Proposal preview

Reconsidering the “Small Divergence”: The Role of Social and Economic Institutions in 19th and 20th Centuries Chinese and Japanese Economic Development

The publication of Ken Pomerantz’s Great Divergence in 2000 reinvigorated the study of comparative economic history, focusing on factors that help to explain the European “economic miracle,” and the relative decline of the previously strong Asian economies of China and India. Often neglected in subsequent debates was the “small divergence,” the reversal of fortunes within the East Asian economic zone, which saw the decline of China and the rise of Japan. This session will focus on “the small divergence” in the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, reexamining some of the arguments of earlier generations of economic historians that were developed in response to the era of high growth in the Japanese economy, just as contemporary arguments have developed in response to China’s rapid rise over the last three decades. In both cases, scholars have devoted much attention to cultural and institutional patterns that helped to shape the unique characteristics of China or Japan.
Our reconsideration of the “small divergence” shifts the time frame for this discussion from a focus on institutional patterns in the “traditional” Chinese economy up to the 18th century, to the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, the period in which the “great” and “small” divergences became manifest. There are many reasons for selecting this period. Most importantly is the richness of quantitative and qualitative sources which allow us to probe more deeply, examining institutional factors at the same time we are able to plot quantitative changes in the economy. On the quantitative side, papers in this session will draw on the rich statistical data gathered by the Chinese Maritime Customs, foreign governments and companies. Our exploration of institutions will draw on the rich collection of archives and studies written by Western and Japanese officials, businessmen and others working in China, who wrote in great deal about their understandings of commercial and economic institutions and patterns of trade.
Thirdly, we will make use of materials compiled by government organizations as they strove to develop modern fiscal and legal institutions beginning in the mid-19th century.
Papers in this session will focus on labor, land, merchants and organizations. Through these case studies, we will explore some of the models of long-standing social and economic institutions in China and then compare them with Japanese institutions. Finally, we will present new interpretations of the “small divergence” between Japan and China.


  • Ei Murakami, Kyoto University,, Japan
  • Tomoko Shiroyama, The University of Tokyo,, Japan

Session members

  • Jin-A Kang, Hanyang University,
  • Yoshinori Kigoshi, Nagoya University,
  • Jong Ho Kim, Seoul National University,
  • Takashi Okamoto, Kyoto Prefectural University,
  • Kojiro Taguchi, Osaka University,
  • Yoshia Tomizawa, Shimane University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Tetsuji Okazaki, The University of Tokyo,
  • Roy Bin Wong, University of California, Los Angeles,