“The Kana Alphabet Is a Commodity”: Script Reform in Interwar Japan and Grassroots Economic Theory

Toshiki Kawashima, University of Pennsylvania

This presentation explains the emergence of proto-economic model in interwar Japan to understand social phenomena that are not usually characterized as economic in a strict sense. The model used in the discourses of interwar Japanese businesspeople on scripts (writing system/alphabet) anticipated modern economic theories of standardization, which are associated with Paul David’s work on QWERTY keyboards. First, the linguistic, economic, and social contexts of Japanese script reform movements from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries will be explained. Then, based on an extensive paleographic archival research, this presentation analyzes the newly found correspondence of businesspeople belonging to the Taylorist movement who campaigned to simplify the complex Japanese script (writing system/alphabet) in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. It demonstrates that, to market a new script, the businesspeople produced an economic model of the dynamics of script users through an analogy with the existing economic systems, such as railways. Not only did they modeled script as a commodity to be advertised, their model captured important nature of the script with respect to how users choose it: it anticipates concepts popular in the modern economic theory of standardization, such as path dependence, network effect, and switching costs. The emergence of important modern economic ideas in the unlikely context of the language reform questions conventional genealogies in the history of economic ideas.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 11. Interrogating Innovation and Invention