Marxist Debates on Japanese Development: Reflections on Germain Hoston’s Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan

Justin Aukema

3 February 2022


In this essay, I discuss debates on Japan’s historical development that took place between Japanese Marxists in the 1920s and 1930s. Toward this end, I draw from Germaine Hoston’s Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan (Princeton, 1986). The essay is largely a summary of Hoston’s work, sprinkled with my own thoughts, contextualization, and analysis. The discussion here is highly relevant for understanding not only the development of capitalism in Japan, but also as a larger framework for perceiving contemporary Japanese politics.

The debates of the 1920s and 30s split Japanese Marxists into two camps, the Kōza-ha (ha means “school” in English) and the Rōnō-ha. The two groups took opposing views on which stage of historical development Japan was currently in, according to prevalent Marxist theories of historical materialism. The Rōno-ha said that Japan was already capitalist. On the other hand, the Kōza-ha argued that Japan’s 1868 Meiji restoration was an incomplete bourgeois revolution and thus concluded that Japan was still feudal or semi-feudal and not fully capitalist. The Kōza-ha therefore also argued that Japan needed a two-stage revolution: bourgeois and then socialist, whereas the Rōnō-ha argued for a single-stage, immediate socialist revolution.

Both sides’ arguments were influenced by concrete economic realities of the time. Japan was a late-developing country. The feudal-absolutist Tokugawa regime only opened to the West in the 1850s before being toppled by low-ranking samurai and other progressive forces in 1868. The subsequent changes of the new Meiji Era (1868-1912) were certainly astounding. Japan introduced a modern-style constitution and parliament, and rapidly modernized and industrialized. By 1905, Japan had become one of the world’s major imperial powers, dominated by big capital and heavy industry. At the same time, many sectors of Japanese society remained highly underdeveloped and unequal. Especially profound was the gap between the city and the countryside. The agrarian sector remained much the same as it had been for hundreds of years, and it lagged behind the rest of the economy. And about half of farmers were tenant farmers with very high rents. Meanwhile, the new political parties mainly represented the interests of landowners and big companies rather than those of average people and workers. Thus, there was tentative evidence to support both the Kōza or Rōnō-ha positions.

The debates started with the 1927 Comintern thesis on Japanese capitalism, which said that Japan still had “feudal remnants” and thus its bourgeois revolution was incomplete. The recently-founded Japan Communist Party (JCP) accepted this account. They made getting rid of “feudal remnants” such as the Privy Council and Emperor system, and completing bourgeois-democratic reforms their top priority. Ironically, JCP affiliated Marxists were the foremost advocates of liberalism in Japan. But not all Marxists were happy with this position. Many such as Yamakawa Hitoshi broke away from the JCP and began to articulate what became known as the Rōnō-ha position. This attempted to incorporate various workers’ parties and push for immediate socialist revolution. The JCP-Kōza group, on the other hand, advocated itself as the elite-intellectual vanguard of the working class and rejected workers’ movements outside its leadership.

I should note that Hoston’s evaluation of the Kōza position is more positive than my own. It is true that Kōza-ha scholars produced many important works of Japanese economic history. But their continued influence has led to three main ongoing and erroneous assumptions. First, capitalism doesn’t need democracy to survive. It can flourish quite perfectly even in authoritarian dictatorships. Second, capitalism never completely replaces earlier regimes and modes of production. Rather, it continues to retain and utilize such “feudal remnants” as it sees fit for the purposes of capital accumulation and maximizing surplus value. Patriarchal relationships, for instance, don’t hinder capital accumulation, but instead facilitate it. Third, the idea of an incomplete bourgeois-democratic revolution is a chimera. For its believers, the task is never complete. The bourgeoise never have enough power; there is never enough democracy. And, indeed, there never can be because the latter exists purely in the realm of ideals. What this myth actually does is simply to justify and naturalize bourgeois politics and reformism. That is to say, the idea that meaningful economic substructural change can be achieved through representative bourgeois politics and measures, e.g. voting. More insidiously, the idea legitimizes the existence of so-called left bourgeois political parties like the JCP, and results in a consolidation of their symbolic power through the belief that they are the only legitimate torchbearers of liberal-democratic reforms. Today the JCP and many other leftists in Japan have so thoroughly embraced and absorbed their own raison d’etre (liberal reforms) that these things themselves have supplanted the goal of class struggle. The forms have become mistaken for the substance.

To return to the subject at hand, the Marxist debates of the 1920s and 30s, in any case, were important attempts to apply Marx’s ideas of history and class struggle to the Japanese context. This was a necessary and unprecedented attempt, since Marx’s analysis of the development of capitalism mainly drew from the cases of England and France. The larger problem was, thus, the extent to which Marx’s ideas of historical development could be perceived either as particular or universal. Hoston writes that Japanese Marxists at the time attempted to “Japanize” Marx’s model of historical development to their context. Ultimately, their efforts remained incomplete owing to the late translation of some of Marx’s works into Japanese and later military repression against Marxism in the 1930s. But the debates did result in many important works of historical analysis, and they continued in the postwar. The debates today no longer continue in their original form. But indirectly they continue to influence the strategy of leftists and Marxist theory.

The Comintern theses and their limitations

The Soviet Communist International (Comintern) made four declarations on Japan’s historical development and its course for future strategy between 1922 to 1932. Embarrassingly, these were the most coherent descriptions of the onset of capitalism in Japan even though they were highly incomplete. They thus inspired Japanese Marxists to take up the task of conducting more thorough historical analyses of Japan’s development. And they precipitated the 1920s and 30s debates in the process. 

The Comintern lacked knowledge of Japanese history. They thus tended to draw from common stereotypes about Japanese history and “Oriental” societies. Nevertheless, their policy reflected a simple understanding of historical materialism which saw a clear transition from feudalism to capitalism before progressing to socialism. In their view, the bourgeoisie were the revolutionary agent in the transition from the former, while the proletariat were to lead the latter revolutionary stage. This was the basis for the two-stage revolution thesis. And the JCP was to be the vanguard in leading the transition to bourgeois democracy by opposing the emperor and carrying out democratic reforms etc.

Numerous other problems aside, I would like to point out that this understanding of historical materialism is too simplistic on at least two accounts. First, as mentioned, capitalism often retains feudal elements and vestiges for its advantage rather than replacing them entirely. Second, the bourgeoisie have not always been the revolutionary class that this historical assessment portrays them to be. Even in England, the bourgeoisie routinely sided with the old aristocracy to crush nascent labor and workers’ movements (see E.P. Thompson, for instance). And in many cases, the aristocracy simply transformed itself into the new bourgeoisie in England and especially in Japan. The Rōnō-ha’s Yamakawa Hitoshi also made this point when he explained that it was not the bourgeoisie but always the peasants/proletariat who were the revolutionary agents in Japanese history.

Takahashi Kamekichi’s Theory of Petty Imperialism

Takahashi Kamekichi, an economist, journalist, and government advisor, threw the first stone in the debate with his theory of petty imperialism. First, Takahashi denied the applicability of Marxist theories to Japan, arguing instead for Japanese uniqueness and particularism. Second, Takahashi denied that Japan was imperialist in the Leninist sense because Japan was not yet fully capitalist. If anything, he said, Japan was simply a “petty imperialist” (puchi teikokushugi). Moreover, Takahashi asserted that Western imperialism was hindering Japan’s further economic advancement and capitalist development. As a result, Japanese production had declined throughout the 1920s, and Japanese capitalism had now reached an “impasse” (yukizumari), he said. Consequently, Japan’s inability to develop high finance or monopoly capital, left the country stuck in a developmental rut, highly dependent on a high consumption of natural and material resources for growth. Japan’s “petty imperialism” he said, therefore, was simply an attempt to break this impasse. Moreover, Takahashi argued that since Japan was similar to other colonized Asian nations vis-a-vis Western imperialism, that Japan should take the lead in “liberating” the rest of Asia. Needless to say, Takahashi’s arguments, in this sense, closely resembled those later put forth in justification of the creation of a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Takahashi’s argument presented great challenges for Japanese Marxists, especially those with the Kōza-ha. Not only did they have to demonstrate that Marx’s ideas of historical development did apply to Japan, but also they had to show how Japan could still be both “feudal” and “imperialist” (92). Yet while Kōza-ha scholars, especially Norō Eitarō, attempted to rebut Takahashi, they could never fully resolve this contradiction. Furthermore, they were also left with the troubling conclusion that perhaps Japan didn’t fit the pattern of development and revolution described by Marx and Lenin. Needless to say, Takahashi’s arguments held less water with Rōnō-ha scholars, who already saw Japan as fully capitalist and thus fitting Lenin’s theory of imperialism.

The development of capitalism in Japan

The debate proceeded apace thereafter. The Kōza-ha had the most difficult task ahead of them, since they had to prove how Japan was not yet fully capitalist. To do this, they delved far back into Japanese history to explain Japan’s particular pattern of development. One of the most interesting Kōza-ha thinkers was Hattori Shisō. In his history of the Meiji Restoration, Hattori pointed out that the restoration was carried not by the rising bourgeoisie but by the samurai, an old feudal class. He also noted that the new regime didn’t abolish agrarian feudalism because it needed this as its economic base, i.e. the land tax. Hattori eventually decided that the Meiji Restoration was not a bourgeois revolution but simply a “reorganization of feudal rule” because of its internal contradictions (105).

But Hattori later revised his views when he examined the indigenous origins of capitalism in the late Tokugawa Period. Hattori’s focus was especially on manufacturing, specifically the period prior to 1853 without machines and then the period from 1853-58 which saw increasing mechanization. What’s more, this manufacturing occurred outside the cities, he explained. These changes, in Hattori’s view, prepared Japan for the later Meiji Restoration. Hattori, like other Kōza school members such as Hani Gorō, still argued that Japan’s commodity production had to be coerced with outside pressure and was bound by feudal restrictions at this time. Yet such early manufacturing indicated that Japan had entered the transitional phase to capitalism in contradistinction, he said, to China and Korea at the time.

The impact of the West thus stimulated or accelerated these trends to a “spontaneous industrial revolution” from the 1870s (109), in Hattori’s assessment. This state-managed industrial revolution was an era of primitive accumulation. Hattori found early capitalist manufacturing, such as with the putting-out system (toiya-sei) to be especially prominent in the cotton and silk industries. The domestic silk industry was especially highly developed by the mid-1800s, and this set the stage for mechanized manufacture. But Hattori nevertheless argued that the feudal persisted within the capitalist. The early domestic development of capitalism in the Tokugawa Period led to conflict with and the weakening of the feudal regime. Although Hattori was ultimately hampered by his insistence on the feudal remnant and his mechanistic attempt to fit Japan’s development into Marx’s model of the English countryside, his analysis was important for showing that Japanese capitalism at least partly had domestic origins. In fact, Hattori’s manufacturing thesis was attacked by Rōnō and fellow Kōza school scholars. But the strength of his findings withstood critique. It is clear that Japan’s manufacturing phase and transition to capitalism were already underway during the Tokugawa reign. 

The Asiatic Mode of Production 

The idea of an “Asiatic Mode of Production” (AMP) can be found in Marx’s early writings. This was supposed to indicate a stage of development prior to the ancient and feudal, and which was characterized by small scale agricultural production on communal property with a despotic superstructure. And it was supposed to be common in Asia where labor intensive rice production on communal property was overseen by the state-central authority-king-ruler and formed the main basis of wealth production. In fact, Marx later revised his views on the AMP and historical development. Namely, he reevaluated the role of early communal society and even saw the possibility for alternative paths of development. Other scholars have also pointed out that by “Asiatic” Marx did not mean a specific geographical region, i.e. Asia, but rather was indicating a general and universal social form.

Nevertheless, following Lenin’s example in Russia, many Kōza-ha scholars adopted the AMP in their analysis of Japanese historical development, and used it to explain what they saw as Japan’s “backwardness.” Basically, there were two opinions within this group. One saw the AMP as a separate mode of production, while the other saw it as a variant of feudalism. There were also alternative views such as that of Aikawa Haruki who accepted the AMP but saw it as a universal model rather than exclusive to “Asia.” Others like Hattori disagreed, seeing the AMP as characteristic of Asia and Japan and many Kōza scholars maintained that remnants of the AMP were still present.

All sides in the debate felt they had to correctly periodize Japanese history, and to find out what stage Japan was in so that they could determine the proper course of future revolutionary action (153). The Kōza school tried to figure out when the transition from the AMP (they linked this to primitive kyōdōtai) to feudalism occurred, and they wanted to find the locus of change within Japan and not from without, i.e. imperialism, the West, etc. as some Russian scholars argued. Important in this was the role-emergence of private property as a condition for feudalism. Hayakawa Jirō said the Taika Reforms (645 AD) marked the beginning of the AMP. For him, the tribute system was one of its hallmarks. In this view, the AMP emerged when one kyōdōtai (community) fought with another and assumed a dominant position. Hayakawa also said that underdeveloped commerce and lack of a “slave-owner formation” were the causes of the persistence of the kyōdōtai and AMP. In his view, Japan had skipped over the slave-owner formation and went right from the primitive kyōdōtai to feudalism under centralized, state-ownership at the time of the Taika Reforms.

Others such as Aikawa and Akizawa Shūji, however, disagreed. They said that Japan did have a slave-owner formation. Note that this was a key step; as the kyōdōtai disintegrated, the rich took power over the poor and slavery (private not state) emerged. These scholars identified slavery in Japan with the benotami system. Akizawa showed that there was slavery during the Yamato-Kofun period. Then there was the growth of patriarchal-household slavery after this and yet all before the Taika Reforms. While the Taika Reforms centralized state power, private property and slaves remained among the nobles. These were later transformed into serf relations during feudalism around the Ōchō Period (1311-12). Moreover, he pointed out uneven development between the center-periphery. The periphery was the source of slaves while kyōdōtai relations also persisted longer there. 

But Kōza scholars were less successful in showing how the AMP remained in Japanese feudalism. Hayawaka traced the development of Japanese feudalism from the Ōchō to Tokugawa periods; but he failed to trace how the AMP lived on and supposedly affected development. Hirano Yoshitarō, meanwhile, attempted to do this. He argued that the AMP caused the especially exploitative relations that lived on in feudalism. Hattori, too, agreed, and saw the impact of the AMP in the “starvation rents” of feudalism, where all the ground rent was taken as taxes so the peasants were left with nothing (170). The AMP in Tokugawa, he said, was: prohibition of buying-selling land, prohibition of property mergers, laws regulating 70% of a year’s crop as rent-tax to the feudal lord, etc. Peasant revolts pushed back against this, and the growth of manufacturing, too, slowly undermined feudalism. But the AMP lived on as feudal lords tried to take control of the production processes and continued to manage exploitative industries, said Hattori. This stunted the growth of the bourgeoisie and consequently they didn’t lead a bourgeois revolution since they weren’t powerful enough. Hirano, meanwhile, said that feudal power and the AMP thus lived on and were simply reconstituted in Meiji. 

To justify the persistence of the AMP in Meiji, Kōza school scholars pointed to high agricultural rents which they said were feudalistic and not capitalistic, i.e. determined by the market. This inhibited the development of productive forces there. And, this was led by the state since, not the bourgeoisie, and was the main source of state income. Others, like Aikawa, said that the Meiji land tax was semi-feudal, because it was in cash and was used for capitalistic ends. 

In sum, Kōza school scholars essentially saw the AMP as a form of slavery and/or a more cruel feudalism. Hani Gorō said that the AMP was not inconsistent-incompatible with the development of feudalism or even capitalism. That is to say, he saw it not as a separate stage of development, but one that operated alongside others. But it did hinder or slow down further development in his view. Hani also argued that the West forced the Tokugawa government to collapse and led Japan to become a capitalist-imperialist state. So, all he said Japan lacked was a bourgeoise-democratic revolution. He thought that the AMP lived on in that it made Japanese people more servile and accepting of authority. Thus, the revolutionary task was first to destroy AMP remnants like the emperor system.

The emperor system

The Kōza-ha thought that they needed to get rid of the emperor system. But for the Rōnō school, this wasn’t a big deal, since they saw the emperor system as a “bourgeois monarchy” (183). For them, it was a mere appendage of the state. Yamakawa Hitoshi and the Rōnō school were consequently called “instrumentalist” because they saw the state as an “instrument” of the ruling class. Yamakawa denied the need for a two-stage revolution or even for a vanguard party, i.e. the JCP. Instead, he called for a united proletarian front. In his view, the Japanese bourgeoisie had already assimilated all other forces – political, nobility, military – and made an alliance with the former ruling class and landlords. Yamakawa saw no hostility, in other words, between the land-owning class and the political class; for him, they were one and the same. 

Yamakawa also criticized the JCP/Fukumoto/Kōza position because it divided the working class and was simply playing ball with the bourgeoisie on their field. Inomata Tsunao elaborated the Rōnō position on the Japanese state. He also said that landlords had allied with the bourgeoisie and ruling aristocracy to form the new capitalist class. At the same time, Inomata avoided the issue of the military and never denied that it wasn’t a feudal force/remnant. He also acknowledged that the Meiji regime was “absolutist” and that there were many feudal remnants. But nevertheless, the goal of the Japanese ruling class was most certainly capitalist accumulation. Landlords in Japan, explained Inomata, were never as powerful as those in Europe. Thus, they allied with the bourgeoisie sooner, forming bourgeois political parties, and these joined with autocratic forces, e.g. aristocrats, military, bureaucracy. By the Russo-Japanese War, the bourgeoisie was the dominant force acting against workers-peasants. Moreover, they never embraced liberalism but were always a reactionary-imperialist bourgeoisie who used the feudal remnants to their advantage. 

Inomata also discussed the importance of monopoly capital in Japan. He pointed to the government bailing out the banks on the eve of the 1927 financial crisis to argue this. Inomata drew from Bukharin to show that Japan was moving toward a “state capitalist trust” (196). Bukharin said that the state had to intervene on behalf of capital to fend off the falling rate of profit. The point is that efforts of the state to ward off crisis result in further concentration-centralization, i.e. monopoly capitalism. The growth of heavy industry and its centrality to capitalism and state functioning is a major factor, too. Inomata also cited major banks holding government bonds, bank mergers, and giant-state sponsored conglomerates, e.g. Mantetsu, etc.

Inomata drew on Lenin-Bukharin to posit Japan as an imperial power from the Sino-Japanese War. He saw capitalism-imperialism as global systems-phenomena, and Japan as fully qualifying for the capitalist-imperialist stage. Japanese investment in the colonies and China, for instance, was huge and necessary for Japanese capitalism. In fact, this was why Chinese nationalism was so threatening for the Japanese ruling-class. 90% of Japan’s foreign investment was in China; Japan controlled much-most of China’s coal, iron, and spinning industries; Japan was also the biggest creditor to China and ran a huge trade deficit with China (this showed Japan’s exploitation of Chinese resources and labor). Inomata thus thought that Japanese capitalism was too highly developed for just an internal proletarian rebellion to be successful. Rather, the Japanese proletariat must cooperate with colonized workers in the Japanese empire. 

The Kōza school took a different view. They were pessimistic about the possibility for socialist revolution in Japan (!). For them, Japan was still an absolutist state under the emperor, still ruled by landlords rather than a political bourgeoise, and still dominated by the feudal remnant/AMP. Finance capital was developed, they admitted, but it relied on feudal remnants like landlords and the emperor. Kōza scholars also argued that feudalism lived on in the countryside and through high rents. They recognized that the form of this had changed. Now instead of feudal lords, it was the transitional state who was the largest landholder and which took all the surplus. The state used this as its basis for primitive accumulation. Hirano, for instance, argued thus that the Meiji government needed to maintain the semi-serf relations in the countryside for this purpose, while the bourgeoisie was really just a “serf-landlord bourgeoisie” (215). But the problem of a strong, central role of the state remained a problem for both Kōza and Rōnō scholars, since, although it was endemic and necessary for late-developing nations, it didn’t entirely fit Marx’s model outlined by England and France.

The agrarian problem

A key issue in the debate was the problem of the Japanese countryside and agriculture. A majority of peasants owned very little to no land, and much of their harvest went to pay high rent to landlords. This appeared to many as “backward” feudalism, and the Kōza/Comintern saw this as the basis for arguing for a two-stage revolution. But were ground rents feudal or capitalistic? 

The Rōnō school’s Yamakawa argued that landlords had already become “bourgeois-ified” and invested in capitalist enterprise. He argued that “free market competition for land explained the persistence of high ground rents” (229). Inomata likewise argued that landlords had lost their ability to act as a “potent antagonistic force” (230). He said that ground rents were regulated by “market forces” and not “extra-economic means,” and thus could not be termed “feudal.” Moreover, the Rōnō school rightfully pointed out, land was no longer distributed by status, rent was no longer paid by status, and landowners assessed the value of land (rent-wages) in terms of market forces and cash (even if it paid in kind, i.e. non-cash portion of harvests). Moreover, for Marx, abolishing serfdom was a key to ending feudalism, and Meiji land reform laws had done precisely this. 

Thus, Inomata correctly asserted, with Marx, that the peasants alone couldn’t lead a socialist revolution, but rather that this must be done with, or led by, the urban proletariat instead. Inomata acknowledged that feudal remnants existed and that there was an incomplete bourgeois revolution. Yet he saw the Japanese bourgeoisie as being too weak to complete this task themselves; instead, he said, this could only be done by the proletariat who would usher in democracy and socialism, and defeat feudalism and imperialism. 

Kōza scholars, meanwhile, recognized the “bourgeois-ification” of rural landlords. But they said that the Meiji Restoration didn’t abolish feudal land ownership, and had rather just reorganized it into a more efficient state enterprise. For them, it was “feudal exploitation on a national scale” (241), while the new land tax was the “successor to feudal tribute” under Tokugawa (243). But a key problem for the Kōza-school was this: where was the non-economic coercion? The Kōza-ha responded by saying that it was in the power of the Meiji state and especially the military, and this was exacerbated by the lack of small landowners (i.e. like yeoman, a necessary step for the transition to capitalist agriculture). They pointed out that growing militarism was the state’s solution to controlling the peasant population due to backwardness and agricultural stagnation; it was “resolving the crisis through external expansion” (248). 

Postwar developments

Marxist scholars were forcibly silenced in the 1930s, thus bringing the debate on Japanese development to a temporary end. Moreover, in the postwar occupation period, the US (SCAP/GHQ) rewrote the constitution, made the emperor into a symbol, launched major land reform in the countryside, put rent controls in place, and legalized unions and the JCP. This meant that the stakes for the debate irrevocably changed. Namely, the Kōza school lost much of its focus of critique (e.g. the emperor system, backwards countryside etc) and basis for its thesis about the feudal remnant. Nevertheless, the JCP continued to advocate for a two-stage revolution. Rōnō school scholars, on the other hand, associated with the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) and advocated for a peaceful transition to socialism. 

The onus of explaining Japanese imperialism and later postwar high economic growth was mostly on the Kōza school, whose theories seemed increasingly detached from reality. Nevertheless, many JCP-Kōza scholars simply continued their prewar thesis that, since Japan wasn’t really capitalist, it didn’t have modern imperialism in the Leninist sense. Rather, they said it was “feudalistic imperialism.” Moreover, they were even reluctant to term Japan’s experience as “fascist,” preferring instead the term “absolutism” or Moriya Fumio’s term “emperor-system fascism” (263). JCP-Kōza advocates also struggled to characterize the US occupation and land reforms. Some said the reforms had abolished the feudal remnant in the countryside while others said it still existed. Also, early on the JCP saw the US as a liberatory force, but later it changed this view and saw it as hegemonic-imperialist oppressor which in fact further hindered Japan’s development. In this milieu, though, and paradoxically, they returned to their earlier thesis that viewed Japan as still semi-feudal and its bourgeois revolution as “incomplete.” Needless to say, the Rōnō school had an easier time since it simply saw the US occupation and later high growth as a further “rationalization” and progression of Japanese capitalism.

Analysis and evaluation: lessons for today

Later studies of Japan’s development debates of the 1920s and 30s such as Gavin Walker’s The Sublime Perversion of Capital have more critically analyzed both Kōza and Rōnō positions. Walker points out, for instance, that both groups tended to simplistically view historical materialism as a progression from “lower” to “higher” stages of production, whereas in fact, Marx’s own view was that this process more closely resembled a kind of layering. That is to say, capitalism utilizes particularisms and earlier social forms to its advantage rather than mechanicalistically replacing them with “higher” forms. Walker also notes that both schools in the debate privileged a hierarchical view of historical development which led them to mistakenly valorize the experiences of the West while unproblematically relegating Japan to a “lower” position in this hierarchy. That is to say, they gave capitalism higher praise than it deserves. 

In her work, Hoston largely avoids entering the theoretical debate. This is both a strength and a weakness of her book. On the plus side, it makes her work much more accessible and readable, even to readers without extensive knowledge of Marxist theory. At the same time, it results in her giving some past theories, especially those advocated by the Kōza school, more credit than is due. Her main evaluation is that the debates themselves contributed much to the understanding of Japanese economic history and historical development. This is undeniable. But some of the positions she analyzes simply don’t hold water anymore. And these need to be explained further.

I have partly done this in the introduction to this essay, by explaining that capitalism does just fine living side by side with so-called “feudal” remnants, or even in non-liberal, non-democratic regimes. I also briefly introduced other analysis of the debate such as those by Gavin Walker, which, among other things, highlight participants’ tendency to valorize Western capitalist development. I would like to close, therefore, by adding some final points to the discussion. 

First, as Andrew Lu has pointed out in his study of the development of capitalism in China and India, capitalist market mechanisms can already govern the economies of even non-capitalist, or transitioning societies. He examines how China and India were engaged in fierce competition over tea production during the 19th century. What stands out is the importance of abstract labor and socially necessary labor time in determining the price of various commodities, vis. tea but labor power also included, even between far-away locales and nominally “non-capitalist” regimes. The basic point is that capitalism is a global system, whose reach, although often largely invisible, is extensively more exhaustive than many historians may like to think.

Second, relating to the first point, capitalism utilizes not only feudal remnants for its advantage (vis. the paradox of primitive accumulation), but also uneven development. Take for instance, the basic element of primitive accumulation, the enclosures. This refers not only to a specific instance in England’s history, but also a metaphorical and general aspect of capitalism itself. The enclosures are a source of peasant-worker impoverishment, but also the locus for the creation of the working-class, urban proletariat. The poverty of the countryside, therefore, is not anomalous nor antithetical to capitalist development per se but may actually precisely be a result of it. Moreover, in this sense, the Japanese agricultural issue of the early 20th century in fact should be read as a microcosm of the functionings of national and global capitalism in general. The issue is not that capitalism exists in some places and not others. Rather, capitalism replicates the enclosures and uneven development on a global scale through the production of a system of bordered nation-states, and a center-periphery of poor vs rich, developed vs underdeveloped areas, wherein the former exploit the latter as a source of cheap labor, resources, and surplus value. This means, namely, that even so-called “late-developers” are usually already integrated into a system of global capitalism

Third, like many theoretical Marxist debates, the debates on Japan’s capitalist development, and studies of those debates, eschew serious discussion or investigation of the working class. This is paradoxical because, at least in principle, Marxism is mainly supposed to be a theory of the working class in history. Even Marx began at least one of his most famous works with a rousing call to world workers. Now, when I say “investigation of the working class,” here I do not mean simply sympathetic portrayals of the harsh working conditions of early Meiji. These accounts did indeed proliferate and form the basis of much secondary scholarly study. What I mean to say is, how did Japanese peasants and working class people perceive, characterize, and respond to their conditions of the time? Specifically, did peasants and working class people feel hindered by so-called feudal remnants? Or were they not more threatened, in fact, by the onset of modernity? The reason I raise this issue is that, in the discussion of the feudal remnant, I get the impression that what some Kōza scholars were referring to was not just elite forms of political rule (e.g. the emperor system) but also what they saw as “backward” social customs among rural peasants especially. If my hunch is correct, then this would be a huge and fatal mistake. As scholars have shown, Marx himself later re-evaluated the roles of pre-modern social organizations and modes of production in resisting and pushing back against capitalism, as well as saw in them the potential kernels of alternative forms of development. In fact, even a cursory reading of Capital reveals that Marx’s analysis of feudalism is highly nuanced. Marx did not comment on whether capitalism was qualitatively better than the social forms it superseded but rather he simply indicated that it was quantitatively more efficient at value production. This is not to mention the contribution of later Marxist scholars such as E.P. Thompson who showed how the English working class utilized older, existing traditions and customs as sites of resistance to the onset of capitalist modernity. So, it seems to me that, in their hierarchical interpretation of historical development, and consequently their valorization of Western capitalism, many Kōza school Marxists confused past traditions with “feudal” modes of production, and thus perceived both to be hindrances and nuisances rather than offering avenues to/for alternative patterns of development.

What lessons can we learn from the historical development debates of the 1920s and 30s? Why are they relevant for us today. I have already discussed some important theoretical points that were overlooked in the debates. But what about today? As insinuated in the introduction to this essay, the JCP at least in practice seems to be highly influenced by the two-stage, bourgeois revolution thesis. They do not advocate for socialism-communism, but rather seem to function simply as mainly a progressive-liberal party or, at best, the left wing of the bourgeoisie. Most of their day-to-day strategies center around single-issue identity issues and reformist policies. They occasionally decry the despotism of ruling LDP politicians but in a way that highlights their “un-democratic” tendencies rather than for being capital’s unwitting agents. The JCP also maintains a highly dogmatic line of policy, centered around what they see as key “issues,” that doesn’t allow room for deviation, and they posit themselves as a vanguard party of the working class even though their distance from the working class, objectively speaking, often seems quite great. This leads back to my earlier criticism of a lack of coherent class theory vis-a-vis the working class. At this point, the JCP seems more like the vanguard party of the academic, PMC, and not the average arubaito convenience-store worker or delivery person.


Hoston, Germaine. Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Reprint edition. London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Classics, 1992.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin, 2002.

Walker, Gavin. The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2016.


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