Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I'm going to reply to some of the comments on the items, but I thought I'd post this thought I had this morning in the context of the discussion about dichotomies and money/privilege.

It is interesting to note that 90% of people interviewed in the US think that people around them respect entrepreneurs while only 10% of people interviewed felt the same way about entrepreneurs. The culture of the US was build during a primarily industrial revolution oriented social backdrop. Japan, however, built a great deal of its culture during the backdrop of an agrarian society.

The traditional caste system in Japan had the Emperor at the top, and the nobles next, then the warrior/samuri, then the clergy, then the artisans and farmers and below them came the merchants and tradesmen. Money was considered a zero-sum game, the people involved not being considered to be contributing a great deal of value to society. Farmers and artisans were clearly working and producers in the community. During the hundreds of years of peace in Japan, the nobility, the warrior class and the clergy played the role of the intellectual and the cultural class.

My mother, who was raised in a privileged family was not allowed to touch money until she was 18. She has a servant who took care of the payments. In Kyoto, I don't pay cash at many of the places I go, it is discreetly billed to me later. During the Edo period an interesting shift happened. The wars stopped and the warrior class had less to do. Culture blossomed as did trade. The merchant class gained power and helped drive the economy of Japan, but they were not rewarded with the same kind of cultural/social status that their American counterparts were. This stigma about being rich, making money and having financial power survives in Japan today and is in fact one of the big reasons that Japan continues to have structural problems and entrepreneurship is so weak.

The other notable point is that those who traditionally wielded power have lost their power. The nobles lost most of their money either during the Edo period or during the War. (Our family lost its property during the Meiji Restoration, lost its factories during the war, lost its money from giving all of the money to the war in the form of war bonds and gifts, lost its swords and family heirlooms to the US occupation forces, and finally lost just about everything under the current tax system that is basically designed to eliminate family wealth within a few generations. All that was left by the time I got there was our foolish pride.) The current ruling political party of Japan was funded by the Japanese gangster and the CIA in an effort to stomp out the left-wing and the ethics of those in power have become twisted caricatures of the original traditions.

One important Japanese businessman once told me. Power in Japan is not about having money yourself. It is about having the influence to move money.

Disclaimer: I am not supporting or condoning the Japanese here, but making a generalization and an observation about role of money in society which contrasts with what American's might believe.


I liked your quote about "having the influence to move money" Joi and you make important observations.

However, I do want to point out something related to your introduction to money in the history of Japan through the context of a "traditional caste system". To be honest, the famous class division used in many textbook descriptions of early modern Japan is something of a myth. If I remember correctly, the characterizations of Japan having this fixed hierarchical system appeared with historians in the Meiji period. I believe this is described succinctly in Columbia U Professor Henry Smith's (his website is redirected from "Five Myths About Early Modern Japan" in the book "Asia in Western and World History"

To be sure, the validity of your point is preserved by the fact that merchants did indeed have a low status on the official moral scale of professions, but this is the case for all societies which were heavily influenced by Confucian thinking. It is also the case for Christian societies as well though, so its relevance in this case is diluted both by the fact that the fixed class system was never really in effect, and that an aversion to merchant activities is not particularly unique to early modern Japan.

Your point about the loss of power by the nobles in Japan, however, is right on the mark. Thanks for an interesting read.

Kmlawson, yes, I am using some cliche and I agree that you find similar ethics in many other cultures. I also believe that a lot of it is regional. At risk of over-generalizing again, I think that Kyoto tends to respect cultural and religious leaders where Tokyo respects politicians and businessmen. I do think this reflects the period in which each of these cities flourished.

I remember a story that a friend told me. He is an award winning author and he was staying in an inn in Kyoto. A well known politician from Tokyo was also staying at the inn. When they were leaving, the woman who ran the inn had put the politician's shoes on the ground directly and his shoes on the step above the ground. The politician complained to the woman and she made a "how dare you think you're more worthy than an award winning author" look.

I also remember reading books which I can't remember the origins of now about Europeans scoffing at the crassness of American businessmen and their lack of culture. I suppose the "European gentleman" is similar to the Japanese nobility except that they weren't stripped of their wealth as aggressively as the Japanese nobility.

Doesn't a true cultural/religious leader lose much less than a political/business/mob boss when their money is taken away?

To me this is the thrust of the value of blogging and other social technology. It can change the balance of the influence of money over the long run.

Money is certainly something that people will always use to 'keep score' but as you've pointed out the picture is more complex. Having money amplifies your opinions and your means to spread them but at the core is really those ideas.

As an anthropologist, I really enjoyed this post Joi - thank you.

And I especially liked this bit:

"Power in Japan is not about having money yourself. It is about having the influence to move money."

Money should be like a business partner. You should take him into account, but you should never let him tell you what to do.

Good post - the rise of the merchant class was one of the great unintended consequences of the post-Nobunaga pre-Meiji period (1630s-1850s?, I can't remember the exact time or official name because my Japanese history course was ages ago).

To keep the nobles in line, the emperor forced them to pilgrimage to Kyoto each year and spend time in the capital, essentially keeping them hostage. On the way, they spent money at hotels and merchant towns that sprung up along the pilgrimage route. I've never been to Japan, but I understand a number of these hotels and towns are still around.

In this way, the nobles money went to the merchant class, which were traditionally near the low end of the social totem pole. There were attempts to "buy respectability", but they apparently did not succeed.

There seems to be an excellent book about the role of current Japanese nobility:
"Above the Clouds: Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility" by Takie Sugiyama Lebra.
Over the years I asked several Japanese friends about the role of Nobility in current day Japan - and they usually where totally clueless and never thought about it. Obviously the Yellow Press ignores them, much different to Europe where it is full of their affairs, estates etc. I'm really curious about this and will read the book ASOP.
Amazon has a good review of it.

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