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Living Standards in Southeast Asia  

Anne Booth

The article surveys the evidence on changing living standards across Southeast Asia, a region that in 2020 included a diverse range of countries from Myanmar to the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. The region has been described as open and pluralistic, a crossroads of goods, people, and ideas that has never been shut off from the outside world. The years from the mid-15th to the mid-17th centuries have been described by one historian as an age of commerce, where trade and commerce flourished and people from a number of countries in Asia and Europe mingled in port cities. But gradually over the 18th and 19th centuries European powers began to assert their control over much of the region, and by the end of the 19th century the British controlled Burma and Malaya, the French Indochina and the Dutch the huge Indonesian archipelago. In the early 20th century the Americans displaced the Spanish in the Philippines. Population growth in Southeast Asia appears to have been slow between 1600 and 1800, but accelerated over the 19th and 20th centuries compared with other parts of Asia. In the early 19th century population was estimated to be around 10 to 12 percent of that in China, and in 2020 it was almost 48 percent. Evidence of living standards in the early 19th century is examined, as well as how the policies of various colonial powers active in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries both facilitated population growth and tackled the consequences . Colonial policies tried to increase both food-crop production for domestic consumption and also encouraged export-oriented agriculture, responding to growing global demand for tropical products. These policies often came into conflict as populations increased. By the early 20th century several colonial powers were worried about evidence that living standards were not improving and in some regions were declining. They adopted policies designed to address the problem. After the defeat of Japan, between 1946 and 1965, ten independent countries emerged across Southeast Asia. Governments in all these countries had ambitious plans for improving living standards for their populations, but the extent to which they succeeded in the last half of the 20th century varied considerably. The article examines the evidence, and suggests reasons why some countries have been more successful in improving living standards compared with others.


The History of Japan’s Silk Exports, 1859–1899  

Yasuhiro Makimura

The export of silk products created a regional trade surplus for eastern Japan, centered on Tokyo. In producing raw silk, the people of eastern Japan created factories to lead rural industrialization. This regional trade surplus was used to fuel growth in the consumer economy of Japan, as it pushed western Japan, centered on Osaka, to develop its cotton industry. These two industries and the Yawata Steel Works in northern Kyushu transformed Japan from an agricultural country to an industrial country in the late 19th century. In this story, the role of government is both central and peripheral. Without the decision by the Tokugawa shogun’s government to open Japan to external trade, this development would never have happened. However, once Japan was opened to trade, the Tokugawa government did not do much to help the trade, while the Meiji government, though desirous of fostering trade, did not always succeed in its efforts. Ultimately, it was the producers and merchants, the people, who transformed the rural economy and the country itself.