Institutional change in Meiji Japan: image and reality
The substantial institutional and organisational changes in Japan that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868 have often gone down in history as an unmitigated success story. The objective of this paper is to analyse the course of the Meiji reform process to indicate how far it might offer any lessons for institutional and organisational reform in Japan at the start of the twenty-first century. I argue that the reality of the Meiji transformation was invariably more problematic than the successful image often portrayed. Analysis of the Meiji experience of three key areas at the heart of current debates in Japan financial institutions, business enterprise and the labour market suggests that in all three cases the process of institutional and organisational change before the First World War was slow and sporadic. The transformation was stimulated by a sense of national urgency and driven by political will. I suggest that great caution needs to be exercised in drawing any lessons for contemporary Japan from the Meiji experience, but that the analysis suggests firstly that it is unrealistic to expect fundamental institutional change within a very short time span, and secondly that the relative merits of importing new institutions and modifying existing ones are rarely clear cut. A further key difference between the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries is also the nature of the global economy, and Japan’s radically different position within it.
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