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Japan's Story - Education, Feudalism, Military and Institutions


When the Japanese saw big warships belonging to the United States in 1853, they quickly realized that they were far behind in technology and must do something about it. They studied carefully and adapted Western political, military, technological, economic, and social forms. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan put the new educational plan in unequivocal terms: “There shall, in the future, be no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” Kido Takayoshi, one of the most influential leaders of the reform, named the basic issue with great clarity: “Our people are no different from the Americans or Europeans of today; it is all a matter of education or lack of education.”


Japan abolished feudalism in 1869. The Meiji introduced basic liberties, property rights, and clear titling of land, resulting in the redistribution of the land from large aristocratic holdings to small private owners. This glacially slow but stable process allowed hardworking small farmers to gradually buy up property from the enervated heirs of wealth and privilege, as had happened earlier in pre-modern England. By 1890, Japan was the first Asian country to adopt a written constitution, the Diet, and an independent Judiciary. Spending on education, land redistribution and other reforms made Japan the primary beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution in Asia.


All of these radical changes made Japan a strong county in a short time. Japan defeated China, a much larger country, in a war in 1894-95 because Chinese failed to learn the same lesson and reform China as the Japanese did with Japan. Japan also defeated Russia in the 1904-05 war. It was the first victory by an East Asia country against a major imperial power. (Russian economy was too poor to continue the war at that time.)


Between 1906 and 1911, education consumed as much as 43% of the budget of the towns and villages, for Japan as a whole. By 1913, even though Japan was still economically very poor and underdeveloped, it was publishing more books than Britain and the United States.


Unfortunately, Japan acquired a bad habit of Spain and sought prosperity through military conquest. In 1931, Japan invaded China and raised tension with the West. Military spending increased from 31% of the national budget in 1931-32 to 47% in 1936-37 and required massive increase in government debt, as had occurred in Spain. When the capable finance minister Korekiyo Takahashi objected to the high level of military expenditures, the army assassinated him. Japan eventually paid a very heavy price for the path it took.


It is also interesting to note that Japan was destroyed in World War II but it still became the world’s 2nd largest economy within a short time because it had strong institutions (buildings were destroyed but souls and knowledge base were there) backed by a highly educated population and little or no military expenses.


I hope Pakistani youths will follow Japan’s example and abolish feudalism and provide education to every citizen. Pakistanis will also develop a culture of peace and not of war as Japan learned the hard way.


It is indeed difficult for ordinary citizens to breakdown extractive institutions such as feudalism to acquire real political power and change the way their society works. But it is possible as it has happened in Japan, other developed countries, and some developing countries too.




1) Birth of Plenty by William Bernstein
2) Culture and Public Action, edited by Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton