Tag Archives: MITI

The Middle Income Trap

Development State Evolving: Japan’s Graduation from a Middle Income Country

By Tetsuji Okazaki (University of Tokyo)

Abstract: This paper reexamines the industrial policy in postwar Japan from perspectives of the literature on a “development state” and a “middle income trap”. Japan transited from a middle income country to a high income country in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. This process was characterized by a large structural change, such as resource reallocation from the primary industry to the secondary and the tertiary industries as well as resource reallocation within the secondary industry. Transition to a high income country is a challenging task for a middle income country. With respect to Japan, the industrial policy played a positive role in the transition. This was achieved by interactions between MITI and other related actors, who constrained and corrected MITI’s attempts of excess intervention.

URL: https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:tky:fseres:2017cf1063

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2017‒09‒03

Review by: Joyman Lee (University College London)


Students of modern Japanese economic history are familiar with the work of Chalmers Johnson (1982) on the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In that work Johnson argued that MITI was the leading state actor in Japan’s economic miracle, playing a vital coordinating role between policymakers and the private sector. Johnson’s emphasis on the role of the state in the East Asian experience has triggered similar studies on the development state in Korea (Alice Amsden) and Taiwan (Robert Wade).

As Okazaki notes, the emergence of newly industrialising economies facing the challenges of globalisation and democratisation has led to a renewed interest in the development state. Okazaki argues that rather than constituting a static set of policies, Japan’s developmental state was highly dynamic and adaptive, echoing Douglass North’s idea of “adaptive efficiency” (North 2005). Significantly, this ceased to be the case in Japan after the 1990s. A second strand of literature that informs the paper is the idea of the “middle income trap” (Gill and Kharas 2007), which highlights a particularly challenging transition which middle-income economies face, as the policies that have fueled the initial stages of growth are no longer appropriate for continued growth. The idea has gained considerable traction among commentators in China.

china middle income

The fear of the “middle income trap” has been particularly acute in China.

Okazaki’s paper shows that Japan’s successful voyage through the “trap” was partly facilitated by its success in resource allocation across industries, in addition to well-known increases in the intra-sector productivity. Between 1955 and 1975, Okazaki attributes 29% of the increases in labour productivity to resource allocation, which he stresses was “substantial” (p. 4).

Okazaki traces the evolution of policies from the American occupation period, when U.S. advisor Joseph Dodge initiated the abolition of strict wartime controls. A 1953 government report was followed by the Five Year Plan of 1955, which highlighted the need to transition from light to heavy industries. MITI was formed in 1949 to pursue the policy of “industrial rationalization”. Formal economic controls were replaced by a portfolio of public financial institutions, including the Japan Development Bank (1951), tax relief, and foreign exchange allocation, and a central coordinating Council for Industrial Reorganisationolic . The government promoted new sectors, particularly the machinery and the automobile industries within it, which included the use of cultural strategies such as a campaign to promote the purchase of domestic cars at the same time as regulating foreign direct investment (1952) and curtailing the foreign exchange available for car imports (1954). The government also actively implemented policies concerning the automobile parts industry, which was quite atypical given the miscellaneous and low tech nature of that sector.

japan car industry

A Toyota factory in 1948. MITI’s policy in supporting the automobile parts industry which supplied major manufacturers such as Toyota was particularly distinctive.

At the same time as developing the domestic economy, MITI also foresaw foreign pressure on trade liberalisation, and formed a committee to formulate its strategy in 1959. While the ministry remained ambivalent with respect to its effects, it nonetheless adopted a sequential programme of liberalisation that was intertwined with plans to upgrade the industrial infrastructure. The high level of alert to likely external treasures had a direct effect on the government’s sector-specific strategies, e.g. to focus on passenger cars in the automobile sector. However, MITI’s more radical plans to consolidate the industry by policy intervention were not adopted, and instead the government aided the industry through JDB loans and low interest loans to small and medium-sized suppliers. MITI also successfully resisted IMF pressures to remove the industry from the foreign exchange system until Japan was well established in the world market (1963). Meanwhile, the government conceded that the coal industry would be uncompetitive and adopted a programme of gradual phasing out.


Okazaki’s study provides a timely, quantitative and authoritative review on an important and relatively understudied topic (given the acceptance of Johnson’s view as orthodoxy among historians) by one of Japan’s leading economic historians, whose trans-war perspective is particularly useful in teasing out more subtle changes amidst MITI’s strong posture towards industrial policy. As Okazaki observes,  the difficulties that middle-income economies face are acute, as “one of the difficulties that middle income countries face is that they should compete with low income countries in the markets of labor-intensive industries as well as with high income countries in the markets of capital and technology intensive industries” (Bulman 2017). In this context, Japan’s success appears remarkable, perhaps no less than the historiographically well-recognised significance of Japan’s Meiji-period Westernisation.

However, the complexity of policies required for breaking the “middle-income trap” in Japan’s case may not provide much comfort for middle-income economies currently facing the challenge. Although Japan rejected centralised state controls, the Japanese example appears to require a complex set of policies that presupposes a high degree of political cohesion and long-range economic planning, which is often difficult in many middle income economies given various political and social challenges. It also requires a state that is highly persuasive to the populace with respect to its vision for economic development. These factors appear to mark Japan out as an exception rather than an example that can be easily perceived as immediately relevant by many developing countries.

Perhaps the most avid student of Japan’s experiences will be China, which possesses a similar state capacity for a coordinated industrial policy and a qualified commitment to the market, even if it may not enjoy the same degree of social cohesion. This likely Chinese interest may explain the timing of Okazaki’s paper. However, the requirement of a strong state may produce perverse incentives for middle-income countries to maintain authoritarian systems of government (even though Japan was not classically authoritarian in that period in its history), and reminds us of unresolved tensions between economic development and democratisation.

Additional References

Alice, A, 1992. Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bulman, D, Eden, M, Nguyen, H, 2017. “Transition from Low-Income Growth to High-Income Growth: Is there a Middle-Income Trap ?” Journal of the Asian Pacific Economy, 22(1): 5-28.

Gill, I, Kharas, H, 2007. An East Asian Renaissance: Idea for Economic Growth. Washington DC: The World Bank.

Johnson, C, 1982. MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

North, D, 2005. Understanding the Process of Economic Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wade, R, 2003. Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.