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Response to Review of The Japanese Consumer: an Alternative Economic History of Modern Japan

I must first of all thank Dr Cwiertka for her comments on my book and for her survey of the anthropological and sociological literature on consumption practice in later 20th-century and contemporary Japan, which is very useful. I would though like to respond with two points.

First, the book does not in any way claim to be a monograph based on original research. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think the publisher would have commissioned it, or published it as a relatively accessible paperback, if it had been. Rather, it is an attempt to tell the story of Japanese economic development from the angle of consumption and everyday life. In this, it contrasts with the top-down, supply-side approach of other textbooks in the field of Japanese economic history, and it is in this sense that it might be regarded as ‘alternative’. I hoped the book might thereby relate more to present-day students’ interest in Japan and hence perhaps lure them into thinking about what has traditionally been regarded as a dull and ‘dismal’ field.

However, I don’t seem to have succeeded in this with Dr Cwiertka, and my second point is that she does appear to have missed the words ‘economic history’ in the book’s title. It would be hard to tell from the review that probably two-thirds of the book is concerned with the pre-industrial and early-industrial periods and a further objective in writing it was to provide a means to locate Japan, as a neglected non-Western case, within the rapidly-expanding literature on the ‘birth of the consumer’ and the ‘consumer revolution’ in industrialising societies.(1) Chapter three, for instance, is not about the ‘frugal life’ of the countryside, but rather attempts to assemble evidence, from a range of admittedly secondary materials (though a number of them in Japanese), of the growth of consumer spending within the Tokugawa rural economy. This contrasts with the usual textbook picture of self-subsistent impoverishment and places pre-industrial Japan within the context of the debate over Pomeranz’s Great Divergence.

A good many of the works mentioned by Dr Cwiertka are cited in the later chapters of the book and I hope that my work might also serve to demonstrate to economic historians the uses to which they can put such literature.(2) However, the concerns of anthropologists and sociologists are different from those of economic historians and tend, even where they are historically oriented, to focus on the issues arising from ‘modernisation’ and contemporary culture. Hence, for example, they deal with the department store, rather than the other forms of retailing, also covered in the book, that pre-date it and remain important in Japan to this day; they are concerned with fashion in the Western-style clothing that has predominated in post-Second World War Japan, not with the rapidly expanding demand for fashionable kimono textiles and accessories (described and illustrated in the book) that played such a significant role in stimulating the growth of the textile industry from the late Tokugawa period onwards. Economic historians are interested in tracing, quantitatively as well as qualitatively (the book does have some tables!), the processes involved in long-term economic change. If students can enjoy acquiring from my book a sense of the historical pattern of economic development in Japan, and of the wider cultural and social forces that helped to fashion it, through the lens of consumption and everyday life, then I will have done all I set out to do.


  1. Elsewhere, I have written on this for a more specialised readership.  See  ‘Consuming rice: food, “traditional” products and the history of consumption in Japan’, Japan Forum, 19, 2 (2007), 147–68 and  ‘Inconspicuous consumption: sake, beer and the birth of the consumer in Japan’, Journal of Asian Studies, 68, 1 (2009), 135–64.Back to (1)
  2. In the introduction, I in fact berate economic historians for ignoring what contemporary scholars in Dr Cwiertka’s field are discovering about consumption in Japan. These and other kinds of source, such as novels and diaries (both also used in the book), not conventionally part of the economic historian’s armoury are now commonly used in work on the consumption history of Europe.Back to (2)