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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 34 (2002) 165-175

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History of Economics in Japan:
A Turning Point

Aiko Ikeo

Japanese historians of economics stand at a crossroads. For many of them, the history of economics (hereafter HE) is a subtype of Western study that is discussed in Japanese. Faced with the internationalization of economics, they should look for new directions, such as the awakening of a keen interest in contemporary economic discussion and the publication of their studies in English.


At the high school level, standard textbooks on politics and economy (seiji keizai) include at least an hour-long class on HE. It usually introduces three major economists and their main works, namely, Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations (1776), Karl Marx and his Das Kapital (1867–94), and John Maynard Keynes and his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936). These works are placed in a historical context and are recognized as results of specific economic stages after the capitalist production system began to evolve. Some discuss David Ricardo's comparative advantage theory of production cost. High school students naturally get the impression that economics was [End Page 165] born in Britain in the eighteenth century, was critically assessed by a German scholar in the nineteenth century, and was introduced into Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.

At the undergraduate level in Japan, HE is usually taught in departments of economics and sometimes in departments of commerce. HE is compulsory for economics students at some universities, and often is taught to first- or second-year students as a sort of introduction to economics. It is expected that students will learn economic ideas and economic history and will get a general idea of what economics is. In lectures, Western canonical authors are invariably included, whereas Japanese thinkers are not necessarily covered. Takashi Negishi (1997, 3) suggests that the main body of contemporary economic theories has been so formalized that students may feel very far removed from it. Therefore, it is important for students to experience what earlier economists have gone through by trial and error.

HE is also taught to third- or fourth-year students reflecting research conducted by the professor teaching the course. Some larger departments of economics, which have relatively sizable faculties, provide courses on the history of Japanese economic thought and the history of social thought as well as HE. Economic thought is regarded as something common to people from every cultural background and is usually differentiated from social thought, which is peculiar to a given culture. In lectures of HE at this level, the majority of professors aim to teach students multiple points of view on economic issues and make them understand that there is more than one solution for each economic problem. For example, there are theoretically four or more solutions to the problem of high unemployment:

  1. Emigration should be recommended in the case of excess population (neo-Malthusian view).
  2. Keynesian fiscal policy is needed in the case of demand deficiency.
  3. The capitalist production system should be abolished if a reserved army is necessary for the system. There should be a better, different socialist system than those of the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe.
  4. Structural reforms, including those in financial and construction sectors, are needed if growth-oriented policies lose effectiveness.

Although this example is perhaps too formal, the majority of HE scholars are critical of mainstream economics because it is too rigid and [End Page 166] theoretical, lacking regard for cultural or historical elements. HE is recommended to give students a pluralist point of view in the study of economics.

At the undergraduate level, some economists who do not belong to the Japanese Society for the History of Economic Thought (JSHET) occasionally teach HE. They usually do not think of themselves as historians of economic thought. At the same time, some scholars who are members of JSHET do not teach HE at their universities, but rather teach an introduction to, or outline of, economics at departments of education, law, science, and engineering...


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