The Growth Idea: Purpose and Prosperity in Postwar Japan
University of Hawai'i Press
Our narratives of postwar Japan have long been cast in terms almost synonymous with the story of rapid economic growth. Scott O’Bryan reinterprets this seemingly familiar history through an innovative exploration, not of the anatomy of growth itself, but of the history of growth as a set of discourses by which Japanese “growth performance” as “economic miracle” came to be articulated. The premise of his work is simple: To our understandings of the material changes that took place in Japan during the second half of the twentieth century we must also add perspectives that account for growth as a new idea around the world, one that emerged alongside rapid economic expansion in postwar Japan and underwrote the modes by which it was imagined, forecast, pursued, and regulated. In an accessible, lively style, O’Bryan traces the history of growth as an object of social scientific knowledge and as a new analytical paradigm that came to govern the terms by which Japanese understood their national purposes and imagined a newly materialist vision of social and individual prosperity.
Several intersecting obsessions worked together after the war to create an agenda of social reform through rapid macroeconomic increase. Epistemological developments within social science provided the conceptual instruments by which technocrats gave birth to a shared lexicon of growth. Meanwhile, reformers combined prewar Marxist critiques with new modes of macroeconomic understanding to mobilize long-standing fears of overpopulation and “backwardness” and argue for a growthist vision of national reformation. O’Bryan also presents surprising accounts of the key role played by the ideal of full employment in national conceptions of recovery and of a new valorization of consumption in the postwar world that was taking shape. Both of these, he argues, formed critical components in a constellation of ideas that even in the context of relative poverty and uncertainty coalesced into a powerful vision of a materially prosperous future.
Even as Japan became the premier icon of the growthist ideal, neither the faith in rapid growth as a prescription for national reform nor the ascendancy of social scientific epistemologies that provided its technical support was unique to Japanese experience. The Growth Idea thus helps to historicize a concept of never-ending growth that continues to undergird our most basic beliefs about the success of nations and the operations of the global economy. It is a particularly timely contribution given current imperatives to reconceive ideas of purpose and prosperity in an age of resource depletion and global warming.