Akira Narusawa: “The Social Order of Modern Japan”

by tigermanifesto


Capitalism is first and foremost a mode of production, the division of society into an exploiting capitalist class whose existence is predicated on extracting surplus value from the proletariat. This mode of production, however, also generates social relations and ways of life that support its existence and help to produce people who are primed to either exploit or be exploited.

Akira Narusawa’s “The Social Order of Modern Japan” is a helpful exploration of the forms of life and regulation that suit capitalism in a particular place and time. Its focus is on the genesis of modern Japanese life during the period of the Meiji Restoration, roughly from the 1870s to just before the turn of the century. It explores the way that capitalism dissolves ways of living while imposing its own highly regimented systems to manage time, space, and the human body itself. Narusawa’s piece is a schematic look at how capitalism restructured Japanese society in the nineteenth century, forging a new social order that was in many ways unique while retaining some general features of capitalist social relations.

But why would the bourgeois ruling class care about time, space, and the motion of human bodies? This question feels somewhat obvious when we remember that capitalism is a dynamic system of production, distribution, and consumption that requires certain conditions to function. Namely, goods need to circulate, factories need to produce, armies need to manoeuvre, and people’s minds and bodies have to be conditioned for proletarian labour. Nature provides the vast resources that capitalists need to transform into capital, but capitalism’s demands on time, space, and people’s bodies are in many ways antithetical to traditional and natural patterns of growth and development. As a result, the state and social institutions are taken by the ruling class as weapons of persuasion and coercion, forcibly and painfully bringing the world of their dreams into being. This desperate need for favourable conditions colours the capitalist regulation of time and space. And in Japan, where there were outside pressures from the West to adapt to capitalist ways as soon as possible, there was a particularly acute need for this kind of social (re)construction.

To return to Narusawa’s piece, we see that methods of timekeeping in pre-Meiji Japan were largely tied to the cyclical rhythm of the moon and sun. Temple bells played some role in determining the workdays of servants and state officials, but the largely agrarian population’s entire life was oriented around these natural cycles. In 1872, the Meiji state replaced the old lunar calendar with a solar one, launching an assault not only on traditional conceptions of time but also on superstitious beliefs perceived to be insufficiently “modern.” Sunrise and sunset no longer determined the beginning and end of the workday, and this work discipline was increasingly enabled by the spread of artificial light.¹ Of course, capitalists could extract more surplus value from their workers if the working day could be lengthened past the boundaries of nighttime. Further, the state strengthened its hold over everyday life by creating a system of nationwide holidays that glorified the emperor-family system.

Capitalists use the technology afforded by science to destroy boundaries, but not for the sake of humanity per se but rather for their own enrichment at the expense of the people as a whole. We see another example of this in the realm of space: the abolition of restrictions on movement of goods and people across domain borders. At the same time it abolishes these barriers, it installs the spatial tyranny of landownership and private property anew, for example forbidding farmers from going up to the mountains behind their property:

“This, of course, presents a familiar view of the opening up o space by the modernization process, but there were…people subjected to new restraints on their movement…Such changes clearly established private possession of space and demarcated land borders. These people [farmers and other workers] were of no concern to the enlighteners.”²

In general, the Japanese ruling class encouraged the creation of “good order,” creating spaces that were meant to be functional and neat. Stipulations around neatness and orderliness were of course strong in military discipline but derivative rules were imposed in schools and factories. One of the contradictory aspects of capitalist schemes for rule, however, was that this concern for tidiness and bright, clean space only prevailed in the privileged central areas and did not apply to “undesirable” locations and people, who were more or less completely neglected. In reference to workers’ dormitories, Narusawa notes, “many of these facilities were extremely poor; there was a danger of fires and other disasters, hygienic conditions were bad, and many factories lacked even the space necessary to regulate the workers’ daily lives.”³ While certain parts of the population could participate in the aesthetic experience of modern cleanliness and order, people who were shunted to the side or considered as little more than organic machine parts were excluded from these aesthetic considerations.

Indeed, the entire spatial organization of capitalism in general is laid out in the book:

“The dirtiness swept out of the centre accumulated on the periphery,  but for order to sustain itself it was not sufficient just to remove the disorder to the outside. It had to be isolated and controlled there in order to prevent the invasion of the centre by this major disturber of order.”⁴

Here Narusawa is describing literal filth and unclean objects/spaces like cemeteries and places for the imprisonment mentally ill. Yet, one could talk about the capitalist treatment of the unemployed or homeless, the imperialist subjugation and military policing of peripheral states, the systems of isolation for refugees, exports of entropy like computer waste to countries like the Philippines, etc.

This ordering extended even to the body in Meiji Japan, as students and army troops alike participated in drills and physical exercises designed to regulate bodily movement and eventually inculcate a “correct” state of mind, one pliable to the needs of the capitalist state and mode of production. Laws forbidding nudity came on the books, which had never been illegal in previous periods of Japanese history. Every living and dead body was mapped onto a grid, intensively inspected for hygiene, encouraged to adopt Western diets, and bodily regulations as detailed as the position of the testicles inside one’s trousers were drafted, though how seriously any individual rule was taken must have varied. And of course a body of official experts arose to be the arbiters of all these new systems.

I’ve more or less summarized the content of the article and expanded on its meaning according to my own perspective. For example, although Narusawa’s perception is acute and his critical eye for matters of everyday life is useful, he actually neglects to mention capitalism much at all in the article. What we’re left with is an article that presents these facets of social order as emerging from pre-Meiji society and coalescing into modernity without any centre of gravity. It holds “modernity” responsible, rather than the productive/social engine that produced modernity for its own convenience and development. He tends to describe these social orders as products of “mass society” where large groups of people need to be coordinated, but neglects to mention, except in the case of the military, for what purpose people need to be coordinated and schematized. It’s an excellent article with a significant theoretical blind spot. Still, it produces some powerful insights into the fundamental sickness of this order in which Japanese people still live:

“Modern society…gives rise to excessive order. The more we process the nature we perceive as ‘disorder’ to make an artificial, ‘orderly’ order, the broader becomes the gap between nature and humans, and humans unconsciously or even gladly shut themselves into an artificial time and space.”⁵


  1. Akira Narusawa, “The Social Order of Modern Japan,” in The Political Economy of Japanese Society, ed. Junji Banno (Oxford University Press, 1997), page 202.
  2. Ibid, 215.
  3. Ibid, 217.
  4. Ibid, 214.
  5. Ibid, 236.