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Reviewed by:
  • Technology and the Culture of Progress in Meiji Japan
  • Ian Inkster (bio)
Technology and the Culture of Progress in Meiji Japan. By David G. Wittner. LondonNew York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. xix+199. $150.

Meiji industrialization will not be a new subject of interest to most readers of this review. The speed and success of late-nineteenth-century Japan in utilizing the knowledge and technologies of Europe and the United States in an effort to retain autonomy in a new world of competitive colonial ambitions is well known to anyone concerned with the history of technological change and transfer. After all, in most cases and most places, technology transfer between nations fails, often at great economic and cultural cost. If this was so even in cases of a common linguistic and cultural heritage— consider the difficulties Birmingham manufacturers faced when confronted with the American system of manufactures—historians must consider seriously such an exemplary instance of technology transfer across cultures. So explanations of Japan’s overall success abound, ranging from that nation’s place in time and space, with its provincial and national elites able to learn something from the disasters befalling China, through notions of surplus labor, export earnings, and government interventions, on to the idea of a unique cultural responsiveness.

How far did Japanese culture bend to meet the requirements of Western techniques, how far did the state persuade users that it was in their best cultural interest to take on the West in this manner, and how far did the Japanese view Western technology through a Japanese lens, finding in Western technology not only the material requirements of success but something that they could interpret within their own cultural frame? To an extent, David Wittner’s text centers around the last query while addressing them all. This is a far cry from the older “development” approach of the late twentieth century that either saw things rather mechanistically or dropped in some idea of Japanese cultural uniqueness in a mostly ad hoc manner. Wittner overtly takes the cultural turn on interpretation. He argues that a constructed culture of progress, enlightenment, and civilization framed technological choice and public policy, leading at times to failures, as his case studies of silk reeling and iron manufacture are designed to show. Government [End Page 204] need for self-validation was, in this view, of greater importance in the determination of choices and events than were such elements as factor and skill endowments or consumer demand—or, as Wittner urges, “the Meiji cultural materialists were able to take technology and technological artifacts and use them to create their own social and cultural frameworks” (p. 100). Wittner divides his period into phases of such “techno-identity formation,” with 1868 to 1877 being one of wholesale adoption and imitation, and 1878 to the mid-1890s being a period of selective technopolitical restructuring, followed by the last phase of a conservative, nationalist militarization during which the official focus was on China as a threat rather the West as a model.

It seems clear that this volume may be of interest to historians of technology and to a variety of students and faculty, ranging from those concerned with cultural change and exchange through to students of Japanese industrial history, and in a supplementary sense those of East Asian development and history. The style is accessible and the publishers have produced a nice volume.

In such a short treatment—only 129 pages without its paraphernalia— and with such a broad remit, there are bound to be problems. The reasons for selecting the two particular cases of supposed technology failure are not well explained, and this is not a necessary technique in cultural history by any means. There is something of a dated look to the text, with few books of the late 1990s and beyond being used, although doing so would include later work of authors whose earlier work is used or listed, such as Earl H. Kinmonth, James R. Bartholomew, and Ryōshin Minami. Thus a text nominated as a “seminal work” by Tessa Morris-Suzuki gets little critical mention thereafter. It seems strange for Wittner not to have even mentioned—never mind burrowed into—sociologist...


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