15 March 2021

After the pandemic, Britain needs its own Iwakura Mission


For the most part, the response of the UK and other European states to the pandemic has been inept compared to their East Asian counterparts.

The death statistics make for particularly stark reading: according to data from Statista, the UK has seen 1,863.7 deaths per million people, with most of Western Europe somewhere been 1,000 and 2,000 per million. In South Korea the figure is just 30, China 3.5, Singapore 5 and Japan 66.

Some have attempted to explain this with reference to Asia’s more collectivist or “compliant” cultures, supposedly rooted in Confucian values. Cultural attitudes may have played some role, but it seems beyond doubt that most of these East Asian countries have also implemented much more effective policies than we have.

The sort of policy response has varied widely across Asia, from Taiwan’s strict border controls to South Korea’s massive testing and contact-tracing campaign. But whichever specific mix of policies chosen in any given East Asian state, they appear to have by and large worked better than what has been tried in Europe. While we sit waiting for our third national lockdown to end in the UK, citizens in Hong Kong can freely go to the pub or have friends over for dinner.

More broadly, there is a growing sense that east Asian states are in many ways better run than those in Europe and North America. A recent book by Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait, The Wake-Up Call, explicitly looks at the weakness of the Western world in responding to Covid compared to Asian countries.

But this isn’t just about the pandemic. There has long been a growing sense that Asian societies were becoming more successful than our own. From the rapid construction of China’s vast high-speed rail network; to Singapore’s world-class education system or the (often exaggerated) adoption of robotics in Japan, Westerners have marvelled at how these countries are advancing confidently into the future.

In business too, there was a sense that Asian companies were besting their Western rivals. This is nothing new, of course – it began with the rise of Japanese and South Korean car companies in the 1970s and 1980s. However, we can now add innovative tech giants coming out of Shenzhen, as well as the industrial champions of Taiwan and South Korea. 

Of course, we should not go too far in romanticising these countries. Each has plenty of its own social and economic problems, to varying degrees.But it is hard to deny a lingering sense that many Asian societies are now performing better than us in many respects, whether that’s state administration, transport, infrastructure, or commerce.

In many ways this is a return to the world before the 18th century. In the early 1600s, it was broadly the case that you could find better run countries in Asia than in Europe. As Wooldridge and Micklethwait argue: “when Thomas Hobbes was writing Leviathan, China was the centre of administrative excellence. It was the world’s most powerful country with the world’s biggest city (Beijing had more than a million inhabitants), the world’s mightiest Navy and the world’s most sophisticated civil service, run by scholar-mandarins chosen from across a vast empire by rigorous examinations”. In contrast, Europe was a hodgepodge of rival feudal dynasties with state offices bought and sold.

Of course, this situation soon started reverse with European states going through fits and starts of reform. There are many turning points one could point to here: the settlement of the 1688 glorious revolution; the rise of the Napoleonic state, with its mass conscripted army and bureaucracy; the reforming spirit of Victorian Britain, among others. But the historical direction of travel is clear. European nations gradually got the upper hand over their Asian counterparts, culminating in European powers carving up and subjugating swaths of the continent.

That reversal was a psychological shock. As Pankaj Mishra details in his book From the Ruins of Empire, Asian societies produced many great thinkers who tried to grapple with what all this meant. For the Chinese, this was prompted by the humiliating concessions forced on the Empire by European powers in the 19th century. Japan never faced such humiliation – but a sense of weakness certainly gripped the country following the arrival of the American fleet under Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s, which demanded Japan open up to the world.  

The situation today for European and North America states is obviously not so dire. We do not face being carved up by foreign colonial powers. But our relative decline and failure should still be sobering. How these societies in relative decline responded perhaps offers a lesson to us today.

In China, the response was to look inward. As the scholar of Asia Ezra Vogel argued in his book China and Japan: Facing History: “Chinese leaders, confident of the greatness of their rich civilisation, were never eager to learn from other countries.” 

Even when China’s own weakness was recognised, there was a reluctance to accept that other countries may have much to teach this ancient civilisation. In the late 19th century, Empress Dowager Cixi and many officials in her court believed that China’s problems stemmed from loss of the true Confucian ways and therefore the task was to rebuild the moral base of traditional Confucian civilisation, rather than look abroad for inspiration. While other factors were at play, this inward-looking response hindered China’s attempts to catch up with the West, resulting in the Middle Kingdom spending half of the 20th century embroiled in destructive civil wars and revolutions.

Meiji reform

In Japan, however, this sense of weakness to the West provoked a different response. A decade and half after the Commodore Perry’s ships arrived, Japan saw the Meiji Restoration. Traditional shogunates were deposed and the Emperor and a team of reformers ascended to power with the explicit desire to strengthening Japan through modernisation. Japan’s entire state, system of law and economy was overhauled, culminating in Japan entering the ranks of world powers after its defeat of Russia in 1905.

The famed Iwakura Mission was central to Japan’s modernising effort. Led by Count Iwakura Tomomi, the Mission saw young Japanese go abroad in droves. Setting off in 1871 and visiting 15 countries, they were sent with the explicit task of studying how European states worked. Members of the mission met with political leaders and split up into specialised groups to study a variety of areas: factories, mines, railways, research centres, agriculture, universities, schools, army bases and military arsenals. As Vogel notes: “Never before and never since has any country sent so many young officials on such a long study tour of other countries.” 

A member of the mission, Kume Kunitake, compiled his diary notes into five volumes of reports, detailing what the Mission had learned. These volumes became a handbook for Japanese officials, guiding discussions of what changes were to be introduced. 

Alongside the technical knowledge acquired, those who were sent abroad were themselves convinced of the depth of the changes required to bring Japan on par with European powers. As Vogel documents, even before their return, members of the mission had started to form a consensus about what needed to be done. As Vogel says: “No other country undertaking modernization had such a deep and broad common understanding of the issues involved.”

Equally important, however, was the career trajectory of those involved in the missions. Upon return, many members were placed in key government positions, with the Iwakura alumni forming a powerful reform-minded faction within the Japanese state.

If we are serious about our own relative decline compared to Asian states, the UK should start to consider its own version of the Iwakura Mission. Young civil servants could be sent to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, to see what lessons can be learnt. Mainstream political parties could also organise such missions, sending either promising new MPs or potential parliamentary candidates abroad.

Those sent on the missions could be tasked with shadowing staff in specific government ministries, regulatory bodies or even private companies. Of course, we would need to offer these countries something in return, perhaps drawing upon our own relative strength in scientific research and higher education or military and defence.

University students could be sent abroad to study in these countries as part of the new Turing Scheme. To stop it ending up as a year of boozing in Taipei or Osaka, the programme could include a workplace internship requirement, either in the public or private sector.

All of this, of course, would require an attitudinal shift in the UK. Public acceptance of our position relative to Asia would have to become much more widespread, as would awareness of how much more advanced Asian states have become. We might need to obsess less over celebrities in America, and more on events in Taipei, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Singapore.

But as the experience of Japan’s Iwakura Mission perhaps shows, the alumni of these trips will hopefully themselves become the best champions of Britain’s need to learn and reform. If our own Iwakura Missions are on the scale and depth carried out by Japan, it would hopefully create our own army of reformers diffused throughout the British state and economy – a new cadre aware of our true position in the world, determined to learn from abroad and zealous about domestic reform. Among all the lessons of the pandemic, this may be the most urgent for our future prosperity.

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Tom Bailey is a financial journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.