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01 / 05
Modernization and the Loss of Japan’s Samurai Culture Benefited the Japanese People

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Modernization and the Loss of Japan’s Samurai Culture Benefited the Japanese People

Economic, technological, industrial, and other progress radically improved the life of the ordinary Japanese citizen.

In the mid-19th century, Japan’s feudal society underwent a profound transformation during the Meiji Restoration, embracing Westernization and modernization. The shift from isolationism to openness resulted in rapid industrialization and technological advancements, improving living standards, education, and social mobility for ordinary citizens. This article examines Japan’s journey from a closed society to a prosperous nation, dispelling romanticized notions of the “good old days” and highlighting the benefits of progress and innovation.


Imagine you’re a farmer in Japan in 1850. You pay homage to your feudal lord, wear clothes of plain cotton, eat rice and fish, and are mostly preoccupied with surviving the occasional famine and outbreaks of disease. You likely have no education. Fifty years later, life has changed beyond recognition. Farmers now have an education, have fertilizer to farm with, have access to vaccination, and can use the telegraph and the postal service. They have more money to spend, more leisure time, and access to mass media.

The 2003 movie The Last Samurai portrays Japan during this period of modernization. The film laments the loss of traditional samurai culture amid rising Westernization. The film is inspired by the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt from disaffected samurai amid the loss of their privileged position in society.

Longing for a privileged past is not unique to Japan; many in Europe romanticize the medieval era as one of knightly chivalry. However, such portrayals usually look at history through rose-tinted glasses. The “good old days” is a common fallacy, with facts becoming more distorted the further one looks back in history.

What really happened in the era of The Last Samurai?

The period takes places after the Meiji Restoration, showcasing the Westernization of Japan. Before this period, Japan was ruled by Tokugawa shogunate, a military dictatorship that had dominated the island for over 260 years. It imposed the foreign policy of Sakoku—that is, one of extreme isolationism. Aiming to reduce the spread of Christianity and cement the power of the shogun, the islands of Japan became closed to foreigners. No one was allowed to enter or leave Japan, and foreign trade was virtually nonexistent. (There was some trade allowed from the Dutch through the island of Kyushu, notably in porcelain.) This period was one of peace, which many in Japan welcomed after the Sengoku Jidai (a period of civil war) of the 1500s.

Conservatives in Japan welcomed this closing of the country to foreign influence. At the time, Japan was dominated by the samurai class. Samurai, while traditionally warriors, had moved in peacetime to become aristocratic bureaucrats at the service of their daimyo, a feudal lord. Samurai had a monopoly on military force and controlled most of education. Merchants were seen as a lower class, even lower than farmers. Feudalism, a system where a lord would rent out land in return for labor from the peasantry, had ended in parts of Europe around 1500. Whereas competition among European powers had created the emergence of a middle class, Japan had remained socially, technologically, and militarily stagnant from 1639 onwards.

As described by Mitsutomo Yuasa in his study The Scientific Revolution in Nineteenth Century Japan:

The traditional society (feudalism) before the Meiji Restoration, namely the age of Edo of Tokugawa Shogunate, was based on pre-Newtonian science and technology, and on pre-Newtonian attitudes towards the physical world.

In 1853, Japanese isolationism came to an end. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry demonstrating a textbook example of gunboat diplomacy, the United States forced an end to Japanese isolationism and the opening of Japanese ports to American trade. In the years that followed, Japan established diplomatic relations with the Western Great Powers and underwent a collapse of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate.

Japan then went through a period of rapid modernization, importing Western technology, ideas, and culture. Ian Inkster describes the impact:

By 1855, Western machinery and factory organization had been introduced at Nagasaki for the maintenance of warships, and a spurt of building began in 1860 under Dutch leadership. It was Englishmen who in 1867 constructed the first steam powered spinning plant, the Kagoshima Spinning Factory. . . . By 1882, the Osaka Spinning Company operated 16 mules, 10,500 spindles and was practically powered by steam. . . . From 1870 to 1872, 245 railway engineers arrived in Japan from Europe. . . . Telegraphic communication was also established by the British from 1871.

The industries that were revolutionized by foreign influence included the iron industry, mining, railways, electricity, civil engineering, medicine, administration, shipbuilding, porcelain, earthenware, glass, brewing, sugar, chemicals, gunpowder, and cement manufacture. Japan developed its staple industry and export product, silk manufacturing and spinning, under guidance from a Swedish engineer using Italian methods. The silk industry also employed a large amount of female labor in Japan, with more women in the industrial labor force in Japan than in any other country in Asia.

The development of technological innovations improved Japanese industry. Ryoshin Minami showed the growth in total horsepower between 1891 and 1937 was in the order of 13 percent annually. The figure below shows the growth rate of development of primary industries during the period between 1887 and 1920, as well as overall economic growth. In many of the years during that period, growth in private non-primary fixed capital was in the double digits.

By the 1890s, Japanese textiles dominated the home markets and competed successfully with British products in China and India. Japanese shippers were competing with European traders to carry these goods across Asia and even to Europe.

The Satsuma Rebellion occurred in 1877, as Japanese government restricted the ability to carry a katana (long sword) in public. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the right to bear arms, the reduction in the power of the samurai class was a win for ordinary Japanese people. Having access to modern medical techniques, transportation, and goods benefited the whole society, rather than just feudal elites. Indeed, many of the samurai were able to adapt to their new roles in a modern Japan, working in business or government. In the 1880s, 23 percent of prominent Japanese businessmen were from the samurai class. By the 1920s, the number had grown to 35 percent.

By 1925, universal manhood suffrage had been implemented, a stark contrast from the Tokugawa shogunate. The social structure had loosened, allowing societal advancement far more easily than in the feudal era. By 1897, 95 percent of citizens were receiving some form of formal education, in contrast to 3 percent in 1853. With a more educated population, Japan’s industrial sector grew significantly. Of course, the new system still had its problems, such as labor strikes and industrial unrest. However, Westernization brought far more economic freedom to the Japanese people. Attitudes to commerce changed. Merchants rose from being the lowest class to becoming a vital part of the burgeoning middle class.

In Japan, progress was seen in economics, science, technology, education, consumer goods, industry, and social mobility. Society and the traditional order had been uprooted, in an example of Schumpeterian “creative destruction.” The inflow of new ideas, of new ways of doing things, allowed people to become freer, wealthier, healthier, and better educated. The opening of Japan was fundamentally an opening to progress. By isolating itself, Japan fell behind the rest of the world. As it opened itself to competition, it was able to catch up, and in some cases, surpass other countries. And the ordinary citizen of Japan was better for it.

Blog Post | Science & Education

Introducing Our Upcoming Book, Heroes of Progress

Over the past two centuries, humanity has become massively more prosperous, better educated, healthier, and more peaceful.

The underlying cause of this progress is innovation. Human innovation―whether it be new ideas, inventions, or systems―is the primary way people create wealth and escape poverty.

Our upcoming book, Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World, explores the lives of the most important innovators who have ever lived, from agronomists who saved billions from starvation and intellectuals who changed public policy for the better, to businesspeople whose innovations helped millions rise from poverty.

If it weren’t for the heroes profiled in this book, we’d all be far poorer, sicker, hungrier, and less free―if we were fortunate enough to be alive at all.

Considering their impact on humanity, perhaps it’s time to learn their story?

Heroes of Progress Book Forum

On March 21st, the author of Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond, will present the book live at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He will be joined by Marian Tupy, the editor of Human Progress, and Clay Routledge, the Archbridge Institute’s Vice President of Research, who will speak on the individual’s role in advancing human progress and the need for a cultural progress movement.

Learn more about the event here.

Praise for Heroes of Progress

Making an inspiring case for progress at this time of skepticism and historical ingratitude is no easy feat. Yet, by relentlessly outlining the extraordinary ability of individuals to shape our world for the better, Alexander Hammond does just that.

Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Innovation is a team sport achieved by people working together, using precious freedoms to change the world, so it’s sometimes invidious to single out one person for credit. But once an idea is ripe for plucking, the right person at the right time can seize it and save a million lives or open a million possibilities. Each of these 65 people did that, and their stories are both thrilling and beautiful.

Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

The figures in this book are the overlooked and often unknown figures who have transformed the lives of ordinary people, for the better… This book is a correction to widespread pessimism and is both informative and inspirational.

Dr. Stephen Davies, author of The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Superman and the Avengers are all very well, of course, but the real superheroes are thinkers, scientists, and innovators of flesh and blood who saved us from a life that used to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Alexander Hammond tells their inspiring stories in this magnificent book that will leave you grateful to be living in the world these men and women created.

— Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progress

The 65 innovators honored here made us happier, healthier, and longer-lived. Indeed, it is thanks to some of them that we are here at all. Their story is the story of how the human race acquired powers once attributed to gods and sorcerers―the story of how we overcame hunger, disease, ignorance, and squalor. I defy anyone to read this book and not feel better afterwards.

Lord Daniel Hannan, president of the Institute for Free Trade

The 65 fascinating stories in Heroes of Progress are
testaments to the ingenuity of humankind in delivering a richer,
healthier, and hopefully freer world. Alexander C. R. Hammond
provides an inspirational reminder that when individuals are
free to speak, think, innovate, and engage in open markets, the
heroic potential of humanity knows no bounds.

Lord Syed Kamall, Professor of politics and international relations, St. Mary’s University

In Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond reminds us that human minds are the fundamental driver of every discovery, invention, and innovation that has improved our lives. By telling the stories of pioneering men and women who have advanced civilization, this book not only honors past heroes of progress, but also provides inspiration for the next generation to use their uniquely human imaginative and enterprising capacities to build a better future.

— Clay Routledge, Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute

Blog Post | Pregnancy & Birth

China’s Fertility Flip-Flop Shows the Folly of Legislating Family Sizes

Keep central planning out of family planning.

This article was published in National Review on 1/18/2024.

After decades of the disastrous policy of limiting family growth by force, China, according to news reports, is now pestering its women through text messages and social media to have more babies. This meddling by the state, like past coercion, is counterproductive. China should stop telling couples how many children to have. Keep central planning out of family planning, and families will flourish.

Not content to regulate life outside the household, authoritarians have a long history of intervening in family affairs. The Chinese Communist Party’s recent family-policy flip-flop is unsurprising. Throughout history, communist countries have alternated between coercive measures aiming to produce larger families and ones intended to shrink the average family size. China’s one-child policy, for instance, was in force for 36 years (1979–2015).

Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union financially penalized those without children, enacting a so-called “childless tax” that the country enforced from 1941 to 1990 in various degrees. The tax punished childless men between the ages of 20 and 50 and childless women between the ages of 20 and 45. A decree in 1944 expanded the childless tax to also penalize parents who had merely one or two children.

Communist Romania and Poland (post–World War II) implemented similar taxes modeled on the Soviet law. Those taxes, like their inspiration, lasted until the collapse of the USSR bloc in 1991. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania went furthest of all, enacting strict prohibitions on birth control that resulted in a large number of abandoned children whose parents often could not afford to raise them.

The conditions in the communist nation’s overcrowded orphanages — nicknamed “child gulags” — were nightmarish. Yet signs at the inhumane institutions mockingly boasted, “The state can take better care of your child than you can.”

If communists are consistent on one point, it is that the state knows best. Always. Even when it comes to how many children each couple should bring into the world. Where communists have been inconsistent, though, is on whether that number ought to be higher or lower.

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, it became fashionable among intellectuals around the world to worry about “overpopulation,” a concept that overwhelming evidence has since called into question. The resulting panic had its darkest manifestation in China’s one‐​child policy, which saw more than 300 million Chinese women fitted with intrauterine devices modified to be irremovable without surgery, over 100 million sterilizations, and over 300 million abortions, an unknown share of which were coerced.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency has boasted that the one-child policy prevented 400 million births. “Excess birth” fines could reach up to ten times a family’s annual disposable income.

Revenue-hungry local officials continued to fine families and enforce childbearing limits even after the country loosened its one-child policy to a two-child policy (2016–2021) and then loosened it further into a three-child policy. As China’s officials grew increasingly concerned about the population’s aging and shrinking, the three-child policy was, at last, rendered merely symbolic in 2023.

Yet China’s vast population-planning bureaucracy remains in place and could easily be reoriented toward attempts to coercively engineer the size of the country’s population upward. In a CCP-run paper, some Chinese academics have called for a tax on childlessness.

And China is not alone. Some Russian politicians also would like to reinstate a childless tax (Russia’s leaders have been toying with the idea for more than a decade).

Today, while unfounded overpopulation fears retain popularity in some circles, plummeting global birth rates have led the pendulum of policy-maker opinion to swing toward the idea that the world might benefit from more, rather than fewer, children. The number of countries with “raising fertility” as an explicit policy objective keeps rising.

Thankfully, in most cases such initiatives do not involve coercion. From South Korea to Estonia, various countries have tried offering government subsidies, expensive new state programs, cash bonuses, or similar incentives to encourage their citizens to have larger families. But an overview of past efforts to alter birth rates, whether upward or downward, shows that such efforts have had lackluster results at best and resulted in tragic human-rights abuses at worst.

Rather than pursuing new initiatives that are costly and questionably effective, and risk wading into the territory of social engineering or worse, policy-makers concerned about birth rates should take a “first do no harm” approach to fertility.

As my colleague Vanessa Calder and I outlined in a recent policy paper, removing government rules and regulations that disproportionately affect families would enhance families’ freedom of choice and may reduce the cost of child-rearing enough to boost fertility. In other words, policy-makers can make it easier for parents to form the families they desire by simply stepping back and removing government barriers to fertility and family life.

The state’s thumb shouldn’t be on the scale of intimate family decisions, one way or the other. Reforming policies that artificially make family life harder offers a better way forward. Hopefully, policy-makers in China and elsewhere will come to recognize that.

New Scientist | Food Production

Genetically Modified Banana Approved by Regulators

“A genetically modified banana has been approved for growing on farms for the first time. Regulators in Australia and New Zealand have given the go-ahead to a strain of the Cavendish banana altered to be resistant to a devastating fungal disease that has spread to many countries worldwide.”

From New Scientist.