Conference: European Miracle

The Roots of Divergence? Some Comments on Japan in the ‘Axial Age’, 1750–1850*

Janet Hunter

Much of the recent work on the economic and social history of Tokugawa Japan (1600–1867) has been driven by a desire to identify what T.C. Smith has called ‘native sources ofJapanese industrialisation’. From the Marxist-influenced historians in the 1920s who sought to explain the pre-industrial roots of the structure of production in interwar Japan, through to contem-poraryJapanese historians' studies of the pattern of Japanese development, a major part of the agenda has been to identify how Japan had got to where it was, in other words, what was the secret of its twentieth century successes and weaknesses. It is not possible to explore the situation of Japan's economy in the century 1750–1850 without benefit of this hindsight, without being aware that while Japan's situation may have been in many ways analogous to that of China and Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, its economic fortunes were by the latter part of the nineteenth century experiencing their own ‘great divergence’ from those of China, India and the other countries of Asia and the near East. To search for the antecedents of this divergence is for economic historians of Japan a parallel exercise o t any search for the sources of the European ‘miracle’. While a focus on the period 1750–1850 as an era of European/Asian divergence means, therefore, that we must highlight the situation inJapan during that century, it must also be accepted that in the case of Japan any comparison with other countries or regions may also suggest the causes of Japan's own divergence some fifty to a hundred years later.

Janet Hunter is Saji Senior Lecturer in Japanese Economic and Social History at the London School of Economics. She recently edited and introduced Japanese Economic History, 1930–1960 I-X (London 2000).


* The earlier draft of this paper was presented at the workshop on the European Miracle at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies, Wassenaar, in October 2000. I am grateful to Itinerario for the invitation to the workshop, and to participants for their constructive comments and informed discussion.