Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien nav lang search
Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Conceptualizing “Capitalism” in Japan in the Early Twentieth Century - A Transnational Intellectual History

Japan’s opening up to the world market and her incorporation into the global capitalist economy is often metaphorically signaled by the arrival of Commodore Mathew C. Perry’s black ships in 1853. After Japan was forced to open the first ports to foreign trade and foreign settlements in 1859, the country succeeded in establishing a national banking system, developing a number of textiles, engineering and other factories, creating railway, postal and telegraph networks in less than four decades. By the end of the 19th century, the new government that emerged from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 had gradually transformed Japan into a modern capitalist industrial economy.

However, reality and concept do not always go hand in hand. Although liberal classical economy was widely but randomly integrated into the curriculum of schools promoting foreign knowledge in the early Meiji era to equip the students with necessary skills in industry and commerce, it was not until 1899 that the Japanese intellectuals, economic elites, and later social activists started to conceptualize the current economic system in Japan and in the West with the imported term “capitalism” (or capitalist mode of production in Marxist jargon).

How the newly created term capitalism (or Kapitalismus/capitalisme) was translated and transformed into the Japanese word Shihonshugi 資本主義, still remains to be explored. Yet no different than other Western concepts such as “liberty”, “right”, or “civilization”, when entering Japan’s own intricate world of meaning, even a concept like “capitalism”, one that is conventionally related to cultural homogenization, had to be interpreted within the local context. More intricately, the making of the concept “capitalism” and its gradual transformation (Bedeutungswandel) is not merely a reflection of Japan’s economic ups and downs. It is only comprehensible in the interplay of the following three factors: first, the importation and institutionalization of knowledge of economics; second, Japan’s economic development; and third, social problems and social movement generated by it.

The construction of the concept “capitalism” in Japan and its colonies will illuminate the processes that fundamentally transformed the worldview in East Asia at the turn of the century. Based on extensive research of newspapers, journals, and monographs published by the first-generation Japanese professional economists and social scientists, this project explores how the concept “capitalism” gradually took shape in Japan in the interplay of the increasing global economic interconnectedness and the unprecedented intellectual entanglement in transporting Western social sciences. This project will focus on representative actors that particularly contributed to localizing the concept “capitalism” in Japan, illustrate their transnational experiences in Europe, the US and in parts of Asian-Pacific regions, and analyze how these experiences had been transformed into their interpretation of capitalism and their demonstrations in social/economic policy.

This research is part of the project “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific Region: Entanglements and Disentanglements” of the DIJ, in cooperation with its partner institutions in Washington, Moscow, Singapore, and Beijing. It is a sub-module of the Max Weber Foundation’s larger collaborative research project “Knowledge Unbound”, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.


Yufei Zhou
History of East Asian Social Sciences