Janet Hunter is Saji Professor of Economic History at LSE. She teaches comparative and global economic history, and has published extensively on the economic development of modern Japan, with special reference to the development of the female labour market, the history of communications, and the evolution of Anglo-Japanese economic relations. She is currently working on the economic impact of disasters in 20th century Japan.
During the late 19th-early 20th centuries many Westerners, particularly those from Britain, criticised Japanese traders for their low standards of ‘commercial morality’. This paper outlines the Western discourse on commercial morality that informed these criticisms, identifies the specific business practices that gave rise to the accusations of immorality, and explores the extent to which these Western views were shared by the Japanese themselves. It will be suggested that while there were some disagreements about the causes and extent of unethical practices by Japanese, it was strongly believed in Japan as well that many Japanese merchants engaged in fraudulent practices that were motivated by an inordinate desire for personal profit, and were not in the country’s long term interest. Analysis of the commercial morality issue, whose influence on Japanese-Western economic relations persisted into the postwar period, offers insights into the complex interaction between cultural difference and the transnational spread of ideas and business practices.