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  • Technology and the Culture of Progress in Meiji Japan
  • Carl Mosk (bio)
Technology and the Culture of Progress in Meiji Japan. By David G. Wittner. Routledge, New York, 2008. xxii, 199 pages. $150.00.

The selling of state-owned enterprises is one of the most colorful and controversial episodes in the political economy of Meiji Japan. Between 1874 and 1896 the national government sold to private-sector purchasers 12 mines, four cotton and silk mills, and four factories including two shipyards, making a grand total of 20 enterprises privatized. The great bulk of these sales—16—were carried out during the 1880s, particularly between 1884 and 1889. Most of the sale prices fell considerably short of the value of the government's capital investment—this holds for 16 of the liquidated assets—suggesting that the government's action was equivalent to writing off failed projects through a wide-ranging fire sale. Why did the government decide on this action? Why did the Meiji oligarchs conclude that their experiment with state-owned enterprise management was such a dismal failure that they were determined to quickly relegate it to the past?

David Wittner's book offers a comprehensive explanation. The creation of state-owned enterprises was part and parcel of the commitment of the Meiji oligarchs to the ideology of bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment). These investments were reckless and wasteful when evaluated in [End Page 166] terms of a conventional, economic "cost-benefit" calculus. This was not the result of naiveté, venality, or stubborn stupidity. Rather, it reflected the fact that the principal rationale for constructing state-owned enterprises was political, aimed both at raising the prestige of the national government in the eyes of potential domestic contenders for power (disaffected former samurai and Tokugawa-era fief administrators) and at promoting the image of Japan among the European powers (and the United States) that had imposed humiliating, unequal treaties on Japan during the 1850s.

Wittner develops the concept of "cultural materiality" to capture the fostering of (national) identity through technology. Applied to Meiji Japan, "cultural materiality" meant bunmei kaika was tantamount to building structures with brick and cast iron rather than relying upon wood (the time-honored building material of pre-Meiji Japan) and using steam engines rather than harnessing power from human, animal, and natural agency. In effect, bunmei kaika as practiced by state-owned enterprises meant embracing the material symbols of Victorian-era industrialization lock, stock, and barrel. Once the political rationale for investing scarce fiscal resources in these white elephants disappeared, the oligarchs jettisoned them, absorbing substantial, embarrassing financial losses in some cases.

To build his case, Wittner focuses on two projects: the Tomioka Silk Filature, erected in Gunma Prefecture (located in the silk-producing Alps), and the Kamaishi Ironworks constructed near Kamaishi Village, Iwate Prefecture, in northeastern Japan. For the record, the Kamaishi Ironworks were sold to Tanaka Chōbei in 1887 for a price that amounted to less than one per cent of the massive government investment in the ironworks—a shockingly low return on the asset created by the Ministry of Public Works—while the Tomioka filature sale was fixed at a slightly less appalling figure, 40 per cent of the public funds plowed into its construction and outfitting. Tomioka was purchased by the Mitsui zaibatsu, an example of the gobbling up of state-owned enterprises by politically connected financial cliques. The oligarchs were definitely looking after the interests of their friends in disposing of these two enterprises.

The first two chapters of Wittner's book set the stage for detailed accounts of the Tomioka and Kamaishi establishments. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, laying out the general argument about the cultural materiality and its importance for the way bunmei kaika was applied in practice by the Ministries of Public Works, Home Affairs, and Finance. Chapter 2 provides useful background on Tokugawa-era silk reeling, including the introduction of new techniques in the mid-eighteenth century, and on the processes for smelting iron from iron sand. The point of the discussion is to show that Japanese technology had reached a fairly high level in both silk reeling and iron smelting, albeit having evolved...


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