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Asian Prosperity and Entrepreneurs

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Asian Prosperity and Entrepreneurs

Since the end of World War II, no region in the world has been as dynamic as East Asia, where one nation after another has created remarkable economic and political “miracles.”
—Zhiqun Zhu, Key Issues in Asian Studies: Understanding East Asia’s Economic “Miracles” (2016)

old, black and white photograph of a group of people in formal wear.
The Japanese delegation to the 1867 Paris World Fair. Eiichi Shibusawa, “the father of Japanese capitalism,” is the first person on the left in the back row. The young individual (seated in the center) is Akitake Tokugawa, half-brother to Shōgun Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the last of the Shōgun rulers. He visited Europe on an international goodwill visit. Source: Wikimedia Commons at

Note the quotations in the title. The dramatic rise in prosperity for many millions of East Asians can, unlike miracles, be explained at its most basic level in two words: incentives and entrepreneurs. Governments in East Asia, beginning with Japan, understood and consistently provided incentives that created opportunities for large numbers of people to feed their families and otherwise prosper. Entrepreneurs—individuals with the talent, prescience, and audacity to take financial risks that resulted in successful national and international business ventures—constituted a vital force driving East Asia’s post-war economic rise, as well as India’s marked improvement in the late 1990s and the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The selections that follow all focus upon entrepreneurs and are useful for a wide range of academic disciplines including anthropology, economics, political science, world history, human geography, and leadership.

Despite the Tokugawa regime’s disparagement of merchants, private entrepreneurs improved prosperity levels during that era. By the late nineteenth century, entrepreneurs created many institutions that later contributed to Japanese post-war success, as readers will learn in John Sagers’ “The Importance of Entrepreneurship in Japan’s Late Nineteenth-Century Meiji Industrial Transformation” (Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 2019).

Creative entrepreneurs in twentieth century China somehow survived until the 1949 Communist revolution despite war lords, the sometimes welcome but also unwanted presence of Europeans and Americans, an authoritarian domestic government, Japanese invaders, and other factors, including, in the case of one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in twentieth century China, relentless institutional sexism. Juanjuan Peng in “Twentieth-Century Chinese Entrepreneurs before 1949: Literature Excerpts for the Classroom” (Volume 24, Number 3, Winter 2019), uses student-friendly brief selections from three literary works (see the related handouts from the online supplements of the issue) in teaching history that illustrate specific, but often universal, trials and tribulations of entrepreneurs who struggle through tumultuous times.

Beginning in the late 1950s, hard-working and creative Taiwanese small entrepreneurs, networking with other entrepreneurs making components of a given product (many Americans bought Christmas tree lights made in the Republic of China) created small and medium enterprise enterprises (SMEs) that are generally regarded today as the most dynamic in Asia. Tzong-Ru Lee and his co-author in “Taiwan’s Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)” (Volume 22, Number 1, Spring 2017) first write an excellent overview of the strengths and weaknesses of Taiwan’s mostly family-managed SMEs, and then complement their introduction with a brief case study on the SME that invented Bubble Milk Tea, and a case study on a once-small (three employees) SME that now successfully markets a delicious health drink with eight different flavors to all age groups.

Many readers who are coffee drinkers are aware of the high quality and high levels of exports of Việt Nam’s coffee industry. Sarah Grant’s “Café Creatives: Coffee Entrepreneurs in Việt Nam” (Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 2019) is a fascinating account on the time, energy, and effort Vietnamese millennial entrepreneurs invest in expanding domestic coffee consumption through the creation of a Vietnamese coffee culture.

Street vendors are a common site in many of the world’s cities, but for large numbers of India’s urban poor, the right to become a street vendor is perhaps their best possible economic option at this juncture in time. Bhuvana Anand and his co-authors in “The Ease of Doing Business on the Streets of India” (Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 2019), tell the story of how these overlooked entrepreneurs struggle for the space to sell their wares despite numerous barriers, and evaluate government attempts to stop the illegal harassment street vendors often face.

Other Teaching Resources: Understanding East Asia’s Economic “Miracles”

Key Issues in Asian Studies (KIAS) books are designed for use in undergraduate humanities and social science courses, as well as by advanced high-school students and teachers, and will appeal to anyone with an interest in Asia. Books in the series complement the AAS teaching journal, Education About Asia, and serve as vital educational materials that are both accessible and affordable for classroom use. KIAS books tackle broad subjects or major cultural and historical themes in an introductory but compelling, jargon-free style appropriate for survey courses, written to encourage classroom debate and discussion.

Ok, this is another resource from the AAS family, but I highly recommend the volume! It is, like all KIAS volumes, inexpensive, and Zhiqun’s book, one of the most popular volumes, has actually been revised two additional times. The first time we only called it, for some inexplicable reason, a second printing even though it was updated.

Book cover for Understanding East Asia's Economic "Miracles"
Understanding East Asia’s Economic “Miracles”
By Zhiqun Zhu

Understanding East Asia’s Economic “Miracles” 

By Zhiqun Zhu

Revised and Expanded Second Edition (2016)

ISBN: 978-0924304798 (paperback). 112 Pages.

This article was published as part of the February 2021 EAA Digest.

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