restricted access Ordinary Economies in Japan: A Historical Perspective, 1750-1950 (review)
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Ordinary Economies in Japan: A Historical Perspective, 1750-1950. By Tetsuo Najita. University of California Press, 2009. 298 pages. Hardcover $55.00/£37.95.

Tetsuo Najita's Ordinary Economies is organized as a set of linked essays united around the theme of daily-life practices of cooperation and mutual enterprise. Najita's goal is to uncover, and recover, a moral-economic tradition founded on ethical practice rather than on abstract and sometimes arrogant scholarship. In Meiji times and since, the kind of market-oriented, but noncapitalistic, morally based economic thinking he describes was "discredited by advocates of modern reason and progress as being 'premodern,' as belonging to the world that had failed" (p. 10). In a series of sketches of economic practices that presented alternatives to the self-seeking maximization of profits, Najita considers as major subjects the (cooperative) organizations, Ninomiya Sontoku (1787-1856) and the notion of "work as ethical practice" (the title of chapter 4), Ninomiya's Hōtoku movement, and the mujin (mutual) companies that developed in and after the Meiji era. Najita calls this "a fragmented discourse" (the title of the book's epilogue) and explains that these traditions have been marginalized by the mainstream of modern capitalistic development. In fact, a more unitary picture emerges for the reader out of the fragments he presents, one [End Page 182] that reveals an ongoing living tradition and moral sense that have shaped the mainstream of development.

organizations, also often called tanomoshi kō or mujin kō, present a particularly fragmented picture, constituting as they do an extensive grouping of diverse modes of cooperation, of varying sizes and degrees of formality. As Najita explains, they did not work together as a network or a single system. But a core of common practices, principles, and social assumptions were (and are) at work within this extensive set. These systems of cooperative mutual support, as seen in a variety of saving/lending and mutual insurance schemes, were built upon the principles of a money economy while simultaneously opposing the principle of competitive individual profit taking at others' expense. A multiplicity of local insurance systems organized along these lines existed in advance of modern insurance systems. Many of them, developed during the eighteenth century, had the character of mutual self-insurance against crop failure and famine, and they extended their activity to providing medical insurance. This cooperative ethic was often spiritually minded, more overtly so in the case of the Hōtoku movement, and the scale of these endeavors was substantial. Here, Najita cites anthropologist John Embree's classic study Suye Mura: A Japanese Village (University of Chicago Press, 1939), which provides estimates that the savings villagers held in a wide variety of local organizations was more than they held in postal savings, village credit associations, and banks combined. The earliest references to practices that fall under the rubric of " organization" seem to date back to the 1200s and 1300s, so there is a lot of history to be uncovered here. Are these practices "traditional" or "modern"? Najita disputes the helpfulness or meaningfulness of the distinction in this case, but the organizations did exist in tension with profit-making enterprises. Much of the actual fragmentation enters the story in the twentieth century because of the way that these activities and this moral-economic tradition have been submerged, broken up, and co-opted by the development of capitalist credit and insurance institutions that are financially interlinked and that do form a system, which in the Meiji period came to be centered on modern-style banks. One can imagine an alternate outcome in which cooperative institutions themselves became networked and were encouraged and supported in this direction by legal and public institutional frameworks. But here again, there is not a single end point to this story, for much of the interest of Najita's account is that he points out ways in which this did happen. There are practices and traditions here that are still vital and available for fuller social use and development.

Thinking about these questions strictly as history, one feels that the material Najita presents is the beginning of a big story. Najita...


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