Author Q&A with Kenichi Ohno

We caught up with Kenichi Ohno, as he share with us a bit about himself and his new book, The History Of Japanese Economic Development.

Read our exclusive interview with Kenichi below.

Kenichi Ohno is Professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo. He was born in Kobe, Japan and holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University, California. He worked at the International Monetary Fund and taught at the University of Tsukuba and Saitama University before assuming his current position.

My initial field was international finance – exchange rate economics, Japan-US trade friction, the international monetary system and the like. That is why I joined the International Monetary Fund after getting PhD from Stanford University. Then I realized that the main duty of the IMF was not improving the international monetary and exchange rate system, but rescuing developing country governments that got into debt trouble. I was a part of the team negotiating with the Egyptian government. However, debt rescheduling works at the IMF were a bit too mechanical to me. I was more interested in how latecomer economies could develop industry and achieve high income. After returning to Japan, I began to study how East Asian economies grew. Japanese economic development was part of this research. I began to work with the Japanese government to advise the Vietnamese and Ethiopian governments on concrete growth policies. My method is not mathematical or statistical; I gather many concrete practices from various countries to extract common elements and country-specific uniqueness.

I teach Japanese economic development at my university. The previous edition of this book has actually been used in my course for a long time. My students are mainly young government officials from East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Africa, and other developing areas. They come from various backgrounds and not necessarily with economics or statistical knowledge. I wrote my textbook in such a way so those without technical knowledge can understand it. I believe the essence of historical arguments can be expressed sufficiently in verbal and graphical forms without the use of mathematical modeling. Yes there are some references to economic theories but they are not many and readers should be able to proceed without much trouble. At the same time, I included many academic research and debates so even advanced researchers should find the book stimulating. The current edition is a greatly enhanced and updated version of the previous textbook. It should be suitable for any students who want to know the secret of Japanese industrialization at advanced undergraduate as well as post-graduate levels.

There are some points to remember. First, the Japanese way of development is deeply rooted in its history and geography. No other country can copy-and-paste Japanese policies and tools without considering different social contexts. Second, in Japan both the private sector and the government (on average) were strong and vigorous. In economies which do not have these conditions, development will be a tougher job. Third, history proceeds in long waves and Japan had periods of dynamic growth as well as stagnation. Fourth, a rapidly rising economy tends to be outwardly aggressive, and Japanese invasion of neighboring countries up to 1945 should be understood in this light. Similar things occurred in the past, and can occur even today.

As soon as Japan regained independence after the defeat of WW2 and joined the World Bank in 1952, it began to borrow actively from the World Bank. It was the second largest borrower from the Bank after India. Japan built Shinkansen (fast trains), highways, hydraulic power plants and steel mills with the borrowed money. Those were the days when development aid was for building infrastructure, not for education, health or governance. But it was only a very small part of Japan’s enormous infrastructure needs at that time. In 1969 Japan stopped borrowing from the Bank and began to self-finance all investments. It was only 17 years that Japan needed the Word Bank to reach high income.

I continue to read about Japanese history extensively. Other than that, my favorite authors are Daisetz Suzuki, Hideo Kobayashi and Joseph Campbell. They discuss Zen, art, religion and human life from different angles but point to the same ultimate knowledge. I also enjoy listening to their lecture tapes. Their teachings are not directly related to economics. But indirectly and profoundly, you need to have a life and social philosophy in order to approach any society or its history. They support my works in development and developing countries immensely.

  • The History of Japanese Economic Development

    Origins of Private Dynamism and Policy Competence

    By Kenichi Ohno

    This is an easy-to-read book that explains how and why Japan industrialized rapidly. It traces historical development from the feudal Edo period to high income and technology in the current period. Catch-up industrialization is analyzed from a broad perspective including social, economic and…

    Paperback – 2017-09-06