrial development generally builds on agricultural expansion in the early stages. Soon it comes to depend on the creation of large metal working industries. In face of the aforementioned constraints, the crucial element was the emergence of new elite with the capacity to face realistically the situation confronting them, to identify their own personal and class interests with the cause of modernization, and to act in the role of leadership before the opportunity was lost. (ibid. 1)

The Early Reformers

During the 1800`s Japan was agrarian, semi-centralized, aristocratic, and seclusionist. Just a hundred years later, by the 1900`s, it had become unmistakably industrial, centralized, egalitarian, constitutional and expansionist.

One of the key factors that led to this transformation was the emergence of a rather radical school of thought which came to be known later as the Mito Critique. Mito was a prestigious fief in the country headed by Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860) - a young daimyo who was also a blood relative of the Shugun. Nariaki has been acutely aware, not only of the changes taking place in Japan's neighborhood, but also of the inertia and obscurantism of his own ruling class. Recognizing the imperative for change, he encouraged some of the leading writers and thinkers of the period to take residence in his fief.

Mito thus developed into an impressive academic fief by developing an eclectic framework within which to discuss political ideology and power relations. It principal writers in the early 19th century were Aizawa Seishiai (1782-1863) and Fujita Toko (1806-55). Their ideas, first applied to politics by young Nariyaki to gain advantage in bakufu (shogunate) politics. (Najita, 1974).

Aizawa developed the dualist ideas of earlier thinkers like Yamazaki Ansai, under which there was a strong identification with the imperial institution as a pure cultural ideal (normative ideal – pure and hence inactive, an object of faith to which ultimate loyalty is extended). Below the monarchy was the all-encompassing realm of practical management and action. He laid out the contours of his ideas on national transformation in Shinron (New Thesis). In this influential work of 1825, Aizawa discussed `proper techniques` of present rule:

  • The defensive capacity of the bakufu as a political and social system was questioned;
  • It asserted that encroachment of Western power throughout Far-East was inevitable;
  • As a practical strategy, it recommended that Japan must break out of seclusion and confront the threat;
  • A multi-class army and navy must be formed and modern firearms must be forged at once;
  • To enhance support from society, maximum use must be made of ethical and religious ideas, symbols, images, rituals and shrines. These should be identified with the monarchical symbol and the ideal of a continuous and national historical essence (kokukai).
  • Common people should not be feared…or merely controlled through punitive devices, but viewed as a source of social energy and, through the cultivation of `loyalty to emperor` (sonno), incorporated into the foundation of a strong country.

The shogunate`s reaction to this open challenge from its owns ranks was to implement the Tempo Reforms (1830-43) which merely reconfirmed self-sufficient agrarianism and seclusionism. Nariaki was ordered to leave Edo and remain in exile; Aizawa was sentenced to house exile and Fujita Toko was imprisoned in Edo (Najita, 1976).

It was during this scene of simmering ferment that Commodore Matthew Perry reached the shores of Japan in his famous “black ships”. Confronted with Perry’s ultimatum the bakufu, under the leadership of its Tairo (senior chief councilor) Ii Naosuke (1815-60), signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (aka Harris Treaty) was signed between the United States and Japan on July 29, 1858. It opened the ports of Edo and four other Japanese cities to American trade and granted extraterritoriality to foreigners, among other stipulations.

Despite the façade of ‘amity’ this agreement with the Americans was widely seen to be an “unequal treaty” because the concessions given by the Japanese were largely ones-sided – the Americans were in no way obliged to extend similar privileges to the Japanese themselves.

To those who supported the Mito Critique and called themselves the “loyalist faction” (kinno ha), the treaty was irrefutable proof of the incompetence of the Tokugawa shogunate in preserving the sovereignty Japan. Sensing the rising discontent in the country, Ii Naosuke responded with the Ansei Purge (1858-59) during which over a hundred loyalists were arrested or executed. Among the purged leaders were Nariaki and three other daimyo’s. Soon after the purge the dissident loyalists also responded with decisive violence when 17 samurai from Mito (and one from Satsuma) assassinated Ii Naosuke at one of the gates of the Edo castle in Tokyo.

The assassination triggered further violent actions which were led by loyalists from Choshu and Satsuma. This time the dissidents killed Western traders and refused to pay any reparations, thus forcing the bakufu to pay on their behalf. On one hand this further undermined the political authority of the bakufu, and on the other, leadership of the dissident loyalist-faction moved from Mito to the western domains of Choshu and Satsuma.

During this period of turmoil, most of the loyalists were surprisingly young men – many in just their mid-twenties and mid-thirties: Yoshida Shoin (1830-59) of Choshu became the single greatest inspiration to the activists in this period. The others were - Yoshida Sakamoto, Kusaga Genzui (1840-64), Takasugi Shinsaku (1839-67), Kido Koin (1833-77), Fujita Koshiro (1842-65), Hirano Kuniomi (1828-64), Hashimoto Sanai (1828-64), and Saigo Takamori (1827-77).

Despite the strident anti-foreigner stand taken by the leaders of Choshu and Satsuma, they were keen to learn and take advantage from the material and military superiority of the Westerners. Yoshida Shoin, for instance, tried his best to gain direct access to the Cdr. Perry’s ships in 1853. When his attempts failed and landed him in prison, he continued to spread his ideas through his students and prison-inmates, some of whom, like Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) went on to become the Prime Minister of Japan four times during the critical post-Restoration period.

Another instance of realpolitik displayed by the rebel leaders when, after being defeated by the British in a naval blockade, went on to procure battleships, guns and – most critically – military training from the Britishers.  They were also the first to institute reforms that removed restrictions from non-samurai joining the army and thus created the first multi-class fighting units in Japan. These newly armed and trained units proved to be decisive against forces of the shogunate when they attempted to subdue the rebels in two invasions of Choshu (1864, 1866).

Once it was clear that the Choshu and Satsuma could hold on their own against the numerically superior shogunate forces, it was just a matter of time before the loyalists triumphed and rose to power using the “restoration” as the rallying slogan.

The dissolution of the Tokugawa feudal order was followed by a steady consolidation of oligarchic leadership in the hands of Okubu Toshimichi (1830-78) and Kido Konin in the 1870’s and Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), Yamagata Arimoto (1838-1922), and a handful of other men – often referred to as the Meiji Genro – in the 1880’s. (Najita, 1976)

The men from Satsuma and Choshu, not only shared their common geographical origin but also a shared understanding that the Restoration was a mandate to create, through bureaucratic means, a powerful, wealthy, and autonomous Japanese nation. Their pragmatic and realist approach was also evident in the way they dealt with their former enemies. Bakufu leader’s like Katsu Kaishu (1823-99) and commoners such as Shibuzawa Eiichi (1840-1931) were promoted to positions of great responsibility, and were responsible to creating a modern army and a banking system respectively.

Other reforms introduced by the leaders were just as dramatic – dissolution of the han system and declassing of the samurai; promotion of commercial enterprise as a means of accumulating national wealth and strength; universal education and universal military conscription; and the construction of a legal system far more decisive and effective than the one provided by the bakufu.

The persuasive skills of the oligarchs was perhaps most evident in the way they organized and implemented the Iwakura Mission to Europe and America. Once they created a critical mass of leaders who had the power of first-hand experience and conviction, the two essential conditions for adaptation and growth had been created –

  1. Innovating, enterprising leadership in technological and social change, displayed initially at the top but spreading soon throughout the population;
  2. Teamwork, discipline, solidarity in group organization, sufficient to give order and momentum to the process of change.

These change resulted in the rise of science to a high place of learning; increasing acceptance of businessmen as a part of the legitimate elite; successful control of graft and nepotism in military commands; and in industrial management (Lockwood, 1956)


It is interesting to note the critical role played by the peripheral domains in the shaping the transformation of Japan from a feudal, agrarian society to a strongly centralized, industrial nation-state. One could perhaps claim that the reformist ideology could not have achieved a relatively peaceful transformation of pre-Meiji Japan, had it not been born and nurtured at Mito – a prestigious domain close to the centre of power within the Tokugawa shogunate. At the same time, the process of transformation may not have succeeded if the leaders from domains at the Western corner of Japan – Satsuma and Choshu - had not seized the initiative as soon as the opportunity presented itself.


  • Najita, Tetsuo (1974). Japan – The Modern Nation in Historical Perspective. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Japan – Profile of a Nation (1999). The Kodansha Encyclopedia
  • Beauchamp, Edward R. (1976). An American Teacher in Early Meiji Japan, The University Press of Hawaii.
  • Marshall, Byron K. (1999). Learning to be Modern – Japanese Political Discourse on Education, Westview Press.
  • Lockwood, William W. Japan's Response to the West (1956),: The Contrast with China, The Johns Hopkins University Press, World Politics, Vol. 9, No. 1 pp. 37-54, Accessed on 16 Nov., 2009 from -
  • Pyle, Kenneth B. (2007). Japan Rising – The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose. Century Foundation.