A miracle long in the making

The Technological Transformation of Japan

June 21, 1996

The transformation of Japan from a feudal and agrarian society into a leading industrial and technological power in barely more than a century has drawn immense interest. Previous attempts to explain Japan's success in "catching up" with the western world have largely focused on the developments since the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the role of the central government.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki's historical account of the technological transformation of Japan is a welcome contribution. It emphasises the emerging importance of innovation in the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), and the role of regional communities and small firms in the innovation process which continues today.

The book clarifies how the ability of Japan to absorb foreign technology and meet the challenge of rapid technological progress in the Meiji era was based on skills and a mindset inherited from the Tokugawa period. The traditional rivalry between different fiefdoms in Japan fostered the idea that technological knowledge was a main source of wealth and stimulated the development of specialised regional production centres of sake (rice wine), silk, ceramics, and carpentry. When Commander Perry forced the opening of Japan in 1853, the country had a pool of skilled craftsmen which was not only concentrated in urban areas but also dispersed among regional communities.

Morris-Suzuki shows how regional governments and business communities have continuously organised themselves to adapt to technological challenges. Regional industry associations set quality standards for members and cooperated with R&D laboratories set up by regional governments to assist in the upgrading of technologies for traditional industries. Through such local initiatives, the 17th-century pottery tradition in the city of Arita has evolved into a successful ceramic components industry. Morris-Suzuki argues that a variety of networks linking firms, governments and R&D institutions allowed the necessary flexibility for continuous absorption of new technologies and rapid diffusion throughout Japan.

The main weakness of the book is probably that it is too ambitious, attempting to cover 350 years in as many pages of text. There is no systematic discussion of education systems, in particular in the Tokugawa period. Neither is due attention given to the role played by the prewar industrial conglomerates (zaibatsu), the postwar horizontal industrial groups (kigyo shudan or keiretsu), and subcontractor associations (kyorokukai). This is disturbing given the emphasis on networks of innovation. The book provides only a cursory look at post-war developments such as the Ministry of International Trade and Industry's national technology projects and does not add to existing knowledge in this area.

More fundamentally, no clear attempt is undertaken to draw lessons from the historical account. What can the developing world learn from the Japanese experience? Will the Japanese institutions and practices geared to the absorption and diffusion of technology allow it to contribute to the creation of new technologies as well? Perhaps such issues are beyond the scope of the book, but then its subtitle "from the 17th to the 21st century" is inappropriate.

Once the reader has recognised that the strength of the book lies in the vivid illustration of innovation in Japan up to the Pacific war, the book is a joy to read. Description of general developments and historical events are interlaced with stories about exemplary individuals and case studies of specific crafts and industries. Difficult terminology is avoided and the book is accessible and recommended reading matter for a wide audience including those with an interest in the Japanese society and economy and the broader issues of technological change and industrial development.

Rene A. Belderbos, is research fellow, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the 17th to the 21st Century

Author - Tessa Morris-Suzuki
ISBN - 0 521 41463 6 and 42492 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £13.95
Pages - 304

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