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READ: Japan’s Industrial Revolution

The modernization of Japan can best be expressed in the following haiku: You threaten us with / Industrialization? / We can win that game
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What were three key features of Japanese society before 1868?
  2. What was the economic problem Japan faced when American warships sailed into Tokyo Bay?
  3. Who were the Meiji, and what role did they plan in the industrialization of Japan?
  4. What is defensive modernization, and how is it different from other industrialization processes you have read about?
  5. Explain one aspect of industrialization in Japan that was similar to industrialization in Europe and the United States.

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. What does the author mean when he states that, “while Japan fits into the wider model of changes to production and distribution brought in by the Industrial Revolution, its particular place within this system is unique?”
  2. Did this article change your understanding of how industrialization transformed production and distribution around the world? How?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Japan’s Industrial Revolution

Black and white photo of women working in a Japanese textile factory, among thread spinning machines.
By Trevor Getz
The modernization of Japan can best be expressed in the following haiku: You threaten us / with Industrialization? / We can win that game
In 1853, four modern American warships sailed into Tokyo Bay, Japan's great harbor. It was a show of power. Commodore Matthew Perry hoped it would force Japan to change its trading policies and allow American imports to be sold. For the previous two centuries, the Japanese had kept their national economy mostly closed off to foreign trade. But American businesses saw Japan, with its vast population, as a great potential market for their pots, cloth, and other goods they were now rapidly producing for distribution. It may not have been an act of war, but the sudden appearance of warships was certainly a hard sell.
Japanese print depicts three American men in ornate uniforms. All three men wear beards, and there is Japanese writing surrounding the artwork.
Did Perry's aggressive marketing work? To get an idea of how Japan responded to this forceful display, check out this Japanese poster from 1887. It teaches the Japanese versions of "fashionable English words." Japan in the late nineteenth century was already one of the most literate societies in the world. The fact that they were now learning English reveals how quickly—and intentionally—they prioritized international business.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

So why now? Before 1868, for about seven centuries, Japan had been under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. Japan did have an emperor, but his role was purely ceremonial. Shoguns were military leaders (some would say dictators) whose job was to maintain the stability of society in a certain territory. Japan's rigid class system during this era put peasants at the bottom, farmers and makers (artisans) above them, and then a class of soldiers called samurai above them. The samurai served regional lords, called the daimyo. Stability was important, so the lines between classes were drawn very clearly. However, people were still able to move up and down these classes. In fact, peasants had sometimes managed to become important lords!
A colorful print of Japanese words translated into English accompanied by drawings.
English-Japanese lesson sheet, a “collection of fashionable English words”, by Kamekichi Tsunajima. By Library of Congress, Public Domain.
Japanese society also had a high regard for intellectual pursuits. During this time, the country had a rich intellectual and artistic life, with new art, literature, early forms of comics, and philosophy constantly emerging. Japan had far more people who could read than most of the world's other regions at this time, so literature and poems were highly prized. However, contact with the outside world was strictly regulated. Under the Tokugawa Shoguns, Europeans were only ever legally allowed to trade at one port, Nagasaki. (That's another reason Perry's warships in Tokyo Bay were such a shocking sight.)
But Tokugawa Japan had an economic problem. The shoguns relied on taxation from agriculture to keep the country going and to stay in power. Over time, this did not produce enough money for the government, especially since the regional daimyo lords and samurai had to be paid. The only way to keep things going was to raise taxes on the peasants, who as a result were increasingly angry. This weakened the government of Japan at a critical time.
When Commodore Perry tried to force Japan to "do business," literally at gunpoint, Japan's leaders naturally feared a future invasion. They could also see how nearby China was being defeated and torn apart by European states that were trying to force the Chinese to buy their products (including opium!). They worried, with good reason, that something similar could happen in Japan if they did not modernize. Hoping to protect Japan from a potential European threat, they began to demand military and industrial reforms in response. But these changes fed into the unrest already bubbling up within Japan from the peasants and samurai classes. The result was a period of political chaos. Many argued against copying the Europeans and Americans, wishing to preserve Japanese culture and way of life. In the mid-1860s, a brief civil war broke out, and the reformers—the ones who wanted modernization in the style of those Western nations—won and took power. They were called the Meiji.
An illustrated map of a harbor. The map is extremely detailed, with illustrations of ships on the water, large buildings, and the many roads that run through the area.
Japanese print shows map of harbor area of Nagasaki. By Library of Congress, Public Domain.


The new government quickly tried to inspire popular support for their movement. They took control of the imperial palace and claimed they were merely restoring the Emperor to power, rather than admitting that they were really creating a brand new government. That's why this event is often called the Meiji "Restoration" though it was more of a revolution. This government—not afraid to use propaganda—sponsored new forms of national art and literature that praised the new government, the emperor, and modernization.
With the goal of modernizing, they quickly studied European and U.S. political structures. But their innovations weren't a total imitation. Japan's leaders developed a new form of government that mixed Western industrial styles with their own traditions and needs. They built even more schools and changed the curriculum to train people to work in and run factories. They re-organized the army and trained it with new weapons.
As Meiji Japan rapidly industrialized and modernized, its rulers looked at the United States and Europe as dangerous competitors. The West's increasing interference in nearby China and elsewhere had Japan on high alert. Some Meiji leaders argued that only by industrializing could Japan protect itself. This idea is often called "defensive modernization."
Unfortunately, Japanese industry was at a disadvantage. The island country lacked many raw materials, including that very important burnable rock called coal. The goods they were able to produce faced significant tariffs—import taxes—from already industrialized countries. Determined to increase industry as rapidly as possible, Japan took actions more drastic than anything that had been seen in Europe or the United States. They actively brought business leaders into government. They poured tax money into industrialization. They sought new markets for their goods, and resources to make the goods. Like industrialized societies elsewhere, they created some markets by forcibly taking colonies. Korea, with both a relatively large population (potential consumers) and lots of natural resources, was an early target.
Three similar, but slightly different, artworks depicting several distinguished men in uniform.
Japan continues to be an industrial power today, but because of its unique history, its industrial economy remains focused on very large companies, many of which are closely tied to the country's government. As a result, while Japan fits into the wider model of changes to production and distribution brought in by the Industrial Revolution, its particular place within this system is unique.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is a professor of African and world history at San Francisco State University. He has been the author or editor of 11 books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and has coproduced several prize-winning documentaries. Trevor is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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