Was "Confucianism" important to the Economic Development of Japan and South Korea?


The rapid growth of the Asian "Tiger" economies gave rise to the idea of an Asian development model, one which consists, perhaps, of a cultural component that is uniquely Asian. Confucianism, an existential and political philosophy that originated in China and spread through east and southeast Asia, is often mentioned as one such possible component. More broadly, the interplay between culture and development has fascinated economists and sociologists for generations and is addressed in many of the classics of both disciplines1. As two relatively closed societies and as Asia's only two large-scale economies to attain the status of developed countries, Japan and South Korea offer an interesting case study for the examination of the importance of Confucianism.

In this short essay, we will provide a working definition of Confucianism; locate it within the broader debate concerning a possible Asian Development Model; gauge the influence, if any, of Confucianism on the economic development of Japan and South Korea, and look briefly at other factors that may have been more significant in explaining the economic development of Japan and Korea. It should be stressed that our purpose is not to pin down the role of Confucianism in the development of both countries, but to examine wether Confucianism can be considered a substantive factor, both in terms of its particular influence and in light of other, possibly more significant, aspects. Historically, we will focus on the 19th and 20th - the eve of Japanese and Korean industrialization.

Confucianism draws its name from Confucius, a scholar that lived in eastern China between the 2-4th Centuries BCE. His ideas were elaborated on by his disciples, most notable of which is Mencius, in the centuries following his passing, and were codified and re-oriented from the 8th century onwards, culminating in the work of Zhu Xi in the 11th century (Gardner 1989), at which time they acquired some of the flavor with-which they are mostly associated today. The term itself eschews formal definition, but for the purpose of our inquiry we can summarize it as a "cross between religion, a way of life, system of belief about society, and state ideology" (Rozman 2002: 13) which emphasizes filial piety and the importance of hierarchy and respect for authority in light of maintaining social harmony. In Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucian tradition, "the natural world and man's social world [are] seen as a unity and believed to be governed by the same moral principle..." and thus the natural order is used to "justify existing social norms and institutions" (Hane 1969: 357). More broadly, the term Confucianism is frequently used to describe Chinese culture at large, often incorporating elements which are not part of the Confucian tradition per se. Importantly, Confucianism associates nobility with government service and orthodox scholarship. As such, it does not tend to encourage reformers and "prophets" (Taylor & Arbuckle 1995: 352) and Max Weber famously, and perhaps erroneously, described it as the least conducive of all "World Religions" to capitalist development (Hamilton 1985:70; Dubs 1953).

The idea of a uniquely Asian Development Model gained prominence in the early 1990s, following the rapid growth in the "Tiger" economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as the "Tiger Cub" economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines2. Interest in the theory subsided following the Asian crisis of 1997-8 but regained vigor in the mid and late 2000s in line with China's rise to international prominence. Culture, in the context of Asian economic development, may affect development on the micro and macro levels. On a microeconomic level, it has been suggested to serve as a foundation for an Asian model of management and has been used, for example, to explain the way in which Japan benefitted from a "more through exploitation of human resources" than would have been allowed by a purely Western development model (Sugihara 2003:116). On a macro level, the "Asian Way" has been said to sustain a "benevolent, paternalistic form of governance" (Park & Shin 2006: 342).The influence ascribed to culture, however, seems to change in line with economic trends - as Stiglitz points out, some of the unique "cultural aspects, such as Confucian heritage" that were used to explain Asian growth in the early 1990s were earlier "cited as an explanation for why these countries had not grown" (1996: 152). Seeing Confucianism as an important factor in the economic development of Asia has also been promoted by and within countries in the region, most recently with China's rekindling of Confucianism as a unifying cultural heritage and putative aspiration towards a "Harmonious Society" (Zheng & Tok 2007). Some, such as Singapore's autarch Lee Kuan Yew, have argued that the role of Confucianism in Asian development makes local societies incompatible with liberal democracy (in Zakaria 1994). Such usage of Confucianism to justify, ex post facto, an existing political or economic order is not new; the rulers and business leaders of Japan, the region's largest economy, have long been adept at "manipulating the past for present purposes" (Smith 1992: 28). As Wildman Nakai points out, the rising popularity of some aspects of Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan (17-19c) can be attributed to what "it had to offer the ruling stratum in the way of justification of a hierarchical social structure" given its "emphasis on the virtues of loyalty and obedience on the part of the ruled" (1980: 157).

When trying to gauge the importance of Confucianism to understanding the development of Japan, we are faced with a perplexing paradox: The country is the region's first and largest country to attain the status of a developed economy but it is also considered far less 'Confucian' than Korea, China, or Vietnam (Chung 1989:160-161). The fact that Shinto, an assortment of Japanese and east asian traditions, has been Japan's official religion during the early period of industrialization, and that the country's prominent liberal thinkers at the time were opposed to the basic ideas of Confucian ideology (Hane 1969) does not the make the picture any clearer. Hill (1995) lists seven attributes of the Japanese value system that evolved during the Tokugawa period: (1) group identification, often treated as more important than adherence to more "universal" causes; (2) collective responsibility, which nonetheless does not legitimate or condone transgression against society at large; (3) loyalty and filial piety, including ancestor worship and ascribing sanctity to the ruler; (4) reciprocal obligations, including the expectation of top-down "grace" in return for loyalty and effort; (5) harmony, the avoidance of conflict and attempt to reach consensus but also obedience once a decision is made; and (7) the importance of individual performance, mostly judged in light of collective goals (pp. 122). These values and are echoed in modern descriptions of Japanese society and industry, but here too, it is difficult to ascribe them to a specific religion or ideology. They seem to result from a fusion of Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto religious and ethical beliefs combined with various agrarian traditions (Ibid).

In Korea, Confucianism lost its status as an official state ideology with the fall of the Yi Dynasty (1910) but has retained a "strong indirect influence on... [f]amily relationships, political attitudes, approaches to problem-solving and many other aspects of Korean life" well into the 20th century (Yi and Douglas, 1967: 43 ), and the country is still considered the "paradigmatic Confucian society in East Asia" (Tu in Park & Shin 2006:342). South Korea is often touted as a model for other Asian countries, but its achievements followed more than half a century of Japanese occupation and American patronage which make it difficult to assess the role of endogenous forces. In the 19th century, in fact, "Korean Confucians did not initially respond to modernity as quickly and rationally as their counterparts in Japan", and "fatally slowed down the process of... modernization" (Yao 2000:245). On the microeconomic level, even in the 21st century, some suggest that Confucian influence burdens the Korean economy by restricting the employment of women and discouraging unemployed males from taking up jobs that require manual labor (Kim & Park 2006). An attempt to draw a Confucian link between the successes of big business in Korea and Japan is also somewhat tenuous: Lee et al (2000), to cite one example, point out that key features of Japanese and Korean business are quite different and some of the most so-called Confucian characteristics of Japanese firms - such as lifetime employment and a management that strives towards harmony and consensus - are less prevalent in Korea (Ibid: 634), despite the latter being otherwise more markedly Confucian. Beyond the micro and macro levels, the shadow of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea looms large on the notion that the South's wealth resulted from a heritage it shares with its poor neighbor to the North.

Examining the role of Confucianism does not seem to offer a substantial basis for understanding the development of either country, and, perhaps more importantly, it cannot explain the divergence in attitudes towards development in Korea and Japan: Why, upon exposure to Western military might, did Japan choose to reform and adopt foreign methods and ideas while Korea struggled to follow suite even though - or perhaps because - it faced far greater pressures to do so? A conclusive answer is not available. Moving beyond Confucianism, however, a variety of other theories seem to offer more concrete and transferable lessons. In the case of Japan, scholars stressed the role of political stability in the 250 years preceding industrialization; the high level of commercialization and "market consciousness" that resulted from various policies of the Tokugawa regime; advances in literacy and urbanization prior to opening up; the importance of adopting European practices; the impact of colonization; and the significance of American tutelage. In Korea's case, theories have stressed the impact of Japanese occupation on Korean institutions, agricultural practices, and the organization of industry; the importance of American aid and protection; and Korea's advantage in following into markets opened, and vacated, by the Japanese. In addition, the idea that Confucianism is an important component of Asian growth is undermined by the divergence in development of different Asian countries across historical periods - North and South Korea , 19c Japan and China, and other such combinations - as well as the seemingly loose or negative correlation between development and the degree to which a country is "Confucian" as well as by the difficulty in measuring or defining such a degree.

To sum up, it is clear that existing values and behaviors played an important role in determining the development course in Japan and Korea. Still, it is impossible, based on available data, to pin down the influence of any specific cultural factor, both in its direct effect on either country or as an explanation to the divergence in development between the two countries. The availability of more compelling theories concerning other factors that affected Japanese and Korean development also marginalizes the notion that Confucian heritage can be considered important in explaining Asian economic performance. Any attempt to use Confucianism as a common and important element in the development of Korea and Japan is frustrated by several paradoxes - the failure to explain the divergence in attitude towards foreign methods and industrialization; the divergence in the pace and scope of development once foreign methods were introduced to either country; the difference in so-called "Confucian" aspects of Korea and Japanese industry; and the general difficulty in defining what exactly in these two societies can be considered "Confucian", what should be attributed to other cultural and religious influences, and what is simply a consequence of more mundane economic and political forces. More broadly, the disparity in economic performance amongst other Asian economies also suggests that beyond a common cultural heritage, a variety of other factors probably played a more important role in determining the development path of countries in the region.

Finally, the fact that Confucian heritage has been systematically used to justify limitations on individual freedoms - from Tokugawa Japan, through Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, and through to 21st Century China - triggers an instinctive suspicion of any emphasis of its importance. That said, it is clear that the existing literature on the subject leaves a lot to be desired, and perhaps the significance of Confucian heritage in explaining Korean and Japanese development will come into sharper relief in future research. Until then, we are left with a nagging feeling that we are, perhaps like the Shoguns of old, trying too hard to impose an ideal mold from the past on a fragmented and complex present.

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Good points in what is currently an important though relatively unappreciated aspect of East Asian economic development.(relatively unappreciated, considering the spotlight thrown on China) As a Korean, though pleasantly surprised as I am that you would put so much analytic weight into Korea despite the greater attractiveness of China and Japan, I would argue, despite my lack of scholarly knowledge of the subject, that though you are correct in stating that Confucianism in itself is not inherently supportive of economic development, the tradition was beneficial in enabling the East Asian societies to rapidly catch up to Western economies.

First, some objections to your points of the limits of the role of Confucianism. I believe the divergence of the reaction to Western might in Korea and Japan had more to do with historic coincidence than with Confucianism itself. For example you could also point out that in Korea, similar to the case in Japan, (a)the Chosun(Yi) dynasty lasted for 600 years (b)there also was hints of commercialzation and market consciousness during the later stages of Chosun, (c)literacy was greatly improved thanks to the introduction of a phonetic alphabet.

The difference between North and South Korea also has more to do with communism than confucianism, as was the case between East and West Germany despite both being protestant and economically well developed.

Finally Korean businesses did initially persue the so-called Confucist characteristics of Japanese firms. However, during the crisis of 1997, Korean firms were forced to embrace more Western employment practices, to which they subsequently found to be in their favor. You could also point out here that unlike the late 19th century, the corporate Korea embraced Western practices while the Japanese declined to do so. I would argue as I did before that this is coincidence and not due to confucianism. Job seekers still value lifelong employment, as shown by the popularity of government related jobs compared to private sector jobs.

I agree to your point and Weber's point that confucianism in not conducive to capitalism. However, though the spirit of confucianism runs counter to the spirit of capitalism, it is conducive to the development and operation of bureaucratic organizations and educational discipline. These two factors are the part of confucianism that was important to the development of East Asia.(http://www.creditwritedowns.com/2011/02/tiger-mothers-and-the-history-of-the-chinese-examination-system.html)

The Western introduction of the industrial society provided a way East Asia to utilize its potential in bureaucracy and discipline that was primarily obtained through the confucist tradition. This combined with capitalist entruprenuership that appeared despite heavy state influence was key.

So to our (liberterian) dismay, we have witnessed and are witnessing the relative well being of nations that are hevily influenced by confucianism, a "state religion". It is difficult for a liberterian to explain to an East Asian that government intervention will result in failure, since the state had an active role in East Asia.

I'd say Confucianism was important to economic development, thanks to bureaucracy and education, but it needed the West to lead the way. In the future, I predict that Confucianism will also be an important factor in the future stagnation of East Asia as well.

Japanese Confucianism is different from korean one


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This page contains a single entry by Dror Poleg published on January 26, 2011 3:25 AM.

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