Japanese Industrialization: A Critique

This is a debate speech that I wrote in the Spring of 2010 for HIST011: World History.  I didn’t much like the class, as each lecture felt disjointed from the others, and it harped on slavery too much (IMO).  Still, I love a good debate, and somewhere around the middle of the term the class was divided in half and we argued over whether or not industrialization is good for society.  I took the Con side of the debate, citing Japan as my case study.

Winston Churchill once said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”  Conceptually, Japan had what appeared to be a beautiful strategy.  The comfort of the Tokugawa dynasty’s isolationist shell was being threatened by the powers of the West.  Fighting fire with fire seemed to be the only way to secure Japanese economic independence.  And so, in order to prevent Western economic occupation, Japan determined to industrialize.  Looking back, the effects are clear.  Not only not only did Japan marginalize its own society, but industrialization actually brought about Japan’s worst nightmare.

Industrialization is not beneficial for a society and should not be strongly supported by its population for the following three reasons:

  1. Industrialization in Japan reinforced and strengthened the existing social hierarchy
  2. Industrialization infused with nationalism begets war
  3. Industrialization in Japan accomplished the exact opposite of what it set out to do.

Moving back to my first point, Japanese industrialization reinforced and strengthened the existing social hierarchy.  First of all, gender roles were only reinforced in factories.  Men were not only given more pay and benefits than women, but they supervised women as well.  This reinforced the belief that men were superior to women.  But more damaging to society was the centralized production that accompanied industrialization.  Already powerful noble families known as the zaibatsu quickly controlled nearly every aspect of the Japanese economy.  These zaibatsu exploited the intrinsic obedience of the common Japanese farmer to simultaneously increase their own profits and keep the rural population impoverished.  The government did nothing to better this situation because the zaibatsu invested lots of capital into the rest of the economy and the government itself.  Thus, the government was incentivized to concentrate wealth in the few at the expense of the many.  Whereas custom used to distance common from noble, industrialization cemented and increased this distance with money.

My second area of analysis states that industrialism provokes war.  In order to keep demand high, Japan embarked on imperialist conquests.  Still masquerading under the façade of a strong national defense, Japan mounted an insatiable offensive.  Economic development became linked with military expansion.  This inherently magnified the importance of the military commanders.  In order to stay important and influential, and to keep receiving government investment, Japanese military leaders became more and more aggressive.  The Russo-Japanese war and Manchurian expansion are telling examples.  Industrialism proceeded to profit even at the expense of Japanese life.

[This nationalist expansion was exhibited by all industrial countries and led to both world wars.]

Lastly, Industrialization in Japan accomplished the exact opposite of what it set out to do.  Fear for national sovereignty is rational.  But while the Japanese industrialized to prevent foreign economic occupation, industrialism led to something much worse: American military occupation.  As described in my second point, Japanese military leaders took greater and greater risks to keep the military growing and the government funds flowing.  This led directly to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and reciprocally, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Yet again, industrialism destroyed the lives of innocent civilians.

How can a populace possibly support a program such as industrialization?  It immediately exploits the labor of the lower class.  Initially the worker is told it’s in the name of national progress.  But soon, the efforts of that labor fund pointless imperialist expansion.  Then, in Japan, after being used and abused, the worker loses his home, his family, and even his life.