India Versus Japan 1947

One of the most common rejoinders of our failure to develop ourselves, at least among the Urban Educated Indians, is a straight-on comparison with Japan, about how it was destroyed by World War 2, and how it is now a developed country, taking on The West on its own terms, standing tall among the committee of nations as a developed country with a tremendous set of achievements in its past 60 years, a nation with every comfort the West has, and more; whereas we stumbled from mistake to mistake, resulting in a massive gap between the two of us.

From an outside perspective, it seems like Japan and India were at comparable stages; 2 destroyed economies; and that today, Japan is years ahead. While the above statement is completely true in every respect, it also hides the reality that lies underneath. Let us peel away the above statement and take a look at the reality of the situation, which goes a long way in explaining this riddle. While we did make some mistakes, we cannot extrapolate those mistakes to the complete story, not without looking at some underlying facts that tend to throw rather a different light on things.

Just one statistic is enough to drive home the difference between Japan and India - and that we cannot compare the incomparables. The literacy rate in Japan in 1929 was 43.8%, with over 90% enrollments in schools. In India, in 2001, the literacy rate is 62.8%. Japan was at this level of literacy around 1960 or thereabouts. Whatever economic strategy we took, we would never have been able to catch up Japan, given this reality.

The net result of this high level of education in Japan can be seen in the inventions that happened between 1900 - 1945. Inventions and discoveries like The Power Loom, Aberic Acid, B Vitamin, Portable ECG Machine, VectorCardiograph, Epinephrine, Thiamine, Monosodium Glutamate, Japanese Typewriter, Electric Rice Cooker were all discovered or invented by Japanese scientists between 1900 - 1950. These are symptomatic of the overall climate in Japan in those days, as well as act as indicators of the readiness and potential of the Japanese to innovate. For, War can take away everything - but it cannot take away the basic indices of Human Development; in which Japan in 1947 was already approaching developed economy levels. War also cannot take away the culture of innovation and the internal climate from the people.

It is thus a complete fallacy if we compare India and Japan in 1947, or indeed today. The Japanese were as ahead of us in 1947 as they are today. You cannot compare the incomparables. In 1947, India was a new nation, whereas Japan was a colonial power with established nationhood concept going back a century or more. India was a shattered and demoralised new nation, who had achieved near-static GDP growth between 1900 - 1945, whereas Japan had clocked a GDP growth rate that fluctuated between -0.53 to as high as 15.85% in the run-up to 1939. There were only 4 negative years; the others were between 4 - 16 %! Japan was the first non-European country to Industrialise in 1868. Japan had hospitals, schools, basic infrastructure in place; India had nothing. Japan had an educated population with a per capita GDP that India enjoys today. In fact, as far back as 1868, the Japanese per capita GDP was 740 dollars - and the Japanese were independent to boot.  It would not be wrong to state that we are only today at the position where Japan was at in 1947!

It is thus no surprise that Japan is where it is today. And, unless we set basic parameters - Education, Health etc - we will never be able to catch up Japan - regardless of the economic model we follow. The Japanese success is the demostrated success of concentrating on the Human Development Indices. And the most critical difference of all: Japan was a colonial power, India was not. It had access to colonies, which it could harvest so that investments could be made in their own country. This is a vital factor; for 80 years, the Japanese were brought up on a diet of we-are-as-good-as-the-west; this fuels national sentiment and confidence. Take this factor, add high education levels, and established record of innovation - the result is there for all to see.

Japan is ahead today because it was comparably ahead in 1947 - along any parameter you may choose to assess. And I have not even considered the factor of diversity and national size- and the attendant difficulties being faced by a diverse  large nation as compared to a small homogenous nation. I have not even started to look at the absence of the basics of life and governance in newly independent India, or its security challenges, its internal problems or its varied challenges. We could have done better with better economic planning, yes - but that does not change the fact that Japan is ahead, primarily because it always was ahead... as we shall see in detail in this series, as I move into the Mieji Restoration in the next part...

We can be justifiably proud of our achievements, even while acknowledging our mistakes. Our mistakes harmed only us, not anyone else – unlike The West, whose mistakes destroyed civilizations and resulted – and still do result – in untold and incalculable misery across the planet. We have developed ourselves, fought our own battles, made and learnt from our own mistakes, paying for them ourselves. And in the light of the status we were in at Independence, our achievements are tremendous and a matter of intense, and thoroughly justifiable pride and celebration! Be confident of this lovely miracle called India, of this lovely, mesmerising and stunningly beautiful nation we call Bhaarat!


Jai Hind!  

{In the next part of the article, I shall look at the Japanese Mieji Restoration, and try and draw learnings for Modern India}

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