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Beyond Eureka: The Foundations of Japan's Industrialization, 1800-1885

Project description

Innovation and the emergence of Japanese industrial power

Japan was the only Asian country in the 19th century to have successfully industrialised its economy. The period between 1800 and 1885 is considered as crucial for the technological development of the country that transformed it from an agrarian economy to a modern industrial one. However, this transitional period is not entirely understood empirically. The EU-funded J-INNOVATECH project will challenge existing understanding of Japan’s emergence as a global industrial power and question the role of innovation. Work in this Beyond Eureka initiative will combine technology with the study of unexploited archives to investigate the process of Japanese industrialisation. The project will bring technological transition into historical examination to challenge the notion of innovation as a matter of disruption. J-INNOVATECH intends to propose innovation as a long-term process of accumulation in which the new derives from the old.


Beyond Eureka seeks to challenge current understanding of how Japan became a global industrial power along with the model of how innovation takes place. Japan was the first Asian nation to industrialize and in a space of several decades went from a relatively isolated agrarian economy to an industrialized nation. The key assumption of this project is that a grasp of the salient features of the technological landscape during the pivotal period between 1800 and 1885 is an important tool for understanding Japan's industrialization. To date, this transitional period has been widely acknowledged as crucial for later development but remains empirically poorly understood. Recognizing the complexity of causation, this project seeks to use technology as a site for forging a more nuanced understanding of the emergence of Asia's first industrial power.

By bringing technological change into historical focus, the project challenges the notion of innovation as necessarily a matter of disruption. In Japanese, for example, there is no conceptual or cultural equivalent to Eureka, to stand for a unique, distinct moment of individual ingenuity. If we choose the Eureka moment to epitomize the conception of innovation, early examples in Japanese industry are few and far between. Instead, a small but growing body of research shows that a sophisticated and patient examination of archives can reveal innovative processes in place of what historiography has described as borrowing, imitation or adaptation. This project seeks to foreground innovation as a long-term process of accumulation in which the new only could only work by taking root and embedding itself within the old, not by replacing it and starting from scratch.

The team, comprising the PI and five postdoctoral fellows, will combine expertise and previously unexamined archives to bring depth and nuance to not only to the specific case of Japanese industrialization, but also more
broadly of innovative processes in human past.



Net EU contribution
€ 1 373 500,00
Rue michel ange 3
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Ile-de-France Ile-de-France Paris
Activity type
Research Organisations
Other funding
€ 0,00

Beneficiaries (1)