The History Factor

I was surprised at the final reference in the essay "The Human Factor" that I read in your newsletter just now -- first because I think it is factually dodgy, but mainly because if history repeats itself, then the history of Tokyo gives us every reason to doubt Japan's ability to implement change in a uniquely Japanese, human-centered way.

Your ref: "Three hundred years ago, Tokyo was probably the biggest city in the world, a fact that had nothing to do with the West."

(1) As a point of fact -- 18th century London was probably about the same size as Tokyo. Both London and Tokyo attained populations of over one million people during 18th century. As far as I know, accurate data to support your theory that Tokyo was "the biggest" is not available.

(2) London's population growth was a direct result of its position at the center of an outward-looking, mercantile economy. Tokyo, in contrast, grew as a result of bureaucracy and the regulations of an introverted, xenophobic government. Those regulations required all regional lords to establish residences with attendant staffs in the capital and to spend extended periods of residence with large entourages, in the capital. The regulations were deliberately conceived in order to hamper "development" and to drain the regional lords of their wealth. To this end they were quite successful -- Japan's technology, economy and political system stagnated for 250 years, until the country seemed to be faced with internal collapse or colonization or both. Only then did Japan take the bold step of completely re-inventing itself as a modern state -- in order to tackle the external and domestic crises.

Japan's feudal leaders were certainly "in for the long run" -- 250 years is long by any standards. But how does this support the theory that "Changes are needed, but they'll figure out their own way"?

I worry about contemporary Japan's ability to take bold steps to deal with the current economic situation. And looking at history gives me no reason to be optimistic that Japan will take any steps until the problems hit crisis point.

Jonathan Browne

Writer's reply:
Thanks for your excellent, well-informed feedback.

Note that I said "probably" the biggest city. Whether London was or Tokyo was the biggest ... well, no one will ever know for certain, will they? But I've read in more than one place that it was probably Tokyo. As for WHY it was the (one of) the biggest -- as you suggest because of the regulations of an introverted government, as opposed to more outward-looking, mercantile London -- well, whatever the reason, it was, and that matters. Why did the bubble of the 80s happen? For all the wrong reasons, no doubt -- but it did, and it mattered.

As for the feudal leaders being in it for the long run ... well, I didn't say that. I said Japan always looks at the long run, and it does. As my following example of nanotech shows, I was referring more to modern tech-savvy Japan.

As for your being worried about modern Japan being able to act boldly to address its problems, so are we all. My point in this essay is that it will work out its own solution regardless of our pontifications in the Western media. What will that solution be? I don't know. But I do know it will be uniquely, confoundingly Japanese. -- SM