The Light at the End of the Tunnel

(Fragments from a Dialogue heard deep within an Ivory Tower)

Konosuke Odaka

1. What was accomplished?

Young Acolyte (A) The five year-project is just about over isn't it. Did we reach the goals we set out to achieve, Master?

Old Monk (M) A sharp question, young man. It is difficult to measure objectively, but I would say we attained about 40-50% of what we wanted to achieve.

A 40-50%! In a final exam for a course, that would be a failure or at best a borderline mark. Is that a sufficient answer when the project was funded by blood taxes taken from the people?

M Sharper and sharper. But note that it is 40-50% of "what we wanted to achieve." If we adjust our calibrations to what can realistically be achieved within a five-year period, I would say that we reached about a 90% level.

Also, in some cases, we expanded our province into areas we had not originally expected to cover, such as Vietnam. Once the project was underway, we often found ourselves in the position of having to start by searching for and sorting out historical sources from the archives. In some areas, we have only recently built up a clear image of what quality of documents in what quantities are available in which archives (the Russian Far East, for example).

A Please remind me, Master. What was the original objective?

M To construct a macro-economic statistical database for Asia writ-large, from the late-19th century to 1990, a database with unified standards and measures. The project acronym was ASHSTAT (Asian Historical Statistics Project).

A I've been wondering for some time, but how can compiling a database be considered a meaningful research undertaking by itself?

M Yes, for someone such as yourself, trained in the natural sciences, it is only to be expected that such doubts would arise. But one must keep in mind that in the human and social sciences, so-called "objective" data--such data as the measured amount of rainfall, where no matter who reads the measures, the amount is likely to read the same--is more the exception than the rule. Our project collected human and social sciences data "dense in meaning" and attempted to organize everything within a systematic structure. In other words, we 'washed' the data through two filters, the collection and recalculation processes.

A Please explain in more concrete terms.

M Well, let us take the example of population statistics. With population statistics, there are static statistics (census, household surveys), and dynamic statistics (fertility and mortality statistics). Static and dynamic statistics combine to form a population time-series. But in practice, the data that we obtain from these two sets of statistics do not always match.

A ruler might conduct static surveys of population with the objective of symbolizing or displaying the stability of the power of his or her reler. In such cases, the result may be inaccurate surveys conducted without proper preparations, by using untrained nonspecialists as surveyors, and with poor reporting rates.

There are also often problems with dynamic statistics as well. Even if we exclude cases where we do not have access to birth records, there are cases where for socio-cultural reasons, birth records are not sent in, or records are purposefully not sent in until much later. Stillbirths are also often under-reported in many areas.

At any rate, in principle, we should attempt to cover for the incompleteness of the original sources which stem from various reasons. However, to supplement this data, we need to set up hypotheses or suppositions that take into account the various conditions and contexts that engendered the primary sources.

A Adding the interpretations of the readers of data to the equation...

M In practice, if we have even one of either static or dynamic statistics, it is one of the better situations. If we go back far enough, there are plenty of cases where there are no extant statistics of any kind.

We do not necessarily have to give up in such circumstances. We can import estimation tools from the outside, that is, from population theory. However, whether we generate usable estimation results or not depends greatly on whether the hypotheses we deploy reflect the period and regional socioeconomic conditions accurately or not.

Moreover, the completed population time-series should be organized along internationally comparable standards and categories for areas such as sex, household structure, and employment conditions. However, such international standards may not be applicable to the particular period or geographic area.

In short, population statistics are a collection of values that include interpretations of the cultural contexts within which the numerical values were produced. That is where the specialists from the relevant fields come in.

A I see.

M Actually, even with natural sciences, it is people who observe the data. Therefore, the socio-cultural background of an observer can exert considerable influence on the readings. Even with data that is ostensibly "objective" like measurement of rainfall, someone could get tired of measuring every day and just make up a reasonable- sounding number to enter into the log, or make a mistake in the placement of the calibrator, or have some other similar impact.

In contrast, in the human and social sciences, the survey subject is humans and human society, so the socio-cultural conditions underlying the 'observed' must also be considered. All this makes things even more complicated.

2. What did we do, what couldn't we do?

A To what extent were the area and theme-specific results completed?

M Our coverage included 13 areas and 8 themes. The database that made the most progress is Taiwan, and the database that needs the most work, to my mind, is the Russian Far East. This is a strictly personal evaluation, but if we try to grade the various databases by degree of completion on a five-point scale, the results would probably be something like the chart in the appendix (the higher the degree of completion, the lower the number).

To keep things simple, I did not write this on the chart, but for the period during World War II, constructing databases for East and Southeast Asia is an especially difficult endeavor. The simple and obvious reason for this is that the data available for this period and region are extremely meager.

A Even then, it sounds like we still have much ground to cover before we reach our objectives, Master.

M Maybe, but in my honest opinion, I think we can say that we have reached the switchback point. In this sense, we can say that the light at the end of the tunnel has become visible.

A In that case, can we turn now to further discussions of the completed database?

M Yes, we can. And, they do say that the grander the dream, the better.

3. The Value of the Results

A Then, if I may ask, Master, the database that has been produced so painstakingly, what function will it have?

M ƒAThe database will serve as a fundamental source for further analyses of the development of Asian economies from a comparative international perspective over changes in time.

This is something that specialists in the relevant fields have been wanting for quite some time. It is not enough to merely line up the raw data. It behooves us to be meticulous and careful in approaching the sources critically.

A But in your earlier explanation, you mentioned that in analyzing the sources critically, you sometimes adjust the original data. Aren't there people who don't want to use such a database?

M For such people, it would be best if they can look at the original raw data. In anticipation of such needs, we will preserve the original sources (or their copies). In addition, we will organize and store information regarding the origins, survey methods, accuracy, publishing dates, and locations of publication of these original sources.

A In this Information Age, what you're saying sounds almost like some antique anachronism.

M Things have become more convenient, more accurate, and more speedy, but the essence has not changed.

A I remember you saying that there wasn't enough space in the stacks. This too seems like a strange phenomenon in this Information Age.

If the data is stored on CD-ROM, there wouldn't be any need to keep the original documents. Then, people could use the original data easily on their personal computers. Old documents, handwritten papers, and statute books could be easily stored in computers as pictures using a digital camera.

M Your comment shows that you have not thought through the issues carefully enough, young acolyte.

A Why is that, Master?

M Of course, we will use CD-ROM and other latest storage formats. If one were to use the information for 4-5 years, such formats would be fine. However, electronic media evolves at an extremely rapid rate, yes? If we saved everything in an old format on old disks, there is a possibility that unless we save all the old hardware and software, we may not be able to read the data very easily. Consequently, if we want to preserve documents and statistics permanently, at this point, the best formats are old methods such as binding and microfilming. At this point, there are simply no formats that have surpassed or obviated the old methods for this purpose.

A Hmm.

M ‚»Further, with historical statistics, I think it will be only in limited cases that we will put original data or documents on the Internet.

A What are those limited cases?

M Information that we anticipate will be used by a large number of people. Putting data on the Internet takes time and effort. Say only five to ten specialists access the data, then there would not be enough returns for the investment of time and energy.

A I see it clearly now, Master. The old economic principles are still very much at work!

4. Copyright Issues for the Database

M Conversely, if we put everything into an electronic medium, there is a possibility that wider usage could be hindered.

A Huh? I'm not sure I understand.

M Copyright issues can become involved. Even with public data, when it cost money to enter it, there are cases where high user fees are charged.

Even ASHSTAT could not afford to use by itself the UN's magnetic tape of the trade data (organized by detailed category) that it had compiled.

A Maybe the fees were high because the UN is on a tight budget.

M That is probably the case.

A Following up on this issue of access, can anyone use the results of our project?

M Yes. We want to make the final results available on through the Internet. With as detailed as possible interpretations of data and explanations of calculation methods attached.

However, there is one exception. ASHSTAT has benefited greatly from related existing research. In this connection, in order to respect the copyrights held by other institutions of previous research results, we may have to desist from making some data (although a small portion at most) public.

A How about the original documents and intermediate products?

M The original documents will be stored in the Institute of Economic Research Library, once the librarians have finished cataloguing them. These will be in principle open to all researchers. On the other hand, with the worksheets used for the calculations, as they would be messy and difficult to read, they are probably not worth making public.

A Will there be a fee to use the statistical sources we put on the Internet?

M No. There are no plans to charge a fee. From what I heard recently, there are private corporations that handle the collection of Internet user fees. However, with a national university, charging a fee is not possible at this point (although if national universities were restructured as independent administrative entities--as seems to the current trend in Japan--then it might be a different story).

5. How will the results be used?

A Master, how do you personally intend to use the results of the project?

M A good question. I would like to try writing a quantitative economic history of modern Asia from an economist's standpoint.

AuWhy do you specify, "from an economist's standpoint"?

M Because normally, it is a subject that one undertakes only after having understood the particulars of each region and all the relevant history.

With many area experts, however, as they are specialists, the deeper they explore their particular area of research, the further away they go from comparisons with other areas that they do not know as well. With historians, as they know very well the limitations and problems inherent in primary sources, most are quick to take very cautious positions. To write about comparative economic development, there is probably no other way but for an economist who has some experience in economic history to take the initiative.

A If I may say so, Master, compared to your usual confidence, you sound exceedingly diffident.

M Do not mock an old monk, young acolyte. I am always careful and modest.

A What kind of themes will you examine?

M Before answering that question, I should explain the significance of comparisons. From a certain perspective, it could be said that all things are unique, so it is impossible to compare. This relates to basic debates on social science methodologies, such as the differences or similarities between the specific (history) and the general (economics).

A Master, I take it that you are of the opinion that comparisons are meaningful?

M Yes. With some conditions, of course.

A To organize time-series data, long-term unified commodity classifications and industry classifications have to be used. In this project, from what I understand, 1960 is the base year. But to me, such an approach seems problematic. New commodities are always being developed, and old products are being weeded out. Technology will also change, so even if we take the 'same' chemical industry, over time, the actual contents of the industry will change completely.

M If we assume that Schumpeter was correct in pointing to the entrepreneurial spirit as the driving engine of economic innovation, constant change is what characterizes modern and contemporary economic history. However, in using a fixed measure to track this change, the whole endeavor contains within it a fundamental contradiction.

A It is as you say, Master. This is a major problem.

M Nonetheless, if there is no measurement in common, it is not possible to make comparisons. To put it another way, even within differences, there are similarities--this is the assumption behind all comparisons. If, for example, the view that the entrepreneurial spirit is the source of industrialization applies to any place in any period of history, then that shared factor, the entrepreneurs' activities, can be used as the basis of comparative analysis.

Another way of solving the issue is to identify and group periods with many common denominators, and not change the measures for each period in the group. Dividing Western European economic history into ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern periods is based on this kind of thinking. Nevertheless, this method is only useful on the supposition that the periodization is appropriate.

A I understand your point. But what happens to the problem of standardizing commodity classifications or industry categorizations?

M As with periodization, the entire coverage time-span can be divided into several periods, and tailored categories applied for each period. Then, the relationships between these categories can be fine-tuned, and the different periods linked together. Sadly, there is no absolute or fail-safe way of solving the problem.

Rather, there is value in exploring the reason why fixed measures do not apply to certain cases, which is an interesting issue in itself.

A Please excuse my insolence, Master, but that sounds like sophistry or strained stoicism, or...

M Bear with me some more, young man. For example, the population census in early-twentieth century Taiwan has a category called "side occupation without a main occupation." From a present-day perspective, this is a hard category to understand, and there is nothing bearing even a resemblance to this in present day occupation categories. Yet, it is precisely because of its oddity that conversely, the category serves as a key for understanding the dynamics of labor transactions in Taiwan at the time.

A ‚»I understand, Master. But returning to your work, what main themes and subjects will you address?

M Common issues for all regions will be, the early conditions for industrialization, factors that accelerated (or hindered) industrialization, and evaluating the results of economic development, among others.

A That is a grand dream indeed. I will be looking forward to your work, Master.

M Thank you, young man.


  • I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the numerous people who have helped support this project. To the nearly one hundred researchers from both Japan and abroad who took time away from their busy research and teaching schedules to donate their energies to the project, for their academic contributions, I express my heartfelt gratitude and respect.
  • To all the others who provided support--the International Research Bureau of the Ministry of Education, the president of Hitotsubashi University, the Administrative Office of the University, the research assistants and administrative staff of the Institute of Economic Research (especially those in the Administration, Accounting, Library, and Statistical Data Service sections, and the staff of the Documentation Center for Statistical Information on the Japanese Economy), the regulars at the Institute and the COE Room, research associates, research assistants, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellows, and to everyone at the various domestic and foreign universities and research institutes (especially the Institute of Developing Economies, and the Ministry of Industry and Trade Research Center), thank you very much for your cooperation.
  • The Executive Committee of the COE Project at the Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University, will continue to work on the remaining tasks and issues after the end of the project itself. The contact information, such as telephone and fax numbers, the e-mail address, and Internet homepage will continue as before for the foreseeable future.
  • This is the last issue of the quarterly newsletter of the COE project. Many thanks to Ms. Ohse Reiko who has handled the editorial duties since the second issue. To all our readers, thank you for your support. I hope that the results of the project will prove to be of some small use to all of you. Until the next time we meet, my best wishes to all!

    (Hosei University and Professos Emeritas of Hitotsubashi University)

    Chart of Database Compilation Progress Stages

    Russia prewar 3 / postwar 2Vietnam prewar 2 / postwar 2
    Central Asia prewar - / postwar 4Pakistan prewar - / postwar 2
    Taiwan prewar 1 / postwar 1Agriculture prewar 5 / postwar 4
    Philippines prewar 4 / postwar 3Trade prewar 3 / postwar 2
    Thailand prewar 2 / postwar 2Finance prewar 4 / postwar 1
    India prewar 3 / postwar 2Population prewar 3 / postwar 4
    Western Asia prewar 4 / postwar 4National Income prewar 5 / postwar 5
    Russian Far East prewar 5 / postwar 4Industry prewar 5 / postwar 2
    China prewar 3 / postwar 1Prices and Wages prewar 5 / postwar 3
    Korea prewar 1 / postwar 3Statistical Systems prewar 4 / postwar 3
    Indonesia prewar 3 / postwar 2