Meiji Japan’s borrowing from the West was massive, conscious, and planned

Friday, June 7th, 2019

Different foreign countries ended up as models in different spheres, as Japan tried to modernize, Jared Diamond explains (in Upheaval):

For instance, the new Japanese navy and army became modeled on the British navy and the German army, respectively.


Meiji Japan’s borrowing from the West was massive, conscious, and planned. Some of the borrowing involved bringing Westerners to Japan: for instance, importing Western schoolteachers to teach or to advise on education, and bringing two German scholars to help write a Japanese constitution drawing heavily on Germany’s constitution. But more of the borrowing involved Japanese traveling as observers to Europe and the U.S.


A crucial step, undertaken just two years after the Meiji government had consolidated its power, was the Iwakura Mission of 1871–1873 (Plate 3.3). Consisting of 50 government representatives, it toured the U.S. and a dozen European countries, visited factories and government offices, met U.S. President Grant and European government leaders, and published a five-volume report providing Japan with detailed accounts of a wide range of Western practices. The mission announced its purpose as being “to select from the various institutions prevailing among enlightened nations such as are best suited to our present condition.”


This reframing of innovations as supposedly retained traditions—the phenomenon of “invented traditions” often invoked by innovators in other countries besides Japan—contributed to the success of Meiji leaders in carrying out drastic changes.


The most urgent changes, effected or launched within the first few years of the Meiji Era, were to create a modern national army, to abolish feudalism, to found a national system of education, and to secure income for the government by tax reform.


Military reform began with purchasing modern Western equipment, enlisting French and German officers to train the army, and (later) experimenting with French and British models to develop a modern Japanese navy.


A national conscription law, adopted in 1873 and based on European models, provided for a national army of men armed with guns and serving for three years. Formerly, each feudal domain had had its own private militia of samurai swordsmen, useless in modern war but still a threat to the Japanese national government (Plate 3.4). Hence the samurai were first forbidden to carry swords or to administer private punishment, then hereditary occupations (including that of being a samurai) were abolished, then the ex-samurai were paid off in government stipends, and finally those stipends were converted to interest-bearing government bonds.


Hence in March 1868 four daimyo, including those of Satsuma and Choshu who had instigated the Meiji Restoration, were persuaded to offer their lands and people to the emperor by an ambiguously worded document. When the emperor accepted that offer in July, the other daimyo were commanded to make the same offer, and as a sop they were then appointed as “governors” of their former feudal domains. Finally, in August 1871 the daimyo were told that their domains (and governorships) would now be swept away and replaced with centrally administered prefectures. But the daimyo were allowed to keep 10% of their former domains’ assessed incomes, while being relieved of the burden of all the expenses that they had formerly borne. Thus, within three-and-a-half years, centuries of Japanese feudalism were dismantled.


In his 45 years of rule, the emperor made 102 trips outside of Tokyo and around Japan, compared with a total of just three trips by all emperors combined during the 265 years of the Tokugawa Era (1603–1868).


Compulsory elementary schools were established in 1872, followed by the founding of Japan’s first university in 1877, middle schools in 1881, and high schools in 1886.


The end result of that educational reform is that Japan today ties for having the world’s highest percentage of literate citizens (99%), despite also having the world’s most complicated and hard-to-learn writing system.


In the 1880’s, recruitment for the central government bureaucracy became based on an exam testing Western knowledge, rather than testing knowledge of Confucian philosophy.


It achieved that aim in a Western manner, by imposing a national 3% land tax.


Japanese farmers periodically complained and rioted, because they had to pay cash every year regardless of the size of the harvest. But they might have considered themselves lucky if they could have foreseen modern Western tax rates. For example, here in my state of California we pay a state 1% property tax, plus a state income tax of up to 12%, plus a national income tax of currently up to 44%.


The year 1872 saw the founding of a national post system, and the building of Japan’s first railroad and its first telegraph line, followed by establishment of a national bank in 1873. Gas street lighting was installed in Tokyo.


  1. Sam J. says:

    The Japanese are very smart. I admire them a great deal. Especially their elites which seem to be genuinely concerned with the plight of all the people and not just the elites themselves. They haven’t always been this way but they have set up a system that is constantly nudged towards that ideal. If you look at the Japanese system it’s pure Nazi. Look at the National Socialist system of Hitler and the Japanese system is a highly refined copy of the whole thing. Like our US constitution has interlocking political control the Japanese also have interlocking financial and political control. A really great short article on Japan and it’s system is below.

    Japan, Refutation of Neoliberalism by Robert Locke

    A good book on Japan is Fingleton, Eamonn, “Blindside: How Japan Won the Race to the Future While the West Wasn’t Looking”

    He’s not all together correct when he says Japan will rule all, they have a great deal of China competition who are running the same system, but the book does cover a lot of the “system” and it’s advantages.

    Some say this is new but it’s not. It’s the “American System (tariffs and trade control)” combined with Nazi governance system.

    If you search for

    Fingleton, Eamonn. Blindside: How Japan Won the Race to the Future While the West Wasn’t Looking

    you’ll get a book link and some articles by Fingleton which are all good.

    I personally believe that the present system we have now, financial capitalism, where all the gains go to the top and the Jews can not compete with the Asian Nazi system. It’s impossible. The search for quick profits combined with the incompetence of many of our corporate leaders is doomed to failure. We would be better off not trading with Asia at all under the present system because if we keep doing what we are doing we will be nothing but resource extractors for them and not much of anything else. All the wealth and capital built up over centuries will all be sent to Asia.

  2. E.E. says:

    Welp, thanks Isegoria, almost went with the hype and bought this book.

    But if it’s full of cookie cutter wisdom like this, then I might as well read the Wikipedia articles and draw my own conclusions.

    I mean, what is this?

    “Formerly, each feudal domain had had its own private militia of samurai swordsmen, useless in modern war”

    Depends on how we define ‘formerly’, I mean by the 16th-century Nobunaga was already integrating musketry. During the crisis that followed Perry’s surprise, the Bakufu had already contracted French advisors.

    There is this:

    This too:

    Anyways, personally, my interpretation is the Japanese adopted these models in their bid to make alliances with the West. I lack the eloquence to make my point properly, but it’s basically that the Japanese encounter with the West is not quite the upheaval Mr Diamond is trying to paint.

    If one exists, I’d put further back, on hearing of the Chinese defeat in the Opium war.

  3. Graham says:

    Sam J:

    I don’t see how Japan can be compared to the Nazi “governance system”, even at its worst phase in the 30s-40s.

    Granted, during that phase they adopted core Nazi policies including waging a hopeless war against a seemingly weak but vastly larger enemy, using genocidal and mad scientist methods as daily routine, and their core administration became a factionalized mess of contending organizations and personalities.

    But even then it’s tough to look even at their policy in China and come away with the idea that exterminationist population policy was job one, or at their government in Tokyo and see quite as much a shambles as Berlin.

    The competing Japanese organizations were on the whole more rooted in their own corporate identities than any of the Nazi organizations, and few individual personalities had the ability, if any, to impose themselves and their individual ambitions, as opposed to institutional ones, on the system.

    The Nazi government was a corrupt, incompetent mess living on the profits of gambling and plunder. It’s not by itself a condemnation, plenty of societies in the past have lived that way, but it’s not exactly the model of durable rule. Whether, how, and by whom they might have transitioned to something more stable if they had won is a huge imponderable.

    Some of the same things could be said of the USSR, but on the whole Stalin imposed central vision far more effectively and his heirs managed to fashion a stable if corrupt oligarchy. It might have endured longer without the pressures of Cold War.

    Now, the Japanese society, even in its modern, more social/liberal democratic phase, is certainly more collectivist/communitarian/elitist/corporatist, and arguably more ethnonationalist [jury still out], but it’s playing into the hands of the enemy to lump all that under the “Nazi” banner.

    Pretty soon every form of society and governance and social policy not authorized by the Salon editorial board will be Nazi.

  4. Graham says:


    Some solid points there.

    Japan’s encounter with the west was going well enough under the Bakufu, but it strained the weaknesses of that system, which had been designed to create and maintain a very high level of stasis with few exceptions. It had not, for example, really been designed to operate a very large modern style central government or military, nor did its governing ideology really justify that.

    So it was able to begin the process of adaptation really well, it met resistance, and in what to me always seemed a minor paradox, it was overthrown by opponents who put a new imperial gloss on the mission the shogun’s government was already beginning.

    The interesting elements to me have always revolved around the role of daimyo and samurai elites in creating that new order, and then turning on those of their class who were not getting with the program. Elite directed revolution, and elite reshaping of itself, in one of the finest examples of these phenomena.

  5. Kirk says:

    Comparing and equating Nazi Germany to Imperial Japan to Fascist Italy is easy to do… If you’re an idiot.

    Diamond making this equivalency is why I dismiss his value as anything other than light entertainment, and I have fictional authors to read who do a better job of being both entertaining and who do better ethnographic work than Diamond ever will. Steven Erikson, with the Malazan series, for one.

    Nazi Germany was pretty much a unique phenomenon, based as it was on the “Fuehrerprinzip”, and Hitler’s instinctive need to split power between competing subordinates in such a way that they could never effectively challenge him. Once you start looking at Hitler as being the lion-tamer in the ring with all the other competing faction leaders, a lot comes clear with regards to the how and why of the Nazis never quite getting their shiite together into one basket. It’s also quite obvious why the hell they blundered into the war the way they did–Following an actual rational plan would have required a self-discipline and an ability to coldly rationalize things that they inherently didn’t possess. The Jew obsession is an indicator–You don’t prioritize a mass-murder campaign like that over actually war-fighting needs the way the Germans did, if you’re any sort of rational actor. You also don’t start abusing the conquered peoples until you’re actually, y’know, done conquering them…

    Japan had a lot of surface similarities and syndromes, but the overall depth of the matter is that Imperial Japan could only be interpreted as “Nazi-like” through a fun-house mirror. Same with the Italian Fascists–Mussolini was an unserious clown who blundered into an alliance with Germany quite against Italian interests, and stayed there because he was childishly jealous of the German leader’s successes and hijacking of “International Fascism”. If he’d had the sense God gave a rabid weasel, Italy would have sat out WWII, been left with one of the only intact industrial economies in Europe, and probably attained a much more dominant position in the world than it did. Italy in no way had the stakes necessary to play in the game that Mussolini got it into, and the results speak for themselves.

    All three powers were run by delusional nut-jobs, and that’s about the only thing they really had in common. Same essential disease, far different etiologies and pathologic consequences. You try to equate them, and it’s like comparing a man who died of heart disease to someone who was bitten by a rabid dog–It all looks like heart failure, on the autopsy table, but the actual causes and courses of the disease process were significantly different.

    Diamond is that guy saying “Well, both of their hearts stopped working, so they died…”.

    Use his perspective viewpoint, and everyone dies of heart failure–Whether the heart failed from heart disease, or someone put a bullet through it.

  6. Candide III says:

    A good book on Japan is Fingleton, Eamonn, “Blindside: How Japan Won the Race to the Future While the West Wasn’t Looking”

    Fingleton isn’t very reliable. I recommend this old article and the comments to it.

    …the Japanese encounter with the West is not quite the upheaval Mr Diamond is trying to paint.

    If one exists, I’d put further back, on hearing of the Chinese defeat in the Opium war.

    The involvement with the West does date before Meiji restoration per se, and it was pursued by both the bakufu and by some of the more ambitious daimyo, in particular Tosa, Satsuma and Choshu. The rangaku schools, long numerous and active in Japan, also provided invaluable personnel during the transition. But it is also true that the changes directly stimulated by the Perry expedition were incomparably more radical compared to previous activity in this direction. Before that, there being no direct threat, it was easier for the various officials and private persons to avoid the issue than attempt the radical reforms that would eventually prove to have been required.

  7. Kirk says:

    We’ve commented before on the blind worship of Japan’s supposed “rise to world domination”, and how that has led to people taking an entirely crazed view of the actual situation.

    Similarly, Diamond has done the same trite and hackneyed “analysis” with Japan’s rise to modernity. It’s not much of a surprise that he ignores a bunch of things about the reality of the situation.

    That deal I highlighted earlier with Japan’s earlier-than-Europe development of drill for firearms is an excellent example. Were you to examine the nature of that, and then take the appropriate lesson, you would see that Japan has long been at the outside edges of things, and it is not at all unusual for them to adopt and adapt the “New” that comes from the inner realms. They’ve done it for thousands of years, taking what they could use from the Koreans and the Chinese, adapting it to their needs, and then creating a synthesis of the whole thing all their own, and uniquely Japanese.

    So too, was their experience with firearms. Japan tried out the whole “gunpowder” thing, decided that it was too socially disruptive, and then, in typical Japanese fashion, utterly rejected it and went back to feudal muscle-powered weapons.

    Japan has, in the course of things, developed a singular talent for taking in “New”, and digesting it before making it a part of Japanese culture. Look at the successive waves of religion, and how each one has ended with the religion successfully grafted onto the Japanese body politic, and the whole of it being turned into a uniquely Japanese synthesis of whatever it was.

    Examine Japan and Christmas, for example: It’s a secular holiday of surpassing weirdness, there–Kentucky Fried Chicken morphing over into a “traditional family dish” for the holiday, and all the other attendant and uniquely “Japanese weirdness”.

    The Japanese are long-time adopters and adapters of other people’s technology and cultures. It goes back to the days of the first rice-farming migrants coming in from Korea and China, who may have been refugees from the tyranny of the first Chinese emperors. Ever since, it’s been a series of adaptations and adoptions, keeping the Japanese just parallel enough with the mainland to survive, and even a bit ahead of it all. And, you look at the Meiji, and think that’s something somehow new or unique? LOL… Dude, that’s the history of Japan, compressed into a few short decades of catch-up. That’s what Japan does.

    Frankly, I bet that if a superior alien civilization showed up tomorrow, the Japanese might be the only human culture extant that would thrive under whatever conditions got imposed, and that they’d just keep on doing what they’ve always done. In about two generations, the aliens would likely be complaining about all the bizarre things that the Japanese took from them, and the exponentially weird way they interpreted it all.

  8. Sam J. says:

    I’m not saying the WWII Japan was Nazi. I’m saying the present Japan has a very strong economic structure like the Nazis with interlocking power centers that keep each other in check. Big picture.

    Forget all the history channel Nazis. I’m talking much more of the social and economic structure. This also ties in with Fingletons work although Fingleton would never say so and would I suppose he would deny it completely.

    “…Fingleton isn’t very reliable. I recommend this old article and the comments to it…”

    I’ve read a lot about Japan and I notice that the people who say Japan is doing much better than they let on have all been there for a long, long, time and the ones that poof about and call everyone crazy that say this, have not been there a long, long time. Japans a fairly inscrutable place and I think it takes a long tome to come to an understanding.

    I’m not buying the criticisms of Fingleton…well not completely anyways. Fingleton does get a bit breathless at times and I don’t think the Japanese will be conquering the earth anytime soon but look at what they have in resources and where they are and where they’ve come from and the picture looks quite different. To be clear I’m talking again about the structure of the system they live under. They have a massive fall off in population yet they are steadily producing masses of goods. They have little resources yet have a reasonable standard of living for such a small country with no resources. If you take this into account their strengths begin to become clearer. The criticisms of Fingleton are just as cherry-picked as they say Fingleton cherry picks statistics. Fingleton has covered a ton of stuff they don;t mention. One thing he goes on about a lot is that the Japanese have consistently invested in high capital cost industries with a lot of business secrets needed to make products successfully. Another thing never mentioned in the criticism is that Japan has a shit ton of parts, materials and tools that make up a good portion of OTHER countries like China that are then exported into the US under the name of China.

    One thing the Japanese have done is to even out the highs and the lows in income in their country. This may hold back some profitable businesses because a large company will always be slower on new ideas and it does slow economic growth but it beats having your company taken over by junk bond traders, your pension stolen and being thrown on the streets like in the US.

    Their plan has been to buy the new tech needed and I think that worked for them. I’m not so sure that will continue. All the tech that the US paid for and developed I think they let go for a very little and I bet some regret it. Maybe in the future we won’t be so stupid but seeing as how Americans don’t run this country anyways maybe not.

  9. Kirk says:

    Yeah. No.

    Japan’s kereitsu and other corporate structures are not what you think they are, which are components of some vast overarching “great plan”. If Japan does well, in the future, that’s going to be because of things well outside of planning, because their planning has been horrendously bad. Like their military strategies.

    MITI was the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and the “responsible agency” for Japan, Inc.’s rise post-WWII, in every common telling of the tale.

    Now, look at the actual, y’know… Track record. MITI did not want Honda going into the automotive industry. It did not want Sony doing some of the most successful things that Sony did, and worked diligently against a lot of smaller companies and industries. We’re never going to know a lot of what MITI actually influenced, because there are a lot of things that didn’t happen due to its influence. How many Hondas did it discourage?

    Japan isn’t what it is because of some vast, interlocking centralized plan or conspiracy. It is what it is because that grew out of Japan organically, and the urge to control and deal with the idiosyncratic sorts like Honda is all a part of the process and problem.

    Opportunity cost is a real thing. While MITI may have done a lot of good, how much damage did it do with its channelized and unimaginative planning?

    The biggest thing going against both Japan and China are that they’re both monolithic top-down controlled societies–And, those don’t do well in changing circumstances or on the frontiers of things. My guess is that the Chinese and the Japanese are both, sadly, going to end as footnotes in the history of humanity, because neither one does well in chaos. They’ll likely manage some few moments of order and glory, but in the larger scheme of things, they’re going to get overtaken and left behind because they lack the ability to adapt to chaos and thrive in it. The urge for centralized control, which is highlighted by what you chose to observe and lionize, is what’s going to kill them. It’s why both cultures go through periodic spasms of stasis and self-destruction, only to do what is absolutely necessary when they have no other choice.

    The important periods of history to examine for both countries are not those where they are playing catch-up, but the ones where they collapse back into complacency and isolationism. These are not fundamentally dynamic nations–They do not have a “frontier” mentality, where they embrace constant change.

    My guess is, going forward, the Chinese and Japanese cultures will dominate for a few years, perhaps decades, and then you’ll observe a general collapse of innovation and adaptability due to the central authorities demand for control. At that point, the more dynamic cultures of the world will do what they’ve always done, route around, and there will be a huge frontier to exploit. Assuming we don’t kill ourselves, I don’t expect to see China or Japan dominating the early days of the human expansion into the solar system, because that’s simply not in their nature–They are not the sorts of cultures that do well in those circumstances. They’ll follow along, consolidate, and let someone else take the risks, but they’re not likely to be out there doing much of anything high-risk or high-reward.

    What happened to Zheng Ho is precisely what’s going to happen to any Chinese space explorers. The only thing that will keep the Chinese developing things is competition, and when that drive turns to complacency and the fear of losing internal control…?

    If you look, you can already see the signs. In both Japan and China.

  10. Candide III says:

    “I’m not buying the criticisms of Fingleton…well not completely anyways.”

    Sam: well obviously it’s a more complicated picture than just “Fingleton’s opinions are 100% wrong”. That’s why I recommended the comments as well, especially this one by Troy which contains the sentence “The fact of the matter is that Japan is in fact an immensely wealthy nation” with which comment I agree almost completely. Still, I have lived in Japan for quite some time as a non-tourist (had an alien registration card), I speak and read Japanese, which is reportedly more than Fingleton can say about himself despite having been a long, long, long time in Japan, and I have seen what Japan is like outside the major metropolises, and I must say that much of Spiked’s criticisms and rebuttals agrees with my experience. On the other hand, I admire the Japanese perfectionism and their way of organizing life and I am firmly of the opinion that at this juncture there is much more for us to learn from the Japanese than vice-versa.

    “One thing the Japanese have done is to even out the highs and the lows in income in their country.”

    So they have, but the cost of this evening-out is their much more hierarchical organization of society, where it is well-defined who bows to whom and how much. A lot of Westerners find they can’t stomach this and either leave or self-cocoon in the expat community and spew bile on everything Japanese in sight. Exhibit A used to be the GaijinPot forum, which became so infested with these “long, long, long term residents” that the administration was finally forced to shut it down for good a few years ago. Exhibit A’ is Japan Times.

  11. Sam J. says:

    “…Spiked’s criticisms…”

    I read a great deal more of his blog and I’m impressed that the stress they are under is higher than I anticipated. A lot of my reading was from many years ago and things have changed. I’m not afraid to say I might have overstated my case.

    “…I admire the Japanese perfectionism and their way of organizing life and I am firmly of the opinion that at this juncture there is much more for us to learn from the Japanese than vice-versa…”

    Part of what I’m trying to convey is a comparative situation between Japan and the US specifically with what each country has to work with. While the GNP may be going up in the US it’s drastically moved into the pockets of financial capitalist which I believe are using connections to get vast sums of capital that really have no right to have. Every time they fund a mass of junk bonds it lowers the capital value of everyone else. Not to mention they throw everyone out of work and steal their pensions frequently. It difficult to do anything about it because they spread their capital around to the politicians and regulators that matter while ignoring the “peasants”. If you look at the history of such things it’s not often that anything changes. Those with the cash and who are aggressive enough make off with more and more. The US is blessed with an almost perfect river system, vast fertile farmlands and abundant minerals beyond the dreams of most. Everybody should be rich or at least cared for in some manner in this country with the wealth we have. This doesn’t mean I’m an old fashioned Socialist. I’m more of a give me the cash Andrew Yang guy. You need a lot less bureaucrats to do things that way.

    “…“One thing the Japanese have done is to even out the highs and the lows in income in their country.”

    So they have, but the cost of this evening-out is their much more hierarchical organization of society, where it is well-defined who bows to whom and how much. A lot of Westerners find they can’t stomach this…”

    I couldn’t and it is a strength and a weakness of theirs which so many traits are in any group.

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