Book Review: A Political History of Japanese Capitalism

by tigermanifesto


A Political History of Japanese Capitalism is truly rare book: a Marxist history of modern Japan written in English. Though its author, Jon Halliday, later repented his left leanings and coauthored the execrable Mao: The Unknown Story, I’m happy to report that this book, published by Monthly Review Press in 1974, stands as one of the best encapsulations and analyses of its subject out there. Although a large number of Japanese Marxists have published and engaged in debates around Japanese history, these debates and works have almost never made their way into English except in the case of pure political economy. Halliday’s book, though it’s decades old, makes a compelling historical argument and sidesteps the Japan-bashing/mystification binary that plagues Western writing about Japan.

Halliday begins the book with a chapter-length study of the Meiji Restoration and its lengthy state-building and development projects. The author correctly notes that the birth of Japanese capitalism was unusual, as Japan was a late entrant and an Asian country and was nonetheless able produce its own autonomous national capitalism and to launch its own imperial project. Indeed, for a country as resource-poor as Japan, the latter was an indispensable condition for the former. Growing from the dissolving influence of the mercantile money economy and set into motion by the arrival of Western powers at Japan’s doorstep, Japanese capitalism underwent a crash development both politically and economically. The Meiji facilitated the repression of class dissent, the installation of an imperial “family state” distinguished by paternalistic ideology, and began a policy of expansionism and intervention in China and the wide region.

One crucial part of the story that Halliday tells is the reason why Japan did not simply slip into one or another European sphere of influence. His answer is found in his construction of a dialectic of internal and external causes. Japan was not conquered because its people were unusually literate and its political leadership astute and intimidating. Compared to China, as well, Japan did not present as alluring a target, and was able to wriggle its way out of the unequal treaties by the early 20th century. Indeed, China’s story is in many ways inextricable with Japan’s in this respect. The Opium War absorbed crucial British military resources and saved Japan from the threat of invasion. The Americans were on the advance across the Pacific but were burdened by the Civil War and Reconstruction. In other words, Halliday argues, Japan escaped both as a matter of internal strength and due to a mass of historical contingencies that were not repeated anywhere else.

Though starting the book “at the beginning,” i.e. with the Meiji, is a commonsensical way to go since it’s the earliest period and history books tend to have narrative-temporal structures, there might be some room for criticism in this regard. One of the important tasks of the historian is not to just recount but to transform and critique received understandings of the field they’re working in. In that respect, Halliday is somewhat deficient. He takes commonplace notions like “Japan” more or less readymade and starts off straight away telling his story. He actually begins rather promisingly:

“Japanese capitalism has been the prodigy of the age of imperialism, the only outsider and late starter to join the leaders of world imperialism.”¹

Before telling the history of a particular subject, the historian should clarify the terms under which they are doing so. I consider it good practice to define the objects and terrains one is working with in any investigation. So Halliday begins with a definition of Japanese capitalism as a prodigy, as a late starter and outsider. But Halliday simply assumes a certain definition of Japan and of capitalism, and decides that it began with the Meiji. Yet this is itself a contestable assumption, and Halliday proves as much by beginning his discussion of the Meiji not with the Meiji but with the later Tokugawa period, providing background information for his background information.

It may have actually been better to elaborate much more on the (then) present-day state of Japan and its political and economic peculiarities, giving the reader a strong grasp of the nature of the Japanese bureaucratic “Family State” and the position of Japanese capitalism in the world and in the country. He does provide this information, but at the end of the book. While this method of presentation is traditional and has certain helpful traits, it also makes it appear as though the key to understanding the present is to look back and simply trace our way through the past. But if one does so without a correct understanding of the present situation, one’s analysis of the past will be distorted. I don’t think that Halliday’s history is especially distorted, but I think that as historians our methods of presentation should assist the reader as much as possible in seeing that the present is the key to reading the past, rather than the other way around.²

After all those words, though, this is a minor complaint. To get to my conclusion more quickly, I’ll highlight some of Halliday’s best interventions, some of which remain relevant even now. His discussion of the definition of Japanese military government, which he declines to call “Fascist,” gives a window into a debate that should be had about the interwar and wartime Japanese state and exactly how much it shared ideologically with European fascism. In his final chapters, he discusses the weaknesses of the Japanese economy, which he predicted would stumble if it stopped growing, due to the extremely debt-ridden and credit-dependent state of core Japanese industries. He also highlights the oft-mentioned Japanese subcontracting system, characterized by colossal trusts at the top dominating countless small family businesses to maximize labour market flexibility (without endangering the “lifetime employment” guarantee for regular male workers) and cushion themselves against economic shocks. All of these individual sections are buttressed by the others, as the historical materialist framework links the political and economic discussions in a useful and informative fashion.

Finally, I think his most valuable contribution to a Japanese historiography is that he sees essential continuity between the Meiji state, the Showa state, and the post-occupation state. While each era of Japanese capitalism generated and adjusted new forms of state rule, the basic components of that state––bureaucratic control, imperial ideology, paternalism, weak legislature, imperialism, etc.––were unaffected. The American occupation essentially reestablished, with a few minor tweaks, the prewar state system, albeit with the crucial difference that the military took on a much reduced role. And yet corruption, one-party rule, and reckless developmentalism drove forward without missing a step. His analysis clarifies why parties traditionally classified as left––the JSP and the JCP––are both the most persnickety and conservative when it comes to interpreting the Japanese constitution, whose awkward, stilted words still tend to outstrip the reality of Japanese politics in terms of progress.

Because of these outstanding contributions, I can safely say that Political History is one of the best works on modern Japanese history I’ve read in some time. English-language works challenging the Orientalist tendency to ascribe quasi-mystical or spiritual characteristics to Japan are vital correctives. That this particular book uses the power of historical materialist analysis to present a comprehensive look at the character of the Japanese state and its evolution over time––that’s a bonus. It’s unfortunate that Halliday turned out the way he did, or we might be able to learn from a similar book about the post 1975 era, which ended up confirming the fragility of Japanese capitalism and showcased the onward march of rightist nationalism in the country right up to today.


  1. Jon Halliday, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 3.
  2. For example, the fevered writing about the Japanese miracle and its mythical business practices in the 1980s took a particular mystified view of contemporary Japan and projected that impression back into the past, finding all sorts of cultural/religious justifications. Nationalists, of course, implicitly hold a certain organic and patriotic view of the country and find their own justifications for by reading forwards through history. Because history is a politically contested field, it’s valuable for radical historians to define their terms theoretically before engaging in the discussion of the past proper. Gabriel Kuhn does an excellent job of this in his book on pirates that I reviewed. It doesn’t eat up much space, but it lets the reader know what a particular author means when using certain contested words and, more valuably, alerts the reader to the existence of historical debate and lack of closure. Two for one!