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Q4. Why was Japan able to transform so efficiently to modernity?

Japan was able to make the transition to an industrial nation state while maintaining its own unique Japanese values of loyalty to the group and the emperor. For example, the Japanese corporation that evolved during this period can largely be seen as an updated version of the paternalistic feudal state, where the workers (peasants) owe lifelong loyalty and service to the company (lord) in return for its protection of their welfare. Japan’s transformation into a major power can be seen as taking place in three successive stages: political and social reforms, industrial and military reforms, and early expansion.

Japan went through several Western-style political and social reforms to create the conditions conducive to industrial and military modernization while maintaining a distinctive Japanese character. In order to destroy Japan’s feudal structure, the Meiji government replaced Japan’s old provinces with seventy-two modern districts. As in the West, all class distinctions were abolished. This especially hurt the Samurai who now were even forbidden to wear their swords or distinctive hairdos. Public education became mandatory for all boys and girls in order to create an educated work force and instill a spirit of nationalism in them. A European style parliament was formed, but like its German model, it had little real power. The emperor kept his exalted position while Shinto was made the state religion, both of these providing points of focus for Japanese national loyalty.

With the political and social reforms in place, the Meiji government proceeded to industrialize Japan, concentrating on heavy and strategic industries: railroads, the merchant marine, mining, modern agricultural techniques, munitions, and the navy. However, Japan had no large-scale capitalists. Therefore, the government, in keeping with Japan’s paternalistic tradition, paid for these industries and then sold them at low cost to a few private investors. These new capitalists, called the Zaibatsu (“money clique”), would come to control 70% of Japan’s bank deposits and heavily influence government policies, much as the daimyo (feudal lords) had done in previous times. Thus began the long-time alliance of government and big business, which is still a predominant feature of Japan today.

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