Japan’s Economies: 1600-1945
A common mistaken Western stereotype is that Japan was a poor country until after 1945. Even a cursory examination of Japan’s history from the beginning of the 17th century until 1945 provides powerful contradictory evidence.
The Tokugawa Economy
Teachers who are unfamiliar with the Tokugawa period in Japanese history (1600-1868) should read the following introductory paragraphs.
“The Bamboo Blind”: Early Modern Japan
Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) assumed the title of shogun, moved Japan's capital to Edo, (present-day Tokyo) and completely unified the country in 1615. Members of the Tokugawa family held the office of shogun until 1868 and most of the years encompassed in Part 3 constitute the Tokugawa era of Japanese history.
Primarily in response to European Christian missionary activities and mass conversions, the Tokugawa Government "closed" Japan to foreigners in 1630. However, the late historian Marius Jansen is probably correct in referring to the barrier between Japan and the outside world as a "bamboo" blind rather than an "iron" curtain. This was particularly true throughout the seventeenth century, when Japan's silver exports constituted thirty percent of silver in world circulation, and Japanese copper exports to the Dutch were a major factor in the economic rise of the Netherlands. Although Japanese trade with the Dutch, Chinese, and Koreans continued throughout the Tokugawa years, other foreigners were not allowed into Japan, and only a few Japanese traveled to other countries during the period.
Neo-Confucianism, with its hierarchal class structure, was the ruling political ideology. Samurai constituted the highest class and merchants were, in theory, societies' least valued class. Although there were some parallels between Medieval European feudalism and the Tokugawa political/legal order, the differences between Europe and Japan are at least as numerous as the similarities.
In general, many Japanese benefited from economic prosperity and widespread literacy. In urban centers and smaller towns, cultural accoutrements, including widespread availability of books, a variety of goods, and popular arts and entertainment thrived. It was during the Tokugawa period that ukiyo-e (wood-block prints), bunraku, and kabuki theater flourished. Perhaps most importantly, Japan was at peace during the Tokugawa years.
The quietude of the Tokugawa years abruptly ended on July 8, 1853, when US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and his expedition sailed into Edo Bay. Subsequent historical developments would lead to sweeping changes in Japanese society.
Japan’s economic dynamism during the Tokugawa period is richly illustrated through what follows. The online excerpts below, from the Asia for Educators unit Asian Topics: Tokugawa Japan, that focus upon the economy, highlight Japan’s growing economic dynamism.
Please view the brief video clips below on the Japanese economy in the order they are presented. Teachers who are interested in learning more about the Tokugawa period in general are advised to watch all clips in the unit.
In one of the video clips you viewed, Professor Carol Gluck, used the quotation you will find on the Web page below. Please visit The Prosperous Merchant in Tokugawa Society, reconsider the quotation, and examine student discussion questions.
Precursors of Japan’s Contemporary Economy
The following excerpts from Lucien Ellington’s 2009 ABC-Clio book, Asia in Focus: Japan describe the evolution of the archipelago’s pre-1945 economic system. Please read Economic Systems: The Roots of Success (1600-1868) and Industrialization and State-Guided Capitalism: 1868-1945.
Please address both of the following questions in 150 to 200 word answers.
1. After working with this lesson, in your opinion, what aspects of Japanese economic history are most useful in assisting students in learning why today’s Japan is one of the world’s wealthiest nations?
2. Students in the West often are taught that Tokugawa Japan was virtually completely isolated from the rest of the world and the domestic Japanese economy was “feudal” with the East Asian equivalent of “lords” and “serfs.” What specific evidence contradicts this assumption? If you teach some form of world history, how might what you learned affect your approach to Japan? If you don't teach world history, how has it helped you better understand Japan?
Sources and Further Optional Resources
The best comprehensive and readable overview of modern Japanese economic history is Kozo Yamamura, ed., The Economic Emergence of Modern Japan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).