Summary of JOIE Article (First View 6 December 2021)by Makio Yamada, Institutes for Advanced Studies, University of Tokyo. The full article is available on the JOIE website.
In this article, I provide an explanation of how Meiji Japan (Japan after the Meiji Restoration in the winter of 1867/8) achieved swift institutional improvement by making reform and stability compatible with each other. The first half of this blog post is a summary of what the article discusses; the latter half presents some notes on how I reached the article’s research questions.
While political participation is often seen as a cause of the rise of developmental institutions, Japan before the 1890s did not yet have a parliament (the Diet). Authoritarian change agents usually face a trade-off between reform and stability: they have coercive power to remove underproductive institutions, but at the risk of inviting instability, as politically influential deprivileged elites may engage in counteraction to recover what they perceive as their entitlement. Many authoritarian regimes, thus, coopt elites by allowing them access to rent, but such buying-off inevitably compromises institutional improvement.
Meiji Japan overcame this dilemma and liberated major fiscal and administrative spaces for productive players who generated wealth and increased the size of the economic pie for society. It did so through the process I call “elite redeployment.” In lieu of “elite bargains” in participatory polities in Europe, the revolutionary authoritarian regime in Japan coercively deprivileged traditional elites (the samurai and their local lords) and redeployed those with financial or human capital among them in productive institutions, such as modern administrative, educational, commercial, and financial sectors. The old elites were selectively reincorporated so that they would not hinder growth. This was with the calculation that reincorporating those with financial prowess or administrative skills would suffice for maintaining stability as those were politically influential agents who were capable of leading reactionary campaigns.
The model was also predicated upon the productive nature of the change agents: the Meiji revolutionaries, with a lower-class samurai background, were from local states that had succeeded at internal reform. On the eve of the Meiji Restoration, the leeway of these peripheral elites was already on the rise but was still limited: the revolution and national unification brought them about political opportunities to build productive institutions at the national level. (For the issue of Japan’s national unification, as well as the international relations aspect of the Meiji Restoration, I recently wrote another paper in the form of a review essay, which readers may find useful if they read it along with this article.)
Japan’s different path of institutional upgrading suggests heterogeneity and causal equifinality in development before the twentieth century. While early parliamentary politics and regional interstate wars shifted the patterns of elite bargains to the detriment of vested-interest actors such as landed nobles in historical Europe, the revolutionary authoritarian regime deterred reactionary rollbacks in Japan. Despite the difference, both European and Japanese models were elitist and products of the age prior to the rise of socialism and Keynesianism: their modernization process was, thus, less affected by pressure for popular distribution, which emerged in the following century and possibly made keeping open the fiscal and administrative spaces, liberated from the old rent-seeking elites for new productive players, not as easy as before because the legitimacy of regimes now hinged upon distribution beyond the narrow circle of elites.
This article is a product of my five years of research on Meiji Japan. Several motivations urged me toward this research and writing. First, I was not content with Meiji Japan’s remaining a void in the literature on institutions and economic development. Although the famous concept of “developmental state” originates from the case of Japan which is extensively studied in Chalmers Johnson’s MITI and the Japanese Miracle (1982), Johnson’s narrative begins with the interwar period, by which time Japan was already successful in terms of modernization. I, thus, found a somewhat long-unfilled need to delineate Japan’s initial institutional upgrading in the period following the Meiji Restoration.
Explaining Meiji modernization seemed all the more important to me in light of Atul Kohli’s theory that East Asia’s development experience originates from Japan’s colonial governance, as discussed in State-Directed Development (2004), which traces the root of South Korea’s efficient institutions to the colonial period, when the country’s traditional patrimonial institutions were coercively dismantled. The questions that arose in my mind were: But why did it happen? Why did the colonial decision-makers choose such a costly policy option when the common colonial approach was to preserve the local clientelistic networks to keep the governance low-cost? My hunch was that the same Japanese regime might have done a similar thing before with its home country’s old institutions.
In fact, Japanese institutions were hardly lean before the 1870s, as suggested by the quotations cited in the article. Kaishū Katsu, an official from the Shogunate, Japan’s ancien régime, deplored the irrational hierarchy and lack of meritocracy, while William Elliot Griffis, an American expatriate in Japan, noted in his diary, which later formed part of his book The Mikado’s Empire (1876): “Japan’s greatest curse for ages has been an excess of officials and lazy rice-eaters who do not work.” Yet, as told by the cases of a number of today’s developing countries, dismantling such institutions loaded with a host of vested interests is never politically easy.
Thus, I discovered the central questions of this research: How were reform and stability made compatible with each other in the Meiji modernization? Why did the deprivileged elites—the samurai and their local lords—accept the transition without (effectively) vetoing it? I saw the issue as representing the other side of the coin—reform that is, in many cases, narrated only from the perspective of progressive forces. In understanding that process, I was particularly guided by the insightful Japanese-language book by Hiroki Ochiai, Chitsuroku Shobun (2015). The book excellently documents the fate of the “samurai after the last samurai,” which inspired me in building the elite redeployment model.