Graduate Student Forum

“Katakana is a Commodity”: An Economic History of Japanese Script Reform Movements, 1920–45

Tuesday, 12 October 2021 | 9:00 - 9:45 (JST)
Zoom Meeting
  • Toshiki Kawashima PhD Candidate, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania
  • Sawako Shirahase TCJS Director

This presentation offers an economic historical analysis of a script reform in interwar Japan. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some Japanese believed their complex kana-kanji writing system to be a major hindrance to economic development and proposed various simplified scripts. While the literature has mainly focused on nationalistic reform programs led by the Tokyo government, it has neglected the role of other movements including those led by businesspeople. This presentation focuses on the history of script reform campaigns of the Kana Script Society (Kana moji kai), a pro-katakana and anti-kanji group founded by Taylorism-influenced wealthy entrepreneurs from Osaka in the 1920s. The relationship between script reform, economic ideas, and international economic policies will be discussed. First, the proto-economic model used in the discourse of the Kana Script Society anticipated economic theories of standardization including Paul David’s work on QWERTY keyboards in the 1980s. To market a new script, the businesspeople used an economic model of the dynamics of script users through an analogy with the existing economic systems such as railways. It anticipated concepts such as path dependence, network effect, and switching costs. Second, their reform plans should be understood in the broader context of macroeconomic policy in the late 1920s and the early 1930s. Directors of the society had strong ties with the Minseitō party and supported their macroeconomic policies such as austerity measures, the return to the gold standard, and the so-called industrial rationalization. For them, simplified writing systems would lead to the achievement of their policies by helping to reduce educational and administrative costs. Through the analysis of these aspects, this presentation proposes the possibility and importance of interpreting linguistic reforms through the lens of economic history and history of economic thought.


Toshiki Kawashima is a PhD candidate in History, working on the economic history of modern East Asia, especially interwar Japan. While methodologically based on the history of economic ideas, his dissertation analyzes a topic unconventional in the field: it explains the emergence of economic ideas in the unlikely context of language reform movements. Specifically, it demonstrates how a proto-economic model was used to help Japanese businesspeople—who were also script (writing system/alphabet) reformers—analyze the dynamics of script users and market a new script. His analysis shows that their model anticipated concepts popular in modern economic theory of standardization.