"JAPAN CLOSE-UP", December 2003, published by PHP
Commodore Perryfs 150-Year-Old Prediction
of Japan as an Industrial Giant
By Masaomi Ise
Surprise to Perryfs Party
Commodore Perryfs fleet of ships from America arrived in Japan in 1853. The fleet of steamboats built using the most advanced technology of that time surprised the Japanese people. At the same time, Japanfs hidden manufacturing power amazed Perryfs party. gThe Expedition to the China Seas and Japanh written by the party after they returned home contains the following passages:
The Japanese people show superior craftsmanship in their mechanical or general utility products. Considering that they use nothing but poor tools and have no experience in using machines, their proficiency in handicraft skills is just amazing. Japanese handicraftsmen are not less skillful than handicraftsmen in any other country of the world. If the Japanese people came to exert their inventive faculties freely, it would not take too long for Japan to catch up with the most advanced industrial nations.
The Japanese people are eager to learn what other nations have developed in material terms. They are also quick at making full use of what they have learned. If the Japanese government loosened its exclusionary policy that bans people from having any exchange with foreign countries, Japan would soon reach the level same as that of the most favored nations. Once they attain what civilized nations have achieved, Japan will be a powerful competitor in the fight for supremacy over mechanical products.
Japan Will Become a Powerful Competitor in the Future
One of the egeneral utility productsf that surprised Perry and his crew was an ink-stone case lacquered with gold relief. The perfect straight lines, even thickness, and firm joints of the ink-stone case showed high-precision work that could hardly be believed as having been done by hand. At that time, various machine tools were being used in America. It was only natural for them to assume that Japan would not take too long to catch up with the most advanced industrial nations if Japanese craftsmen started to use machine tools with their wonderful skills.
For gmechanical products,h they might have seen a tea carry doll. This is a clockwork-driven toy that operates like this: When you put a tea cup on the tray that the doll holds, the doll moves forward up to the intended guest and stops as soon as the guest takes the cup. When the guest replaces the cup back on the tray, the doll turns around 180 degrees and goes back to its original starting point. It is a kind of robot consisting of approximately 50 components including gears and cross arms, and it uses springs made of whale fins as the power source.
Japanese people interested in technology showed a strong curiosity for the features of civilization that Perryfs party brought in. After Perryfs crew laid a telegraph line for about a mile and showed how to communicate using the line, gJapanese officials and people came by every day and asked the American engineers to use the machine. They then watched its action curiously and untiringly.h When the Americans demonstrated a miniature steam train, git was quite amusing to watch a Japanese official solemnly driving the train with his kimono hem flying, circling the track at a speed of 20 miles per hour.h
In 1983, which was 130 years after Perryfs prediction, the Japanese Living National Treasure exhibit was held in Boston. A young American who was closely watching a metal-carving vase, murmured, gJapanese cars are made on the background of elaborate traditional craftsmanship like this; America cannot match Japan.h
Many Japanese people feel that Japanfs history was broken at the Meiji Restoration or its defeat in World War II. We never imagine that our modern technology is related to traditional craftsmanship. At the base of the technological power of modern Japan, however, there are skills accumulated from even before the Edo period when Japanese craftsmen surprised Perryfs party.
Relation Between Traditional Craftsmanship and Modern Technology
For example, most automobile components including engines are cast. Casting is a technique of melting metal and pouring it into a mold to form it into the required shape. The giant statue of Buddha in Todaiji Temple of Nara, which was built about 1,250 years ago, is also a product of casting. The statue is the worldfs largest bronze figure. It is 16 meters high and weighs 250 tons. At that time, Japanfs casting techniques had reached the world level. You can see fine artistic expressions using precision casting techniques on many gold-coated bronze statues of Buddha kept in old temples in Asuka, Nara, and Kyoto.
Temple bells were cast using brass (alloy of copper and zinc). The bells had to be finished in a perfect shape and thickness to produce a beautiful lingering sound. Teakettles used for tea ceremonies, which had become popular even among ordinary people during the Edo period, were cast from iron. As referred to as gthere is no fine article among heavy teakettles,h teakettles were made as thin as possible and embossed with elaborate designs showing the beauties of nature such as flowers and birds.
At present, many automobile components are made from light aluminum alloy to improve fuel economy. A new technique called die-casting is used for casting aluminum alloy. That is, aluminum alloy having a low melting point is poured into an iron mold under high pressure. This technique is applied also for magnesium alloy, which is light and strong and is currently being used for the bodies of laptop computers. From the Buddha statue of Nara up to modern cars and computers, our casting techniques have thus been inherited and developed.
Similarly, the porcelain techniques typically found in Imari china of the late Edo period have been continued in ceramic electronic components of the present day. The lacquer techniques have come out as plastic techniques that are applied to magnetic tapes and semiconductor sealants.
Original and Copy
Westerners clamor for a clear distinction between original and copy. Up until a while ago, Japanfs technology was often criticized as an imitation of Western technology. Also in China and Korea, some people insist that Japanese culture and art are what they had introduced. However, these views reveal that they do not understand the technological development processes.
For example, porcelain china uses special clay different from that used for earthenware and is also baked at a higher temperature. It is said that the basic porcelain techniques were founded by Li Sampei naturalized from Korea during the warring states period. These techniques were evolved into Imari china (Arita china) famous under the name of Kakiemon, which is characterized by richly colored designs on a white base coat. As soon as Imari china was exported to Europe through the East India Company of Holland, it became to be highly prized among the royalty and titled nobility and replaced the famous Jingdezhen china.
Although imitation porcelain china had already been made in Europe, King August of Germany ordered potters to develop a real porcelain technique modeled after Imari china and create Kakiemon-style porcelain china. This resulted in Meissen china currently reputed as being Europefs best porcelain china. This technique has spread throughout Europe producing porcelain china of pure white having a delicate touch, which suits the European peoplefs taste.
Such history as this suggests that there is no point in insisting only on being eoriginalf regarding techniques. You canft criticize a technique as a mere copy or being meaningless only because it is not goriginal.h In fact, even the goriginalh technique cannot be said to be a glivingh technique if it is not being used to produce anything worthwhile at present.
Techniques spread over nations and races. What is important is how much ingenuity is exercised to improve the introduced techniques. Originality is in the ingenuity.
Innovation Based on Tradition
Most people would agree that Japan should aim at becoming a technological giant to survive the global competition in the 21st century. For this purpose, Japan should make a maximum conscious effort to exert its legacy of power that has achieved innovation based on tradition.
Technological power is not only required for manufacturing; it is also required for financial and service industries, and even in entertainment business. Compared to manufacturing, Japan appears to have less global competitiveness in the financial and other fields. This is probably because Japan was late to participate in global competition due to government control.
As Perryfs party said before, gif the Japanese people came to exert their inventive faculties freelyh and gif the Japanese government loosened its exclusionary policy that bans people from having any exchange with foreign countries,h Japan would soon become ga powerful competitor in the fight for supremacyh --- only if we work hard to bring out our secret power for ginnovation based on traditionh by getting rid of unnecessary anti-foreign principles such as gglobalism.h
This article is adapted from the mail magazine gJapan on the Globe.h
Masaomi Ise is editor-in-chief of the magazine.