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The Concept of "Development" in Japan and China: Origins and Connotations.


Muyun WANG (the University of Tokyo)

  • This is the third newsletter in the series "Understanding Development" leading up to the JSAS 2023 annual conference and its theme "Redefining Development: Examining alternative approaches in Africa and Asia. "The author examines the concept of development from an etymological point of view, and in light of the linguistic and cultural entanglement between Chinese and Japanese languages and cultures. Muyun WANG is also an assistant coordinator for the JSAS-Hitachi Research Project.

Presently, a considerable body of research has been devoted to investigating the concept of development, with a particular focus on the English term "development." Nonetheless, it is necessary to recognize that languages beyond English possess distinctive historical origins and contextual connotations, influencing their own interpretations of development. This newsletter provides an overview of the concept of "development" in Japanese and Chinese as illustrative cases.

In the Japanese context, two words, namely "開発" (kaihatsu) and "発展" (hatten), are both translated as "development." Similarly, the Chinese language also employs two words for "development": "开发" (kaifa) and "发展" (fazhan). Kazuko Tsurumi, known for her work on "endogenous development," made a clear distinction between "kaihatsu," which refers to changes initiated through external influences, and "hatten," which denotes self-initiated changes. Moreover, "kaihatsu" functions as a transitive verb, while "hatten" functions as an intransitive verb. Currently, the dictionary meaning of the Chinese terms "kaifa" and "fazhan" correspond to the differentiations present in the Japanese terms "kaihatsu" and "hatten," respectively.

The similarities observed between the Chinese/Japanese terms "kaifa/kaihatsu" and "fazhan/hatten" can be attributed to a prolonged history of mutual linguistic influence between the two languages. The Japanese language adopted Chinese characters ("kanji") in the past, while certain terms derived from Japanese were later incorporated into modern Chinese. This exchange was mainly facilitated by Japanese scholars and Chinese intellectuals visiting Japan during the late Qing dynasty, who adopted concepts and Western terminologies written in "kanji" to comprehend modernization effectively. Both "kaifa" and "fazhan" were words imported from Japan in this context. However, the origins of these two terms differ.

The term "kaifa" has a historical background in China, with various meanings found in historical materials, including purging undesirable elements to achieve improvement, eliciting inherent abilities to return to an original state, and more. The concept of "kaifa" was introduced to Japan from China through Buddhism before the Nara Period. However, by the late 19th century, its meaning in Japan had evolved to represent the "discovery and utilization of wealth" in line with domestic changes. This new interpretation of "kaihatsu" was swiftly embraced by Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century, spreading throughout Chinese society as “kaifa”. Over time, "kaifa" began to focus on external aspects of human life, such as economic benefits, valuable resources, and specific knowledge. The responsibility for "kaifa" shifted from the general public to skilled professionals with expertise and technical knowledge, leading to an increasing demand for efficiency and effectiveness in development.

Before the 19th century, however, the term "fazhan" was rarely found in Chinese language texts. Its contemporary Chinese usage can be traced back to a neologism imported from Japanese. Evidence from 20th-century newspapers and database indicates that the Japanese term "hatten" was first introduced in the Japanese translation of "On Liberty" in 1872. Subsequently, after its adoption as "fazhan" in China, its usage significantly increased in Chinese newspapers from 1912, particularly in discussions related to industrial promotion, organizational expansion, and national development. The famous slogan coined by Xiaoping Deng in the 1990s, "Development (fazhan) is the absolute principle," vividly exemplifies the paramount importance of "fazhan" in Chinese society. Presently, "fazhan" continues to hold a central place in political discourse within contemporary China.

The present situation reveals the existence of two distinct terms used for translating "development" in Japan and China. However, the primary translation preference differs between these two countries. In Japan, "development" is mainly rendered as "kaihatsu," whereas in China, the prevailing translation is "fazhan."

The usage of these distinct terms not only carries specific connotations but also influences the perception of development. In China, the preference for "fazhan" can be attributed to the negative associations of "kaifa," which conveys notions of forced intervention and environmental degradation. Moreover, "fazhan" embodies the idea of planned societal transformation, associating with China's historical embrace of social development stages and evolution theories during the 20th century. On the contrary, the choice of "kaihatsu" in Japan reflects a pragmatic tendency, as the term was selected to represent specific and practical approaches for achieving economic growth and rebuilding diplomatic relations after World War II.

This newsletter provides an overview and comparative analysis of the concept of development in the Japanese and Chinese languages, exploring the origins and preferences of the two translated terms. The existence of multiple translations for the English term "development" in non-Western countries, each carrying distinct images and functions, underscores the diversity of development notions. It is essential to examine the local characteristics of development concepts in individual countries or regions and construct a universal understanding in a bottom-up way with each unique context. This endeavor aligns with the current call for pluralism in today's development discourse.

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