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  • Industrial Arts and the Development of Japan's Industry (1932)
  • Kunii Kitarō (bio) and Penny Bailey

A Second Era of Reform in Japan's Manufacturing Industry

The unique developmental trajectory of Japan's manufacturing industry is attributable to a combination of our people's innate abilities, their sustained efforts at technical advancement, and the prevalence in our country of small, family-based enterprises. However, in addition to the current standstill in manufacturing precipitated by reforms initiated during the Meiji Restoration,1 the industry has been overwhelmed by the pressures accompanying the importation of Western culture, including capitalism and the introduction of modern industry. Although, on the one hand, the extraordinary growth brought about by scientific and economic gains should be lauded, on the other hand, our national artistic output built over several thousand years of carefully nurtured tradition has all but disappeared. In particular, the necessities of daily life produced for the general populace lack inspiration and have greatly deteriorated in quality. In turn, our exports have begun to stagnate. Combined with the substantial increase of unusual imported goods, we can only regard this decline in our own manufacturing standards as a great loss to our nation.

We cannot conduct our lives based purely on utilitarian concerns. Humans instinctively crave beauty. It goes without saying, therefore, that although utility is the principal concern in the production of goods for daily use, an aesthetic element that satisfies our desire for beauty is also necessary. Goods that are produced through the power of science or mechanization alone are not infused with the spirit of their creators. Furthermore, because they are so lacking in aesthetic elements, it is also true that we cannot derive satisfaction from such objects.

The stalemate created today by scientific civilization is regrettable not just in the industrial sphere, but generally. This is one adverse consequence of believing in the omnipotence of science. While in our manufacturing industry, the scientific methods [End Page 55] of production we employ are in general terms not inferior to those used in developed countries, in this age of fierce global economic competition each country must strive to eke out distinctive national markers if it is to achieve success. For this reason, the way forward in our own manufacturing industry is to concentrate on producing industrial arts (kōgei)2 for the people – that is, arts not only based on Japan's unique industrial art techniques, but that also incorporate modern approaches to spirit and technology.3 In other words, we should devote all our energies to raising the value of our commodities by enriching their aesthetic content, which is deficient in the industrial goods produced in the rapid progress following the Meiji Restoration. In recent times, this approach has generated lively debate in some intellectual circles and is commendable if for no other reason than that it has brought the issue of promoting the industrial arts to prominence in a number of areas.

If we regard the changes wrought by Western imports in the early years of the Meiji period as constituting the first era of reform in our domestic manufacturing industry, then the recent innovative movement toward the production of industrial arts must surely be regarded as the second.

International Protectionism and Japan's Response

Observing the recent trends in industrial policies the world over, one can discern that each nation strives to prioritize its domestic industry by curtailing the importation of foreign goods and by creating export goods with a local flavor. Japan itself is in the process of establishing such practices, by encouraging the sale of domestic products, promoting exports, and attempting to attract foreign buyers. However, the most effective strategy, I believe, will hinge on our ability to promote the production of industrial arts in Japan. We have limited natural resources compared to the industrialized nations; moreover, we lag behind in scientific and managerial capacities. Given such circumstances, it is both difficult to compete adequately with overseas goods and futile to strive to promote our domestic products. Japan has an abundance of industrial arts built on thousands of years of carefully preserved tradition, which we should be proudly displaying to the international community. The time has come to harness...


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pp. 55-61
Launched on MUSE
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