fbpx
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.

Summary: 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 | Energy & Natural Resources

The Simon Abundance Index 2024

The Earth was 509.4 percent more abundant in 2023 than it was in 1980.

The Simon Abundance Index (SAI) quantifies and measures the relationship between resources and population. The SAI converts the relative abundance of 50 basic commodities and the global population into a single value. The index started in 1980 with a base value of 100. In 2023, the SAI stood at 609.4, indicating that resources have become 509.4 percent more abundant over the past 43 years. All 50 commodities were more abundant in 2023 than in 1980.

Figure 1: The Simon Abundance Index: 1980–2023 (1980 = 100)

The SAI is based on the ideas of University of Maryland economist and Cato Institute senior fellow Julian Simon, who pioneered research on and analysis of the relationship between population growth and resource abundance. If resources are finite, Simon’s opponents argued, then an increase in population should lead to higher prices and scarcity. Yet Simon discovered through exhaustive research over many years that the opposite was true. As the global population increased, virtually all resources became more abundant. How is that possible?

Simon recognized that raw materials without the knowledge of how to use them have no economic value. It is knowledge that transforms raw materials into resources, and new knowledge is potentially limitless. Simon also understood that it is only human beings who discover and create knowledge. Therefore, resources can grow infinitely and indefinitely. In fact, human beings are the ultimate resource.

Visualizing the Change

Resource abundance can be measured at both the personal level and the population level. We can use a pizza analogy to understand how that works. Personal-level abundance measures the size of an individual pizza slice. Population-level abundance measures the size of the entire pizza pie. The pizza pie can get larger in two ways: the slices can get larger, or the number of slices can increase. Both can happen at the same time.

Growth in resource abundance can be illustrated by comparing two box charts. Create the first chart, representing the population on the horizontal axis and personal resource abundance on the vertical axis. Draw a yellow square to represent the start year of 1980. Index both population and personal resource abundance to a value of one. Then draw a second chart for the end year of 2023. Use blue to distinguish this second chart. Scale it horizontally for the growth in population and vertically for the growth in personal resource abundance from 1980. Finally, overlay the yellow start-year chart on the blue end-year chart to see the difference in resource abundance between 1980 and 2023.

Figure 2: Visualization of the Relationship between Global Population Growth and Personal Resource Abundance of the 50 Basic Commodities (1980–2023)

Between 1980 and 2023, the average time price of the 50 basic commodities fell by 70.4 percent. For the time required to earn the money to buy one unit of this commodity basket in 1980, you would get 3.38 units in 2023. Consequently, the height of the vertical personal resource abundance axis in the blue box has risen to 3.38. Moreover, during this 43-year period, the world’s population grew by 3.6 billion, from 4.4 billion to over 8 billion, indicating an 80.2 percent increase. As such, the width of the blue box on the horizontal axis has expanded to 1.802. The size of the blue box, therefore, has grown to 3.38 by 1.802, or 6.094 (see the middle box in Figure 2).

As the box on the right shows, personal resource abundance grew by 238 percent; the population grew by 80.2 percent. The yellow start box has a size of 1.0, while the blue end box has a size of 6.094. That represents a 509.4 percent increase in population-level resource abundance. Population-level resource abundance grew at a compound annual rate of 4.3 percent over this 43-year period. Also note that every 1-percentage-point increase in population corresponded to a 6.35-percentage-point increase in population-level resource abundance (509.4 ÷ 80.2 = 6.35).

Individual Commodity Changes: 1980–2023

As noted, the average time price of the 50 basic commodities fell by 70.4 percent between 1980 and 2023. As such, the 50 commodities became 238.1 percent more abundant (on average). Lamb grew most abundant (675.1 percent), while the abundance of coal grew the least (30.7 percent).

Figure 3: Individual Commodities, Percentage Change in Time Price and Percentage Change in Abundance: 1980–2023

Individual Commodity Changes: 2022–2023

The SAI increased from a value of 520.1 in 2022 to 609.4 in 2023, indicating a 17.1 percent increase. Over those 12 months, 37 of the 50 commodities in the data set increased in abundance, while 13 decreased in abundance. Abundance ranged from a 220.8 percent increase for natural gas in Europe to a 38.9 percent decrease for oranges.

Figure 4: Individual Commodities, Percentage Change in Abundance: 2022–2023

Conclusion

After a sharp downturn between 2021 and 2022, which was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, government lockdowns and accompanying monetary expansion, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the SAI is making a strong recovery. As noted, since 1980 resource abundance has been increasing at a much faster rate than population. We call that relationship superabundance. We explore this topic in our book Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet.

Appendix A: Alternative Figure 1 with a Regression Line, Equation, R-Square, and Population

Appendix B: The Basic 50 Commodities Analysis: 1980–2023

Appendix C: Why Time Is Better Than Money for Measuring Resource Abundance

To better understand changes in our standard of living, we must move from thinking in quantities to thinking in prices. While the quantities of a resource are important, economists think in prices. This is because prices contain more information than quantities. Prices indicate if a product is becoming more or less abundant.

But prices can be distorted by inflation. Economists attempt to adjust for inflation by converting a current or nominal price into a real or constant price. This process can be subjective and contentious, however. To overcome such problems, we use time prices. What is most important to consider is how much time it takes to earn the money to buy a product. A time price is simply the nominal money price divided by the nominal hourly income. Money prices are expressed in dollars and cents, while time prices are expressed in hours and minutes. There are six reasons time is a better way than money to measure prices.

First, time prices contain more information than money prices do. Since innovation lowers prices and increases wages, time prices more fully capture the benefits of valuable new knowledge and the growth in human capital. To just look at prices without also looking at wages tells only half the story. Time prices make it easier to see the whole picture.

Second, time prices transcend the complications associated with converting nominal prices to real prices. Time prices avoid subjective and disputed adjustments such as the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the GDP Deflator or Implicit Price Deflator (IPD), the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index (PCE), and the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). Time prices use the nominal price and the nominal hourly income at each point in time, so inflation adjustments are not necessary.

Third, time prices can be calculated on any product with any currency at any time and in any place. This means you can compare the time price of bread in France in 1850 to the time price of bread in New York in 2023. Analysts are also free to select from a variety of hourly income rates to use as the denominator when calculating time prices.

Fourth, time is an objective and universal constant. As the American economist George Gilder has noted, the International System of Units (SI) has established seven key metrics, of which six are bounded in one way or another by the passage of time. As the only irreversible element in the universe, with directionality imparted by thermodynamic entropy, time is the ultimate frame of reference for almost all measured values.

Fifth, time cannot be inflated or counterfeited. It is both fixed and continuous.

Sixth, we have perfect equality of time with exactly 24 hours in a day. As such, we should be comparing time inequality, not income inequality. When we measure differences in time inequality instead of income inequality, we get an even more positive view of the global standards of living.

These six reasons make using time prices superior to using money prices for measuring resource abundance. Time prices are elegant, intuitive, and simple. They are the true prices we pay for the things we buy.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) track and report nominal prices on a wide variety of basic commodities. Analysts can use any hourly wage rate series as the denominator to calculate the time price. For the SAI, we created a proxy for global hourly income by using data from the World Bank and the Conference Board to calculate nominal GDP per hour worked.

With this data, we calculated the time prices for all 50 of the basic commodities for each year and then compared the change in time prices over time. If time prices are decreasing, personal resource abundance is increasing. For example, if a resource’s time price decreases by 50 percent, then for the same amount of time you get twice as much, or 100 percent more. The abundance of that resource has doubled. Or, to use the pizza analogy, an individual slice is twice as large. If the population increases by 25 percent over the same period, there will be 25 percent more slices. The pizza pie will thus be 150 percent larger [(2.0 x 1.25) – 1].

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System | Economic Growth

Income Growth Over Five Generations of Americans

“We find that each of the past four generations of Americans was better off than the previous one, using a post-tax, post-transfer income measure constructed annually from 1963-2022 based on the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement.”

From Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War