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The Virtues of Commerce: Lessons from Japan

Stephen Davies

One of the great questions of historical inquiry, which I have addressed in these pages and elsewhere, is exactly how the modern world came to be so different from what went before. Since about 1750 there has been a 16-fold increase in real wealth per capita on a global scale, something completely unprecedented that has transformed the lives of everyone on the planet much for the better.

In her latest work, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, Deirdre McCloskey argues that the critical factor was a change in how productive activities such as trade were regarded. Instead of being seen as menial, morally disreputable, and lacking in honor, they came to be regarded as respectable, dignified, and above all virtuous. This gave trade, merchants, and manufacturers (those who worked with their hands) the crucial respect formerly given only to aristocrats, priests, and even peasants. I think McCloskey gives too much weight to this explanation, but the phenomenon she identifies was undoubtedly real and important.

McCloskey identifies the Dutch Republic as the place where the cultural shift started in the early seventeenth century. In the European case this is undoubtedly true. However it was not unique. Another later but independent shift was even more self-conscious and deliberate. It happened in one of the most fascinating of premodern societies, Tokugawa Japan. (McCloskey discusses the striking similarities between Europe and Japan at this time).

From 1467 to roughly 1570 Japan went through what became known as the Sengoku, or “warring states,” period of its history. The central authority was weak to nonexistent and warfare was almost constant. Between 1568 and 1603 there was the Momoyama, or unification, period in which Japan was unified by several astute leaders. The last of these, Tokugawa Ieyasu, defeated his rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and established the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would rule Japan until 1868. Tokugawa Japan was simultaneously deeply conservative and yet dynamic. The Tokugawa Shoguns, particularly after the 1630s, banned almost all contact with the outside world (the losing side at Sekigahara had generally favored greater links). Internally they sought to encourage and enforce a strict conservatism. One aspect of this was a firm insistence on traditional social hierarchies of esteem and status: emperor, shogun, daimyo, samurai, peasant, artisan, merchant. In general the countryside was seen as morally superior to the city. Another aspect was a revival of interest in Confucianism, particularly by the samurai, with development of an elaborate moral code and philosophy known as bushido—the way of the warrior.

The other side of Tokugawa Japan, however, was rapid economic development. Population grew swiftly after the 1690s, and this went along with dramatic urbanization: By the late eighteenth century the capital Edo (now Tokyo) and other centers such as Osaka and Kyoto were among the largest cities on the planet. There was also a great growth of internal trade and manufacture, as well as some trade with the outside world via a small colony of Dutch merchants on an artificial island in Nagasaki harbor. This also went along with interesting cultural developments. The merchant class in Japan did not simply concern themselves with business and physical pleasure, accepting their lowly status, as is often supposed. Instead they also explored Confucian and other ideas. In doing so they developed their own philosophy and culture, that of chonindo—the way of the townsfolk.

The essence of chonindo was developed and articulated by a series of thinkers from the later seventeenth century onward in the mercantile centers of Japan and particularly in Osaka. (Osaka had been the center of the Toyotomi clan, the rivals of the Tokugawa and the losing side at Sekigahara).

The crucial event in many ways was the founding of the Kaitokudo academy in Osaka in 1726 by Miyake Sekian and Nakai Shuan. This was a private educational institution, funded by the great merchant and trading houses of Osaka, for the exploration of Confucian ideals and in particular the establishment of the connection between productive work, trade, and virtue. The founders and teachers of the Kaitokudo argued that hard work, skill, craftsmanship, and physical labor were virtuous and forms of human excellence. More dramatically, given the traditional hostility toward it in much Confucian thought, they argued that profit was itself virtuous and that its pursuit was not only compatible with a moral life but moral in itself. The deeper argument was that there was no contradiction between the traditional virtues of restraint, loyalty, honor, and magnanimity and the life of labor and commerce. Instead all these virtues were both necessary for success in that kind of life and embodied in the successful living of such a life. What was wrong was dishonest and predatory behavior in any way of life.

Another aspect of the urban life of Tokugawa Japan that had a close relationship to all this was the notion of the “floating world” as represented in the artistic genre of Ukiyo-E, the well-known woodblock prints of urban life. In its physical sense the “floating world” referred to the pleasure and entertainment sectors of the new cities of Japan. As such it is often thought of as a cult of hedonism and something opposed to both bushido and chonindo. Sometimes this was true but more often there was a connection between the ideals of the floating world and those of chonindo. The common element was the belief, also found in Enlightenment Europe, that this physical world was good, not cursed, and that physical pleasure and well-being were admirable and worth seeking rather than barriers to virtue. The connection with chonindo was through the idea that in fact greater comfort and physical pleasures encouraged virtue (while discouraging predatory or vindictive behavior) and were the outcome of following the virtues of the merchant or townsman.

We may think that today the arguments of people like Adam Smith in Europe or the teachers of the Kaitokudo in Japan are unimportant because they are so obviously true and uncontroversial. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather they are now as unfashionable and deprecated as when those Japanese merchants got together and set up their academy in Osaka almost 200 years ago. Because they faced such a hostile culture they were in many ways more explicit and systematic in their arguments than their European counterparts were. (Arguably they also had a more congenial intellectual tradition to work with in many ways). Today too many of the arguments for a free economy and society are made on the basis of efficiency. Such arguments may be true but they butter no parsnips when faced with a moral rejection of the idea of profit and commerce. The argument that a free economy is a moral economy is one that needs to be made and won more than ever.

We should read people like Ito Jinsai, Nishikawa Joken, Miyake Sekian, Nakai Shuan, Tominaga Nakamoto, Goi Ranju, Nakai Chikuzan, Nakai Riken, Kusama Naokata, and Yamagata Banto as much as we do Adam Smith, David Hume, Lord Kames, and Milton Friedman.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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