Industrial Heritage

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Osamu Kamei

    Main guest

    Osamu Kamei is the vice-director of the Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology at the National Museum of Nature and Science. He specializes in the history of science and technology in industry and conducts research on the effects that industry has on humans and society.


June 5, 2018

Industrial Heritage

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A mere 150 years ago, while countries in the West and elsewhere were undergoing rapid industrialization, Japan was still a traditional, agricultural society ruled by samurai and closed off from the rest of the world. But after Japan's borders opened in the 19th century, the country quickly modernized, putting itself on a technological footing with the industrialized world within a matter of decades. This time on Japanology Plus, we look at Japan's rapid industrial growth, both in the 19th century and again after the devastation of the Second World War.

As we learn on the program, Japan underwent massive changes in a short period of time following the end of its sakoku (closed country) period, which lasted from the 1630s to 1853. That year saw the arrival of naval ships from the United States, commanded by Matthew Perry (the commodore, not the actor!), who combined skillful negotiation and intimidating weaponry to win access to Japan's ports.

Returning in 1854 to sign a treaty, Perry brought with him a scale model of a steam locomotive, which was assembled on the seashore. Featuring a train big enough to ride in, this demonstration of industrial technology must have left a huge impression on those in attendance.


This ship, the Hikawa Maru, was built in 1930. Just decades earlier, Japan emerged from the age of the samurai.


Host Peter Barakan tours the Hikawa Maru, which included technology that was very advanced for its time.

The opening of the country to foreign influence for the first time in two centuries had many consequences, one of which was a new political arrangement. Power moved from the shogun to the emperor and his advisors. This transition, known as the Meiji Restoration, included the so-called Charter Oath, a set of aims for the Meiji era. The last of the five clauses set out in the Charter Oath called for knowledge to be "sought throughout the world," enshrining modernization as an official aim of the government.

And modernize Japan did. The program features several Japanese industries that quickly became world class, including silk production—aided by new, modern machines—and international travel, namely by ship. But there are numerous other examples of the rapid rise of Japanese industry. Take railroads, for instance, starting in 1872 with the line between Tokyo and Yokohama. By 1895, there were over 3,000 kilometers of track running throughout the country. Cotton is another example of an industry that underwent rapid expansion: from 8,000 spindles in 1877 to 382,000 in 1893.


As they restore steam locomotives like this one, modern workers have been amazed by the ingenuity of the engineering they encounter.


In Plus One, Matt Alt visits a historic silk mill in Gunma Prefecture.

Following the Second World War, which devastated Japan, industrialization began again, essentially from scratch. Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Osamu Kamei touch briefly on the post-war "economic miracle," in which Japan was able to rebound quickly and become a world leader in manufacturing.

That miracle has been attributed to several factors. One identified by many scholars is the concept of lifetime employment, in which a worker enters a kind of symbiosis with a company. Though staying at the same company through retirement may seem antithetical to modern attitudes, in the postwar period the sense of security and stability offered by lifetime employment was paramount, and workers devoted themselves to producing results for their firms.


Norio Kanaya, the captain of the permanently-docked, but still technically seaworthy, Hikawa Maru, shows Peter Barakan around.

Another factor identified in contributing to the economic miracle: the conspicuous saving habits of Japanese households compared to their counterparts in many other industrialized economies. Again, perhaps due to the influence of the lean years of the war, families took a conservative approach to saving, with a great deal of income going into the coffers for a rainy day. In addition to functioning as insulation against downturns, these savings served as funds for banks, which played a key role in supporting the growth of industry.

Japan's economic high times came to an end with the bursting of the economic bubble in the 1990s. But, as Kamei notes, there is a silver lining to Japan's current economic situation. As many economists around the world have observed, constant growth is simply unsustainable on a global level. Now, countries like Japan have the chance to take the lead in a new kind of innovation: a pivot from growth to a focus on quality of life.


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