Industrialization in Japan: Origins, Characteristics & Impact

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  • 0:04 Japan's Industrialization
  • 0:37 The Meiji Restoration
  • 2:01 Industrial Revolution
  • 3:38 The Japanese Economic Miracle
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Industrialization happens a little differently for every nation. In this lesson, we're going to check out Japan's periods of industrialization and see why its experience was entirely unique.

Japan's Industrialization

A lot goes into industrialization, or the process of developing an industrial economy. An industrializing nation has to build the infrastructure for factories and shipping, find a place in global economic networks, transition local economies into new methods of production, and deal with social and cultural changes that accompany these transitions. It's a big deal, and every nation handles this process a little differently. In Japan, industrialization was something that the government consciously undertook but which happened in two different eras and in two different ways.

The Meiji Restoration

By the mid-19th century, Japan was still a feudal nation under the authority of a warlord (known as the shogun) who controlled the emperor like a puppet. However, the intrusion of Western powers into East Asia made many people in Japan nervous. Could they fight against these powers and their modern technology? A group of samurai overthrew the government and restored the emperor to full power, starting a period called the Meiji Restoration.

The Meiji Restoration (1868-1890) was named after the emperor, who took the name Meiji, which means 'enlightened rule.' The emperor and a new ruling class decided it was time to remodel Japan on a Western model. The goal was to make Japan a European-style empire that could compete in the increasingly global world. It was an era of conquerors and colonies and as Hong Kong was absorbed into the British Empire, the Japanese swore Tokyo and Kyoto would never share the same fate.

Many changes came along with this transition. The Japanese emperor was traditionally more of a religious and cultural leader than a political one, but Meiji refashioned his power to be more like a European emperor. Japan drafted its first constitution in 1889, establishing a constitutional monarchy with the emperor's power checked by a parliament called the Diet. The feudal class system was abolished, public education was made mandatory, and Western technologies were eagerly imported.

Industrial Revolution

The result was an industrial revolution that lasted from roughly 1890 to 1930. Factories were built, infrastructure was developed, and the Japanese economy quickly transitioned. While Japan did build a diverse range of industries, from textiles to steel, one of their most prominent focuses was on building an industrial military. After all, the goal was to be a modern, European-style nation and to prove to the world that Japan was a conqueror, not a potential colony for someone else. Japan went to war with China in 1894 and gained its first colony in Taiwan. In 1902 it signed an alliance with Great Britain, signaling Japan's arrival as a world power. In 1904, Japan went to war with Russia and used the opportunity to show off its fully industrialized fleet. Japan crushed the Russian navy and shocked the world. In only a few decades, Japan had built a fully industrialized military and established itself as a global power.

However, that growth would soon reveal a darker side. The Great Depression of 1929 hit Japan hard, and the newly developed industrial economy began to suffer. To deal with this crisis, the young emperor Hirohito relied on a strategy being employed in Germany and Italy: fascism. Hirohito encouraged a deep nationalistic pride in the Japanese people, promoted his own god-like status over them, and rebuilt the Japanese economy by focusing almost exclusively on military production. For most of the Great Depression, Japan built almost nothing but military technologies. When World War II began, Japan was ready to fight.

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