Rob Steven: Japan’s New Imperialism

by tigermanifesto

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Structure of this post:


Japan’s New Imperialism was published in 1990, about 26 years ago, and largely reflects research done in the few years immediately prior to that. That makes it about 30 years old. Books about the Japanese economy before the collapse of the Bubble and the beginning of the long deflationary spiral that followed are of course limited in value. Even so, I picked up Steven’s book because I need to trace the historical development of Japanese capitalism and its international entanglements. It’s one of the few Marxist account of the growth of Japanese capital exports to the Asian mainland, and I appreciated it on that level despite some criticisms I’ll lay out further down in the review.

It should also be noted that the focus of the book is not on Japanese imperialism as a whole but rather, as Steven writes, “focused almost entirely on foreign investment and joint ventures.”¹ So while it mentions other mechanisms and institutions of imperialism, like unequal exchange and interstate relations, these are secondary to its focus on firm-level relationships. It tries to explicate the Japanese ruling class’ overall strategy to extricate itself from a particular crisis with a turn to exporting manufacturing capacity to Asia, and that is the narrative forming the backbone of the book. Those looking for more insight into other questions will find them relegated to an auxiliary role here.

Theoretical Questions:

Steven starts his introduction by demarcating his position in Marxist studies of imperialism. He sees two major conflicting camps: the world-systems thinkers––he groups Wallerstein and Amin in this group, among others––and more traditional mode of production thinkers (Szymanski being an example). He identifies himself with the latter group, seeing imperialism as “the attempt of a ruling class to solve conflicts with its own working class by moving abroad to exploit foreign workers.”² He decries world system theorists as economist for collapsing the entire capitalist world into the realm of commodity exchange. They are mistaken, he argues, in seeing imperialism as a function of a global system-wide logic rather than a mostly uncoordinated agglomeration of different ruling class schemes to deal with their own domestic issues.

The merit of Steven’s approach is that it appreciates the continued bedrock importance of individual states in the regulation and coordination of international capital and his point about each ruling class seeking to deal with labour issues by exporting capital is well taken. He rightly argues that the world is not one integrated mode of production differentiated geographically into a centre and a periphery. He argues that unequal exchange is a real phenomenon, but denies that it has any pivotal role to play in a system of imperialism that prefers the mechanisms of foreign direct investment.

My problem with this position is that he seems to reject the idea of a global capitalist system simply because he perceives that the dominant form of that theory is economist. And yet Samir Amin, one of those he accuses of having this viewpoint, does not reject the importance of individual states or of their domestic class struggles, but rather sees them as key parts of a system that nevertheless has a global logic and scope. If we are to believe that the relations between states are fundamentally only/mostly the product of each of their internal problems, it relegates the whole ensemble of interstate relations to a kind of anarchy (and not a good kind) where chains of alliances or blocs of states are only ever conjunctural and never constitutive of any systemic logic that supersedes their own internal issues.

I don’t believe that Steven’s approach to the problem is entirely wrong, of course, and he even concedes the increasing importance of unequal exchange and the persistence of imperialist rents on raw materials. But he also fails to recognize that the “world capitalist system,” while still not being one single mode of production, can and does emerge from the forces that originate in particular countries. Many countries both produce and obey the logic of a global system, which is not reducible to its components, much like other social units. We don’t need to say that there is a single undifferentiated mode of production on the planet to claim that world capitalism is governed to some extent by a structure that supersedes individual states, that accumulation and imperialism compel nation-states to act in certain ways that can be systematized the same way (but not with identical results) that capitalist relations on a national level are.

Empirical Case Studies:

The core of the book, however, is not concerned with these theoretical issues, as much as I find them fascinating. The bulk of Japan’s New Imperialism is taken up by a discussion of the endaka fukyō (円高不況)or high-yen crisis of the mid and late 1980s. This crisis was caused by the appreciation of the yen against the US dollar and other currencies, which undermined Japanese capital’s ability to suppress their own working class’ wages and keep production facilities in domestic territory. As a solution, the Japanese ruling class stepped up their export of manufacturing capital to the country’s regional periphery, especially South Korea and Southeast Asian countries. The crisis posed a set of problems that required the capitalists to find a quick solution. As the book shows, this solution was largely to reproduce the conditions of the Japanese working class abroad, thus using a “spatial fix” to continue growing accumulation. It does not really solve the problem but merely expands the scope of the original cause of the crisis.

In each of the case studies that follow a description of the high yen crisis and its context amidst the peculiar shape of capitalist relations in Japan (paternalism, strong full-time labour aristocracy, reliance on countless exploitable subcontracted workers and women temps, authoritarian education system, bureaucratic/corporate control of the state), Steven plumbs a huge amount of data to show how each case fits the pattern. Japanese capital needed to discipline its workers at home and therefore hollowed out manufacturing capacity in the centre, exporting its lower-tech operations to the peripheries, which built components for higher-level assembly work still done in Japan. It was far cheaper to exploit low-cost workers in Southeast Asia or the Mexican maquiladoras to produce car parts and then import those parts from one branch of a company to another.

But while this “industrialized” the regional peripheral countries, Japan was able to hold onto a monopoly of technology, exporting capacity but using favourable trade agreements, debt, and aid to control the terms of the transfer. What Steven does not do is show that there is a transfer of value from one country to another, instead focusing on how Japanese capitalists extract value from foreign workers and use them as a bludgeon to divide the working class at home and create “labour flexibility,” i.e. unemployment.

Still, all of these case studies are data-rich and worth reading, since they are not simply present snapshots of economic performance but are grounded in the historical and geographical specifics of each case. In his discussion of South Korea, for example, he discusses the importance of Korean nationalism and the concessions that Japanese capital had to make to the Korean state and nationalistic businesses in the country in order to do business. Or the opposite case in the comprador city-state of Singapore, where Japanese capital has been invited in to set up a regional clearing house for the realization of capital.

Whatever problems I have at the level of theory, and the inevitable issues with readability that accompany the sheer density of facts and figures here (at least supplemented with good graphs and charts), the book is a sturdy addition to anyone’s study of how Japanese imperialism changed and expanded at the end of the 1980s.


1. Rob Steven, Japan’s New Imperialism (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 1990), 4.

2. Ibid, 3.