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The International Order of Asia in the 1930s and 1950s

Author(s):Akita, Shigeru
White, Nicholas J.
Reviewer(s):Wright, Tim

Published by EH.NET (July 2010)

Shigeru Akita and Nicholas J. White, editors, The International Order of Asia in the 1930s and 1950s. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010. xvii + 308 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-7546-5341-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Tim Wright, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield


This important collection of essays mostly by Japanese scholars makes interesting new arguments about the international order in (mainly East) Asia during the 1930s and 1950s. After an introduction by the editors, Shigeru Akita (Osaka University) and Nicholas J. White (Liverpool John Moores University), eleven chapters examine various aspects of the book?s main themes. ?(Following the usage of the book under review, the surname of East Asian writers is put after the given name.) Akita himself focuses on British economic interests in East Asia during the 1930s. Yoichi Kibata (Seijo University) examines Anglo-Japanese relations during the 1930s and 1950s. ?Kaoru Sugihara (Kyoto University) analyses the monetary system of East Asia in the 1930s. Bruce Cumings (University of Chicago) considers the role of Korea in the Japanese empire in the 1930s and then under the American imperium in the 1950s. Catherine Schenk (University of Glasgow) analyses Hong Kong?s position in the sterling area before and after the war. White similarly looks at the role of Malaya, particularly in the 1950s. Naoto Kagotani (Kyoto University) examines Japan?s negotiations with India and the Dutch East Indies over the cotton goods trade in the 1930s. Tomoko Shiroyama (Hitotsubashi University) outlines China?s relations with the world monetary system during the 1930s World Depression. Toru Kubo (Shinshu University) analyses different strategies of economic development proposed and implemented in China before and after the war. Toshiro Matsumoto (Okayama University) uses a case study of the Anshan Steelworks to study continuities between the 1930s and 1950s in East Asian industrialization. ?Finally Man-houng Lin (Academia Sinica, Taiwan) presents new materials on the survival of a Taiwanese economic elite from the Japanese into the Nationalist period. A short review can only examine a few overarching themes, but scholars interested in any of the above topics can certainly look with profit at the relevant chapter(s).

Together, the essays make several major arguments that will need to be taken into account in future studies of Asia?s modern economic history and the role of European powers in the regional political economy. First, the authors insist that it is not satisfactory simply to focus on the nation state in studying the history of the region. Rather, what is important is the structure of the region itself and the role in that structure of the major external imperialist powers. Cumings, for example, points out that a country-by-country approach cannot properly explain the similarity between the developments paths of Korea and Taiwan.

Second, they emphasize the importance of intra-regional trade within Asia. In this they are building on the pioneering work, mainly on an earlier period, of the economic historian Takeshi Hamashita (2008). Neither in the early modern period nor in the twentieth century was Asian trade monopolized by European powers. Sugihara shows that India and Southeast Asia accounted for a larger part of East Asia?s trade than did Europe or the U.S. The share of the latter was also falling, while remaining very important especially for China.

Third, they argue for complementarity rather than conflict between industrializing Japan (and China) and the structural powers of Britain and, after the war, of America. They make this case with reference to the British by employing the construct of ?gentlemanly capitalism? developed by Peter Cain and Anthony Hopkins (2002): the British state was concerned with supporting the financial interests of the City of London more than those of manufacturers such as the Lancashire cotton mills. Thus the 1934 cotton negotiations between Japan and India were not about the threat of Japanese manufacturing to Lancashire, but rather about strengthening the financial situation of India in the interest of the City of London. The relative role of the financial and manufacturing sectors and their influence on the state are of course issues that have re-emerged strongly during Britain?s problems with the current world financial crisis.

Some readers might question the predominant focus on Britain rather than the United States as the hegemonic (structural) power. Of course this is more reasonable for the 1930s than the 1950s, though White points out that the emergence of the American imperium in Malaya was far from an overnight phenomenon after the Second World War. But even for the 1950s only Cumings treats American power as a central theme. The rest of the book is rather, perhaps too much, British-focused.

A fourth theme, which might attract some doubts, is that of continuities between the 1930s and 1950s. Some chapters do not attempt to argue for continuity, and only deal with the 1930s. Others in different ways put a case for continuities. Cumings argues that even before the end of the war American policy makers were actively seeking ways to recreate the Japanese empire in East Asia, obviously on a slightly different basis. Kubo shows that, although the sources of China?s imports were very different in the 1950s from the 1930s, there was continuity in the importance of the large-scale export of cheap manufactures to Southeast Asia to China?s economic system. Matsumoto shows that continuities in human and, to a lesser extent, physical capital were important in the reconstruction of the steelworks at Anshan, though he also stresses the role of the new human resources the Communist Party mobilized for that purpose. Finally Lin shows that, while the recovery of Taiwan by the Nationalists led to a fundamental transformation of the island?s political elite, the Taiwanese-speaking economic elite that had flourished under the Japanese played a much larger role after 1949 than hitherto understood. Nevertheless, while there undoubtedly were continuities, it is difficult, particularly for someone working on China, to overlook the massive discontinuities created by Japan?s defeat in the war, the Communist revolution in China, the replacement of Britain by America as the hegemonic power, and the decolonization process in South and Southeast Asia.

In conclusion, the essays in this book provide valuable empirical material on the economy of East Asia in the mid twentieth century, while advancing a number of arguments that scholars of the period will have to take into account. At the same time the book introduces the work of Japanese scholars to an English-speaking audience and contributes to bridging the all-too-wide gap between Japanese and Western social science and historical scholarship.


Peter J. Cain and Anthony G. Hopkins (2002), British Imperialism, 1688?2000, Harlow: Longman.

Takeshi Hamashita (2008), China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and Historical Perspectives, edited by Linda Grove and Mark Selden, Abingdon: Routledge.


Tim Wright is Emeritus Professor of Chinese Studies in the White Rose East Asia Centre and the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield.? He is using his retirement to work on a book on the political economy of the contemporary Chinese coal industry (to be published by Routledge in 2011), and on economic fluctuations in China in the 1920s and 1930s.? His recent publications include ?An Economic Cycle in Imperial China? Revisiting Robert Hartwell on Iron and Coal,? Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 50.4 (November 2007): 398-423.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII