Lessons for Bangladesh from Modernization of Japan

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Newsnow Desk: In 1853, Japanese officials looked at the ships that had arrived at their port. They were under the command of United States Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Perry had come for a trade agreement with Japan, a country that did not engage in international trade, and he would not take no for an answer. As the Japanese officials looked at the ships, more advanced and powerful than any ships they had seen before, they knew two things. First they could not deny Perry a trade agreement as they stood no change against those ships. Second, the world had moved ahead and Japan had fallen behind. They knew China, the country that had most influenced Japan, had been forced to sign one humiliating treaty after another with European powers. Japan knew they had to modernize or risk the same fate as China. In the words of Shimazu Nariakira, “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated”.

Perry’s visit started the Meiji Restoration that restored power to the Emperor from the Tokugawa shogunate, which was dominated by samurais. Japan strengthened its communication and transportation technology with the aim to speed up industrialization. Japan developed and westernized but also retained Japanese cultural values, an example would be the education system. The education system taught not also Western science but also Japanese philosophy and culture.

The government also encouraged private enterprise and adapted western style banking. They built a strong national army and navy which were trained by European and American military officers. The army command was modeled on German General Staff of the Prussian State. It was a conscript army and making it mandatory for all men in their 20s to serve in the army. Before these reforms only the Samurai class could carry weapons and join the military. This expanded recruitment beyond the samurai class. Japan had achieved most of the goals by the start of 20th century. In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War which earned it the respect of its European peers and marked the arrival of Japan as a global power.

Japan placed special emphasis on education during the Meiji restoration. The government of Japan invited foreign scholars to teach at public universities and colleges. They developed an education policy based on the Prussian education system. Japan implemented compulsory education and removed caste restrictions on occupation. The government schools also taught Japanese cultural values such as Confucian principals. The government of Japan also built public libraries and encouraged their usage.

The Government of Bangladesh could introduce compulsory education with an aim of achieving a 100 percent literacy rate. There are still many children in Bangladesh who have not received basic literacy lessons. Therefore, significant improvement to the quality of education in schools is needed. The current H.S.C. graduates will find it difficult to compete in the international market without significant improvements in quality of the curriculum. There needs to be a change in focus, away from memorization and towards developing analytical skills. Both the public and government benefit from a strong public education system that produces well informed and knowledgeable citizens.

Bangladesh should build highly specialized universities focusing on science, technology, engineering, and medical education. Bangladesh, like Japan, needs to focus on the development of vocational schools. Bangladesh needs to prioritize the development of a skilled labor force. The government could increase the number of schools to keep pace with higher enrollments and reduce the pressure on existing schools. The salaries of public school teachers are very low and do not encourage the recruitment of teachers. The government needs to raise the wages to increase moral of current teachers and encourage recruitment. The government can invest in tertiary education. Bangladesh public universities have fallen far behind. The government could encourage Bangladeshi scholars in the diaspora to return home by investing in research and proper facilities in public universities.

Japan developed a strong transport system, including train tracks, and communication system which helped industrialization.  The government of Bangladesh can expand the rail network and modernize it. The government can upgrade the current railways to a high speed system. The government should establish metro railways in Chittagong and Sylhet. The government could build domestic airports in all the divisional cities and upgrade the existing ones. Dhaka airport remains neglected despite being the primary airport of Bangladesh. Chittagong and Mongla port desperately need modernization and increased efficiency. Cellphone service providers are somewhere between 3G and 4G while the rest of the world is moving to 5G. The government of Bangladesh can encourage the adaption of 5G technology through tax cuts and subsidies.  The government should end its dispute with telecom operators as it discourages foreign investors and impedes the development of the telecom industry. The government can build broadband networks in rural areas. There must be a special emphasis on broadband networks reaching rural homes to ensure that everyone enjoys the benefits of digital Bangladesh.

Japan reformed its police, judicial, and civil service incorporating elements from European nations. Japan overthrew the samurai led government in favor of a stronger centralized government led by the Emperor. The current administrative system in Bangladesh was designed by one foreign ruler after another. It is a system designed to rule the people and not serve them. There is room for more democratization in this system, especially when it comes to Upazila governments. In the current system, there is too much power vested in the hands of Upazila Chairmen and Upazila Nirbahi Officers. There needs be a stronger legislative branch at the local level that will check the power of the executive. There is a need for legal and judicial reforms to create a more efficient system as justice delayed can often mean justice denied. There are more than 3 million cases in the judicial pipelines of Bangladesh waiting to be tried. The process can be made more efficient through digitalization of paperwork and recruiting more judges. The government can reduce the number of state owned companies, the vast majority of whom are drain on public funds, and encourage private investment. The role of the government is to be the referee and as such it has no business playing.

Japan understood that it needed to reform and modernizes to catch up with the rest of the world. Today Japan is a leading technological country with some of best technology companies in the world. It is global leader with one of the strongest economies in the world. This development of Japan started with the Meiji restoration. The government of Bangladesh must understand, like Japan did, that Bangladesh needs change and industrialize at a much faster rate. It needs an education system that produces competent graduates who can compete anywhere in the world.

During Mughal era, the GDP of India was about 25 percent of the total world GDP and of that 25 percent, 50 percent came from the Bengal province. Bengal was once the wealthiest province of the Mughal Empire that has been reduced to its current state through years of looting and deindustrialization due to colonialism. Bangladesh can become that golden Bengal again and Japan’s path to industrialization can guide our own path to development and reindustrialization.

The writer is a Lecturer, American International University-Bangladesh

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