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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.

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.

Our World in Data | Rights & Freedoms

Human Rights Have Improved in All Regions over the Last Century

“Human rights are much better protected in all world regions than a century ago, according to data by Varieties of Democracy.

This recently updated chart shows an index that captures human rights. The index ranges from 0 (least rights) to 1 (most). As you can see, every world region scored significantly higher in 2023 than 100 years ago.

Although progress has not been steady, and there have been setbacks — including in recent years — the overall improvements have been substantial. These trends remain when giving more weight to countries with larger populations.

While progress has been made in all world regions, there are still big disparities across them, with Africa and Asia lagging behind. And the strong protections on other continents show that further global progress is possible.”

From Our World in Data.

Blog Post | Financial Market Development

The Democratization of Investment | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Jennifer Schulp about how technology and regulation are shaping the future of investment.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Tell me about some hopeful trends or progress we are seeing in the financial industry.

One of the most hopeful trends in the financial industry is broader access to financial investment. Traditionally, investment in the stock market has been limited to the wealthy. Investing in the stock market is really important because, over the past decades, the S&P 500 has returned approximately 8 percent per year, which is way more than other non-equity investments.

Financial access has improved tremendously over the last 50 years. In the mid-70s, to make a stock trade, you had to call your broker on the phone and tell them what you wanted to trade, and they would charge you something like $50. So, you didn’t want to place a trade unless you were placing a large trade because otherwise, the fee would overwhelm the trade. And you didn’t want to trade very often. All of it made it very difficult for regular people to invest in the stock market. Over the course of decades, those fees came down as there was additional competition brought into the brokerage space.

In the 1990s, we saw the rise of internet trading, which allowed you to place trades on your own. In 2015, Robinhood started offering no-commission trading on a phone app, which allows people to trade regularly without worrying about fees eating into their profits or adding to their losses. People can now take some money from each paycheck and put it in the stock market. That’s been huge. The entire brokerage industry is now moving towards phone access for easy, cheap trading, and that’s made a huge difference in the number and type of people accessing investment in the stock market.

In 2020, during the pandemic, we saw a massive rise in retail trading that many wrote off to people being bored while they were stuck in their homes. However, a lot of those investors have remained in the market, so what might have started as a pandemic-induced interest in the stock market has become part of a long-term trend towards additional retail trading that has brought in more racial minorities, more low-income people, and more young people.

Easy and cheap trading has also allowed people to experiment with the stock market and learn by doing. There was a study that came out not too long ago by FINRA and NORC at the University of Chicago that looked at the investors who opened accounts in 2020. And they found that those who stayed in the market showed an increase in their financial literacy. Having this access helped them allocate their capital better. So, we have more people invested in the larger economy, and they are getting smarter about it. The benefits will compound over time.

What are some of those potential benefits?

Certainly better personal financial outcomes. Of course, some people are going to make poor decisions. You can’t say, “Because you put money in the market, you’ll be better off.” But for people looking for long-term investment options, the stock market is the greatest wealth generator we’ve ever seen.

I think this could also drive economic growth for a couple of reasons. One, investment gives people a stake in society and the economy, and that itself can drive growth. Two, having retail investors put money that might otherwise be under the mattress or in a low-interest savings account into businesses allows those businesses to flourish.

Are there any benefits for those who are trying to start businesses?

That brings up a new set of questions. What we’ve been talking about so far has been retail investment in public equities markets. But the stock market doesn’t generally provide startup capital. You have to be a mature company to want to bring an initial public offering that gets you listed on the stock exchange. Private market investing is where startup investing happens. And in the United States, far more money is raised in private markets than in public markets. The average person is not allowed to partake in private investment in the United States, as well as in most economies across the world. In the US, you need to be what’s known as an accredited investor, which essentially means you make more than $200,000 a year or you have a net worth of over a million dollars.

This is a very arbitrary standard. You could win the lottery tomorrow and suddenly become an accredited investor, and that doesn’t make you any smarter at investing than you were the day before. It doesn’t make you any more of a capable investor than someone who, say, studied startup investing in their MBA program but isn’t yet making enough money to be allowed to invest themselves. And all of this is a problem because it means the government is standing in the investor’s shoes and making decisions for them. Are they smart enough? Are they rich enough? Is this a good idea for them?

Let’s talk about entrepreneurs, as you asked. People trying to start businesses tend to turn to their community. They tend to raise money from the people that they know best. But if you are a minority or live in a rural or low-income area, you likely don’t know many people who meet that accredited investor standard. You’re already at a disadvantage in raising money and getting your business off the ground. That hurts entrepreneurs in less wealthy communities, the economy as a whole, and potential investors who don’t have the opportunity to share in the growth of that business.

The house recently passed three bills looking to reform the accredited investor definition; two have codified an SEC modification to the rule allowing people who have passed certain securities tests, such as brokers or investment advisors, to qualify as accredited investors, even if they’re not wealthy enough. The third bill is a bit broader; it opens up the testing concept to allow, if passed by the Senate and signed by the President, anyone who passes a test to be able to invest as an accredited investor. There will be costs associated with the testing, and it doesn’t get at the underlying paternalism, but it is a step in the right direction.

Could you talk about ESG?

ESG is actually two distinct concepts, and it’s important to identify which one we’re talking about. It can be broken down into a dichotomy that I’ve borrowed, which is value versus values investing.

“Value investing” in the form of ESG just refers to using environmental, social, or governance factors to analyze whether a company faces risks that might affect its financial performance. Where ESG sounds a little bit different is when we think about it as “values investing.” That kind of ESG is about sacrificing financial return to reach a certain outcome with your investment, like lowering carbon emissions. Of course, investors should be free to invest their money as they see fit. If they want to invest in saving the whales, they should have that opportunity. But it gets trickier when a company or asset management firm makes those decisions about what to do with their investors’ money without being upfront with them. That’s a question of disclosure and whether or not the funds are being clear with investors.

Government mandates are the key place to focus on here because, ultimately, the market should decide whether investing in ESG is the right way to go. Europe has decided, writ large, that the way to tackle climate change is to centrally plan how money will flow through the financial system to choke off funds for non-green investment. Supporting that is a host of European directives on sustainable finance that include a lot of disclosure by companies about how they, too, will meet net-zero goals. Europe has what we in the securities industry refer to as a “double materiality standard,” where European companies are not only supposed to disclose information that might impact the company’s financial performance but also how their company impacts society and the environment. All of this comes with pretty heavy costs.

The United States is now considering how far to follow Europe down that line. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has proposed a sweeping climate risk disclosure framework. It’s different from the European framework in that the SEC at least recognizes that they don’t get double materiality; the SEC is only allowed to require companies to disclose information that investors might find useful in deciding whether to invest in the company. However, the SEC’s climate risk disclosure rule goes well beyond that. It would require all US public companies to disclose an awful lot of information about climate risk, including scope one, scope two, and, for many companies, scope three, greenhouse gas emissions. What’s important here is that this type of disclosure is not a small undertaking. It’s going to be a massive drag on public companies.

You also oppose government rules that would restrict voluntary ESG-related disclosures. Can you tell me about that?

Sure. There’s been some legislation introduced, some of it passed, from state-level Republican legislatures that prohibits the use of ESG in investment. But this broad prohibition is also not the right answer. In fact, it is itself values-based and seeks to impose an ideology onto investing.

In addition, there are real costs to blanket prohibitions of ESG. One is that ESG as value investing can sometimes yield better returns. Pensions in some states that have introduced legislation to prohibit the consideration of ESG factors have released analyses showing that over the course of 10 years, the pensions might be losing billions of dollars in returns by having their investment pool artificially limited.

Another example is Texas, which prohibits localities from doing business with financial firms that are, quote, “boycotting the fossil fuel industry.” A study done not too long ago showed that the cost of municipal borrowing has gone up in Texas because many firms exited the market, meaning taxpayers in Texas are now paying more for municipal building projects. We shouldn’t forget that narrowing the scope of investment opportunities also narrows the opportunities for growth.

Could you speak about the potential impact of AI on investment and the financial industry?

Many people don’t understand how much AI is already part of the investment industry. For example, AI is already involved with investment research, predicting stock value, and portfolio management. That’s all going on behind the scenes.

I think that there’s real potential with respect to financial advice. AI could make investment advice as accessible as trading on your phone is today. For a long time, we’ve had what are known as robo-advisors, which are essentially chatbots with a narrow tree of advice based on a set of questions. More sophisticated large language models could give individualized investment advice that considers all sorts of circumstances at a very low cost. In the future, you may be able to go on your computer or phone and tell the LLM, here’s what my investments look like; what should I do next? That’s powerful stuff, assuming that the regulators allow something like that to happen.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 50

Jennifer Schulp: The Democratization of Investment

Jennifer Schulp, the director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss how technology and regulation are shaping the future of investment.

Axios | Air Transport

Amazon Gets FAA Approval to Expand Drone Deliveries

“The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized Amazon’s delivery drones to fly longer distances without visual spotters, a key hurdle that will allow the retailer to expand its fledgling Prime Air service…

Now that it has FAA approval to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS),’ Amazon says it will begin scaling drone delivery service to more customers. First, it will start delivering to more densely populated areas of College Station, Texas (one of its initial test markets). Later this year, Amazon will begin drone deliveries in Phoenix — using a faster, lighter next-generation drone that will be integrated alongside trucks and vans into an existing fulfillment center. It expects to rapidly roll out the service worldwide over the next few years.”

From Axios.