The Growth Idea: Purpose and Prosperity in Postwar Japan
280pp. August 2009
The Growth Idea: Purpose and Prosperity in Postwar Japan
Author: O'Bryan, Scott;
Winner of the First Book Award of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute

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.

Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University
The Growth Idea brilliantly historicizes some of the most important and controversial ideas of the twentieth century, ideas of great consequence in the present as well. It offers a powerful and largely persuasive argument, rich enough in both analysis and detail to provoke and allow fruitful debate.” —Journal of Japanese Studies (37:1, 2011)

"The Growth Idea represents a significant contribution to the emerging field of postwar Japanese history and an important step forward in the historicization of Japan’s high-speed growth of the 1950s and 1960s. It is the first and fullest treatment of the ideology of postwar growthism, of Keynesian thought in Japan, and of the development of postwar statistical practice. Well written, original, and based on first-rate scholarship, The Growth Idea approaches its subject in a fresh way that will interest specialists in Japanese history as well as others interested in Japan from a comparative perspective." —Mark Metzler, University of Texas

"In The Growth Idea Scott O’Bryan deftly traces the ways in which growth was measured, managed, and made a central focus of government policy and popular fascination. Along the way, he links his story with some of the major strands in the history (and historiography) of twentieth-century Japan. It is an impressive and significant piece of work. O’Bryan has crafted a historical analysis of early postwar Japan that is timely, engaging, interdisciplinary, and broadly relevant." —William Tsutsui, University of Kansas

Author: O'Bryan, Scott;
Scott O’Bryan is assistant professor of history at Indiana University.
Read the introduction (PDF).

Introduction: The Growth Idea and Early Postwar History
The Meaning of "Loss"
Growth as Concept
Historicizing Economic Knowledge
The Mid-Twentieth Century and the Postwar-ness of Growthism

Chapter 1: A New Mobilization: The Redemption of the Planning Ideal
Postwar Dilemmas of Planning
Planning as Science "without Compulsion"
Inaba Hidezö and Technocratic Redemption

Chapter 2: The Measures That Rule
The Empirical Revolution in Twentieth-Century Economic Knowledge
Total War and the Rise of National Accounting
Numbers for a New Japan: Stuart Rice and the Japanese Statistics Commission
GNP as "One of the Most Vital Means"

Chapter 3: New Economics and an Expanding Vision of Prosperity
"Keynes Fever"
Full Employment, "Particularly for Japan"
The Politics of Employment

Chapter 4: Knowing Growth
Growth as History, Growth as Future
"Frameworks for Growth"

Chapter 5: Structural Ills and Growth Cures
Population Anxiety
After "the Postwar Is Over": The "Weakest Link in the Chain"
The Surgeon’s Scalpel of Growth
Consumers and National Fortunes

Economic Knowledge and the Naturalization of the Growth Ideal
The Growth Fetish
Box Canyons and Beyond