lundi 14 avril 2008

A short history of Japan: From Samurai to Sony Curtis Andressen

No book is written without a lot of support. Many
Japanese friends and colleagues over the years
provided valuable insights into their society. Keen Western
observers of Japan also helped me to understand Japanese
culture, and prominent here is Peter Gainey. A number of
people provided a great deal of help in the editing stage,
including my hardworking parents and Andrew MacDonald.
Peter, again, proved to be invaluable at this stage. Debbie Hoad
was a dedicated and creative research assistant. I also owe a
debt to Professor Colin Brown for his encouragement to
undertake this task. Any errors or omissions, of course, remain
the responsibility of the author. Finally, a special thank you to
Blanca Balmes, for her love and unwavering support.

the subject of so much
scholarly attention yet remain so elusive. Who
exactly are the Japanese? Are they peace-loving or war-like?
Creators of stunningly beautiful art forms or destroyers of
pristine natural environments? Isolationist or expansionist?
Considerate of other cultures or arrogantly dismissive? Willing
members of the international community or shy and fearful of
engaging with others? Wildly successful or perched on the edge
of economic ruin? Newspapers over the past few decades have
provided all of these images.
In the late 1980s Japan appeared on the verge of an
economic takeover of the world. The purchase of Columbia
Pictures by Sony and the Rockefeller Center by Mitsubishi
Real Estate at the time were two of the more dramatic
examples of Japanese economic power. In Australia residents
of Queensland’s Gold Coast (with the notable exception
of local real estate agents) protested the Japanese buy-up of
prime real estate. The reaction in many parts of the world was
fear. Movies such as Rising Sun intimated that there was a
rather sinister plot by inscrutable kingpins to make Japan
the next superpower by taking control of the global economy.
Yet governments around the world at the time vied for the
investment opportunities held out tantalisingly by Japanese
So what happened? Since the early 1990s this image has
been turned on its head. Suddenly Japan is a giant with feet
of clay. Financial institutions are closing their doors, or merging, and their leaders are being marched off to jail or are
hanging themselves in hotel rooms. At the same time, the
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in power almost continuously
since the end of the Pacific War, has managed to remain in
control of the government, while voter apathy—reflected in
the 1995 election of former comedians as governors of both
Tokyo and Osaka—is at an all-time high. The recession in
Japan, which has dragged on for more than a decade, seems
to present a problem too large and complex for the government to handle. Politicians appear unable to dissociate
themselves from long-standing interest groups, so stimulus
packages designed to pull Japan out of recession continue to
take the form of pork-barrelling, with massive contracts
awarded to construction companies and the like who in turn
fill LDP coffers. Unfortunately, the money is not spent effectively, public confidence has not been restored, and Japan’s
economy in the early twenty-first century continues to slump.
Part of the problem concerns the demographic profile of
Japanese society. Voting is not compulsory, and those who vote
are disproportionately older and more conservative, so out-dated policies tend to endure. Japan also has a very rapidly
ageing population, with high numbers of people entering
retirement over the next ten to twenty years. At the same time
the birthrate has dropped to its lowest levels ever, so there are
fewer and fewer people to support an ageing population.
Hence, when contemplating retirement, older Japanese workers
have a tendency to save even more than usual. This lack of
spending continues to inhibit economic recovery.
Japanese companies, too, which appeared unstoppable in
the 1980s, are suddenly looking for international partners to
help them out of their dire financial straits, hence the recent
link-up between Nissan and the French automobile company
Renault, preceded by the American company Ford’s massive
purchase of Mazda shares. At the same time many Japanese
companies, which continue to make world-class products, are
posting record profits, and through the 1990s recession Japan
enjoyed huge trade surpluses. It is an unusual type of economic
downturn. Furthermore, Japan continues to hold by far the
greatest foreign exchange reserves of any country in the world,
is second only to Germany in overseas assets and has been the
world’s largest creditor nation since 1985. The country provides nearly 16 per cent of the world’s economic output and
is therefore, for a range of reasons, watched carefully by other
On the international front, however, Japan is relatively
subdued. A few personalities have emerged on the international
scene, such as Akashi Yasushi, the head of the United Nations
Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) during the UN
reconstruction of that country in the early 1990s and, more
recently, Ogata Sadako, present head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), especially prominent during the UN’s recent intervention in East Timor. These
are exceptions, though, and Japan continues to play a less
visible role than is appropriate for a country that still has the
second largest economy in the world. At the same time, it is
a key source of funds and direction for many international
organisations such as the UNHCR and the Asian Development
In part the Japanese reluctance to be more assertive is a
reflection of the country’s vulnerability. In many ways the label
of ‘fragile superpower’ continues to hold true. In spite of
massive investments abroad, trade surpluses and cutting-edge
products, Japan remains vulnerable to fluctuations in foreign
policies and economies. It continues to import 80 per cent of
its primary energy requirements and is dependent on value added exports for its wealth. When restricted to its home
islands Japan is a poor, isolated, island nation. It must trade
to create wealth, and this fundamental reality has moved the
country into imperialism, war, destruction and global trade at
various times over the last century. At the same time, given
Japan’s massive foreign investments and level of trade, other
countries are dependent on its goodwill for economic growth.
In this sense economic globalisation serves to protect Japanese
There is a curious tension in Japan’s foreign relations.
Many in the region still remember Japan’s wartime aggression;
as a result, while investment is welcomed, the investor is
watched with some wariness. In the history of the region the
Pacific War did not end so long ago, certainly not long enough
for fundamental cultural change to take place. Foreign trade,
regardless, does not take place for altruistic reasons and Japan,
like other countries, tries to maximise its benefits. Japanese
companies also tend to recreate their structures overseas. They
claim to need the quality products that only Japanese firms
can provide. In other countries, though, Japanese companies
are often seen as supporting each other while freezing out local
suppliers. Hence, the extent to which Japanese investment
produces long-term local benefits (particularly ones that are
spread around rather than going mostly to local elites) is hotly
For most people in the region the effects of Japanese trade
and investment are highly visible. Whether it is downtown
Bangkok, Sydney, Ho Chi Minh City, Shenzen or the Klang
Valley outside Kuala Lumpur, the names of famous Japanese
companies are everywhere. Automobiles bear Japanese brands,
as do stereos, televisions, computers and a vast range of other
types of consumer electronics. Goods that carry Japanese
names, too, are often made (or at least assembled) in the
low-wage countries of Asia. There are few countries in which
Japanese companies are not playing a substantial role and in
which their goods are not readily accessible.
While Japanese goods are moving around the world, so
too are Japanese people. Tourist departures rose dramatically
in the 1970s and 1980s, and even in the 1990s they continued
at record levels. More than 17 million Japanese travelled
abroad in 2000, more than 80 per cent of them as tourists.
While there are increasing numbers of independent, especially
budget, travellers, most still prefer package tours. Indeed,
Japanese are renowned for their failure to blend into local
cultures, remaining observers rather than participants (though
younger Japanese seem to be challenging this trend). In part
this is a result of the Japanese employment system, which gives
few holidays to workers, and in part it reflects the essentially
culture-bound character of the Japanese nation.
One group which is increasingly visible on foreign landscapes, however, is young Japanese women. They are the
‘bachelor elite’ of Japanese society. They tend to live at home
and work full-time after completing their education, thereby
saving substantial sums. Foreign travel is one of the preferred
ways of spending this money. Indeed, they are a prized group
for marketing companies. Does this indicate a substantial
change in women’s roles, though? Today there remains much
debate about the extent to which contemporary changes are
part of the mainstream. The Equal Employment Opportunity
Law (EEOL) of 1986 (most recently revised in 1999) helped
women to access management-track positions. This change has
been driven to some extent by an increased assertiveness on
the part of women, and partly by the demographic shift in
Although the economic downturn of Japan in the 1990s
has meant relatively high unemployment levels, the ageing
population will lead to substantial labour shortages in the
not-so-distant future, and this should have a significant impact
on women’s participation in the labour force. At the moment,
although it is clear that more women are being provided more
opportunities in the labour force, the classic working-life
profile, where women in their 30s and 40s quit working to
raise children and re-enter the labour force later in life, is still
evident. However, women are increasingly being given the
option of a career path in Japanese companies, and this trend
will almost certainly become stronger over time.
Participation in the labour force is, of course, linked to
changes in the social roles of women in Japan. The average
age of first marriage for women has increased three years over
the past three decades and now stands at 27.5 years. At the
same time the fertility rate has dropped, from 4.5 children per
Japanese woman in 1947 to 1.36 today, well below the replacement level of 2.1 children. This is having an impact throughout the social system, from work expectations to
gender roles to demands for specialised services.
Japanese men, on the other hand, seem to be stuck in the
past, where the traditional life cycle is still very much the norm.
There are a few indications, however, that young Japanese men
are beginning to question the dedication and compliance that
such a life demands, and are considering alternatives. This
dissatisfaction is in part related to the increasingly visible costs
of the existing system. Indeed, one of the most recent issues
−being publicly debated is that of karoshi, literally ‘death from
overwork’, though it generally refers to the problem of chronic
exhaustion. Former Prime Minister Obuchi, who died in 2000
while still in office, is its most recent high-profile victim.
The educational system also plays a key role in defining
the roles of young Japanese. At least since World War II, the
(ideal) expectation has been that a Japanese man should do
well in his entrance examinations, enter one of the top universities in the country and, after graduation, secure a position
in a well-known company or government department. He
should work diligently, get along with his colleagues and stay
with that organisation until retirement or death. A Japanese
woman, on the other hand, should gain entry to a good
education institution, secure a partner from among the well-heeled young men there, work a few years, then marry and
have children, raise them and perhaps re-enter the labour force
at a relatively low level when she reaches middle age. This
model for Japanese women is presently undergoing significant
change, though there is less change in the life cycle of males.
Although it reinforces very traditional roles, the education
system has served the needs of Japan very well and has enjoyed
widespread support in the postwar era. This is primarily
because, in spite of some abuses of the system, and a bias
towards higher income groups, the system is, at least in theory,
a meritocracy—which has, however, come under increasing
criticism in recent years. There have been charges made by a
range of writers about the focus on rote learning, pressures to
conform, lack of flexibility, censorship of textbooks and little
emphasis on creative thinking. Violence in schools, directed at
both students and teachers, has become a particularly pressing
problem. Perhaps the most contentious issue, however, and
one which is very difficult to change, is the use of entrance
examinations throughout the educational system. One of the
key roles of the education system in Japan is to stratify society,
and this is done most visibly at the end of the final year of
high school (though arguably much earlier), when students sit
entrance examinations for various universities. The university
one attends is linked to status, field of employment and hence
upward mobility. Competition to enter the top universities in
Japan is intense (as exemplified by the term shiken jigoku,
‘examination hell’). Preparation can begin as early as kinder-garten. Indeed, a segment of private industry, the juku (‘cramschool’) has been developed primarily to help students pass
these examinations, and such schools are increasingly visible.
High incomes and a high standard of living are leading to this
approach to education and social stratification coming under
increasing pressure, however. The decline in the school-age
population also means that accessing elite universities has
recently become somewhat easier.
There have been some changes in the education system in
recent years, one of the most important developments being
the support for internationalisation, the key feature of which
is study-abroad programs for high school and university students. There is also a variety of programs that facilitate
Japanese students taking part of their tertiary education in an
overseas educational institution, ranging from obtaining a
foreign degree either partially or wholly in Japan (or overseas),
securing credit towards a Japanese degree while studying
abroad for a year or more, or taking short-term courses
overseas for credit. Altogether some 180 000 Japanese studied
abroad in 2000, an increase of nearly 100 000 over the 1988
figure. These programs serve a number of purposes. In a
shallow sense they allow the educational institutions concerned
to improve their attractiveness at a time of significantly declining enrolments. They are, in this case, a marketing tool that
dresses up a tourist trip as a study-abroad program. Other
programs are organised with more profound pedagogic intent,
and give students the benefits of traditional programs of
overseas study with individuals meaningfully interacting with
people from different races and cultures.
There is no doubt that young Japanese people are caught
in a transitional period. Their parents created Japan’s economic
miracle, and young people generally want for little in a material sense. However, not having experienced the country’s
devastation during the Pacific War, with the costs of dramatic
economic growth becoming clearer, and a number of leaders
calling for changes in the way in which the economic and
social systems are organised, it is understandable that younger
Japanese are questioning their goals. Indeed, in the late 1980s
it was official policy to spend more on consumer items which
would enhance quality of life (and in the process, help to
reduce the trade surplus). The recession of the 1990s has
tended to slow such changes. But the traditional systems are
still firmly in place and those who are searching for alternatives
are still on the periphery, although women have much more
flexibility in this regard than do men. Given the profound
nature of the changes which are occurring in Japan, however,
it may be expected that those who are now the trendsetters
will be part of a significantly modified mainstream in the
In the meantime the people who continue to hold power
in Japan are mostly older men, conditioned by the hardships
they faced in the 1940s and 1950s, who have seen Japan
defeated, impoverished and at the mercy of foreign powers.
They owe their success to the existing system, are part of a
web of obligations and naturally have a vested interest in
maintaining the status quo. This is a powerful force in resisting
fundamental change.
Change is also inhibited by the way in which power is
distributed within Japanese society. Just who governs Japan
continues to be debated, especially by Western political scientists. Conventional wisdom has it that there is an ‘iron triangle’
of power in Japan—politicians, the bureaucracy and big business—and these groups balance each other. No one group has
overall control. This is especially puzzling given that the
structure of government is easily recognisable to anyone from
a Western country. It functions, however, in a uniquely Japanese manner.
A key point here is that the different centres of power
in Japan are locked together. Politicians, for example, look to
Japan’s large business conglomerates for funding and they
in turn expect appropriate support. Politicians find themselves
so busy raising funds for the favours expected by business and
electorate alike that they have little time to gain expertise
within a portfolio and therefore to formulate new laws. This
is essentially left to the bureaucracy, which gives this group
enormous authority: over time the bureaucracy has come to be
a centre of power, often seemingly independent of politicians.
However, competition between departments tends to both
balance power and, at the same time, inhibit change. Bureaucrats in turn are tightly connected to the businesses for which
they set the policy frameworks, and mutual obligation is
apparent here. For example, after retirement a bureaucrat who
has shown himself to be suitably sympathetic to the needs of
a particular company can expect a plum job advising that
company on business strategy and gaining favours from the
government, especially using his connections with his juniors
who continue to work within the bureaucracy. The term for
this is amakudari, or ‘descent from heaven’ (high-level people
coming down to earth). There is thus a network of dependencies within these centres of power, reinforced by informal
personal connections usually begun at university. It is not
surprising that outsiders find it difficult to determine exactly
how policies are made in Japan, which leads some writers to
conclude that there is a secret plot within these power structures to push Japan ahead at all costs.
In the 1980s this system of power-sharing appeared to
work wonderfully well. Numerous books were written on how
social and economic structures operated. Bureaucrats in particular were seen as the guiding geniuses of the economy,
charting future directions and negotiating secret deals between
competing companies for the greater good of the nation. This
was never so clear-cut, of course, but it was difficult to argue
against the incredible successes of the country in the economic
arena. The growth of the bubble economy in the late 1980s,
however, and the subsequent recession, has dealt a tremendous
blow to this picture of invincible and omniscient leaders, and
raises questions about the educational and employment systems which nurtured their outlook and behaviour.
In a sense the way in which the power structures are set
up in Japan is merely a reflection of fundamental characteristics of Japanese society. Some authors have argued that to
understand Japan one must consider its origins as a civilisation
built on wet rice agriculture similar to, for example, Indonesia
or Vietnam. Because such an agricultural system demands close
cooperation, whether for the construction of paddies and
supplying them with water, planting or harvesting, the resulting
society will strongly value cooperation and have a network of
mutual obligations at its core. In Japan this has been modified
by Confucianism, with all of its attendant obligations and
demands for respect and obedience at different levels. Viewing
Japan from the perspective of its citizens being part of a
complex network of dependency and obligation is one useful
tool for analysing the way in which Japanese society functions.
A complementary view is one of exploitation, akin to a
Marxist perspective. Indeed, it is difficult to reject the idea
that Japan’s miracle economic growth was not achieved with-
out severe sacrifice on the part of ordinary Japanese workers.
A trip to Japan today is a powerful reminder of the demands
made of labour. An early morning walk through one of
Tokyo’s major train stations dramatically underlines the point
that Japanese companies put high demands on their employees, as they pour lemming-like out of jammed commuter
trains and race for their offices. Indeed, much of contemporary
journalistic writing on Japan likes to focus on the dysfunctional aspects of the employment system—the incredibly
long working hours, the expected bouts of super-expensive
after-hours drinking/singing/bonding by ‘salarymen’ (white-collar wage earners) and, increasingly, female office workers,
or the long and dreary commuting trips home late at night.
More to the point is that Japanese companies tend to
organise their workers into a military-like structure, where
small groups are assigned tasks that must be completed on a
daily basis. Coupled with the obligations between the workers
in these groups, employees who call in sick without a very
good reason, or shirk their duties are rare, since the resultant
burden will fall on their co-workers. At the same time, the
system of seniority, which is connected with age and contains
substantial penalties for people who switch companies, means
that the system is very stable, and employees must usually
think in terms of long-term employment (though there are
signs that this system is loosening up, especially with the recent
economic problems in the country). In smaller companies the
military analogy is not so apt, though different forms of
exploitation are evident, such as where larger companies effectively control smaller suppliers.
The rather unusual ways in which the Japanese social and
economic systems function has for decades generated tremendous interest in other countries, an interest kicked off by
Japan’s dramatic recovery following the devastation of the
Pacific War. Quick to respond to the economic miracle were
a variety of writers who analysed virtually every aspect of
Japanese society. Contributing in no small way were the
Japanese themselves, who held forth on the issue to foreigners
as well as to fellow citizens. (It appears that many were
surprised at how quickly the economy had grown.) The result
is a body of literature entitled nihonjinron (‘discussions of the
Japanese’), and its proponents have come up with a variety of
explanations (ranging from reasonable to bizarre) for why
the Japanese are different from everyone else and how this has
allowed them to enjoy such spectacular economic growth.
Hence, we have former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro
Nakasone expounding on Japan’s monsoon (as opposed to
desert) culture. Shizuma Iwamochi, former head of the Association of Agriculture Cooperatives, once told a group of foreign
journalists that Japanese could not digest foreign beef because
their intestines were different from those of Westerners. Others
discuss the nature of the Japanese brain, which is said to make
people more group-oriented than people from other cultures
(using the left side of the brain rather than the right side).
Nihonjinron reasoning is behind the beliefs held by many
Japanese that their language is simply too difficult for foreigners to learn and that Japan has a homogeneous culture (‘we
Japanese think that . . .’). The darker side to this type of
thinking is cultural superiority, which is linked to insensitivity
to other cultures and, indeed, racism. It is a disturbing facet
of Japanese society, and one which some of Japan’s neighbours
are quick to point out. Such views were, however, mostly a
product of the 1980s economic boom and have waned along
with the decline in Japan’s economy.
Much of the writing on Japan over the past decades was
naturally concerned with explaining the country’s ‘miracle’
economic growth even in the face of adversity (such as the oil
shocks of the 1970s). Since the early 1990s, however, there
has been a shift to a more balanced analysis. Japan is a country
with a number of unique characteristics that both provide
advantages and yet present difficulties. The economic down-
turn of the 1990s has, in this respect, been positive. Japan is
not as different as we thought.
What is apparent is that Japan is on the edge of a number
of substantial shifts in the way in which its society is organised.
In the immediate postwar era its citizens were concerned with
avoiding starvation, and then with coping with foreign
occupation. The 1950s saw tremendous social upheaval as
competing groups vied for power and bargains were struck
between business, employees and government. The 1960s were
a time of supergrowth, and the 1970s and 1980s saw an
expansion as well as consolidation of Japanese wealth and its
movement around the globe.
So where does Japan go from here? It is clear that the
structures which have served it so well are now approaching
their ‘use-by’ dates. Government is not sufficiently transparent
or responsive. The educational system is arguably becoming
dysfunctional. Women’s talent is largely wasted (in spite of a
recent increase in women’s workforce participation after marriage) and a severe labour shortage is looming as a massive
number of people approach retirement age. Young people
wonder why they must sacrifice their lives to the economy and
are increasingly concerned with quality-of-life issues. Those
who guided Japan so well during the period of rapid economic
growth demonstrated a high level of incompetence in the late
1980s and 1990s. They allowed a bubble economy to develop,
which turned into a recession, and they seem at a loss as to
how to fix the problem. Thus it appears that substantial
change must take place before many more years pass.
Examining Japan’s past is an essential key to understanding
its complex present, for the past is where Japan’s fundamental
characteristics originated and developed over time. There are
clear threads that run through the centuries and explain much
of contemporary social practice. This book seeks to identify
the origins of the characteristics that explain Japanese society
One must recognise that there are many Japans that could
be examined. The problem of core versus periphery in the
country naturally raises the issue of which Japan we are talking
about. Major events usually involve the central government,
large cities, areas of important economic activity and so on.
While events in these areas are relatively well-recorded, a bias
naturally enters into the reporting of history, and one should
not forget that any society has variations, whether along
geographical lines or those of wealth and power. While the
remote, poor or weak are often not noticed, we should not
forget their presence.
In terms of broad themes in Japanese history, a number of
ideas provide the focus of this book. First, Japan is an island
nation, thus isolated and not subject to the same pressures as
it would be were it landlocked or surrounded by other peoples.
This has led to unique cultural developments despite the
population’s diverse origins. Second, when new ideas were
taken on they were modified to suit existing cultural characteristics. The concept of the Japanese as ‘borrowers’ tends to
obscure the fact that those ideas or items borrowed have also
been adapted. Periods of strong borrowing have often been
followed by periods of nationalism, a reaction to challenges
to basic cultural practices. Third, isolation has led to the
self-perception that Japanese are very different from other
nationalities, an attitude that still endures today, though
younger people are much more internationalised than older
generations. Fourth, and modifying the previous point, Japan
was as strongly influenced by China in the early development
of its civilisation as were other countries in the region, such
as Vietnam, Thailand, Korea and others, and thus these cultures share many basic characteristics. Fifth, the fundamental
culture of Japan emphasises mutual respect and cooperation,
especially working together, in a country where survival is
relatively difficult and there are few natural resources and
frequent natural disasters. This is linked to cultural practices
that avoid social conflict. Sixth, the provinces were historically
very powerful in Japan. Much of the country’s early political
and social development was conditioned by the struggle for
power between the political centre and the provinces, and this
has had a significant influence on contemporary culture. Seventh, Japanese society has tended to be strongly hierarchical
throughout its history and this endures today, in spite of a
recent veneer of democracy having been added. This has many
implications, one of which is that the elites tend to manipulate
the people. Finally, there are different sides to Japanese culture.
American anthropologist Ruth Benedict set out the idea as the
dichotomy between the chrysanthemum and the sword (in a
book written to explain the behaviour of Japanese troops
during the Pacific War)—or it could perhaps be thought of as
the dichotomy between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ culture. As in many
other societies, Japan has both a substantial martial tradition
and one of refined and gentle artistic accomplishments.
Above all, Japan is a fascinating country. It is not an easy
place to understand, but trying to do so is both challenging
and good fun, and an appropriate place to start is at the
The geographical setting
Japan is an island nation that derives its identity through
isolation from, yet proximity to, the Asian mainland. It is
separated from Korea by the Straits of Tsushima, a distance
of about 200 kilometres. This was clearly a major barrier to
foreign contact in Japan’s early history—compare it to the
roughly 30 kilometres separating the UK from the European
This isolation has meant that cultural borrowing from the
mainland occurred at a relatively even pace and foreign ideas
were modified to suit local cultural practices. This is not to
say that there were no periods of dramatic change, but there
was never a military conquest by people from the mainland
that might have fundamentally altered the path of Japanese
civilisation. There was nothing like the Norman invasion of
the British Isles. The readiness with which foreign ideas have
been adopted has led to a widespread perception that Japan
is simply a nation of borrowers. While this is partly true,
Japanese culture also strongly reflects domestic characteristics.
Japan is not a particularly small country, being similar in
size to Germany and one and a half times larger than the UK.
It comprises four main islands—Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku
and Kyushu—and some 7000 smaller ones. They stretch about
3000 kilometres from north to south, with corresponding
climatic differences. Because of its proximity to Siberia, Hokkaido has cold winters and heavy snowfalls, while the Ryukyu
islands in the south reach almost to Taiwan and are sub-tropical.
Topographically, Japan is very rugged, with favourable
ecological niches which can sustain relatively large populations. The Kanto Plain, location of present-day Tokyo, is the
largest of these. It is some ten times larger than either the
Nobi Plain (Nagoya area) or the Kansai Plain (Osaka, Kyoto
and Nara area), the other two major regions favourable to
agriculture. More than half of the country is mountainous,
reflecting its volcanic origins. Indeed, one of the best known
symbols of Japan is the cone of Mt Fuji (inactive since 1707),
the summit of which is about 3800 metres. The central Hida
Range has many peaks above 2000 metres, so the interior
of Japan contains a substantial natural barrier. Only about
14 per cent of the land is used for agriculture, the rest being
covered with forests and fields, roads, water and cities.
Although we often think of Japan as being crowded, this
is mostly because the population is crammed into less than
5 per cent of the total land area. In the face of the dramatic
images that the media present of crowded urban conditions,
we should remember that the high level of urbanisation is a
phenomenon of the late nineteenth century and especially of
the past 50 years. Finally, it is worth noting that the population
of Japan is far from small. With about 126 million inhabitants,
Japan has the seventh largest population in the world.
The landscape has naturally affected the way in which
Japan was settled and how its culture developed. A rugged
landscape, where people are separated by mountain ranges,
rivers or bodies of water, leads to cultural diversity. It is not
surprising that even today there remain significant regional
dialects and variations in customs, as in the UK or Germany.
Indeed, a theme running through Japanese history is the extent
to which a central government has had problems keeping the
provinces under control. The development of powerful central
institutions, which attempted to regulate even the minute
details of people’s lives, was a response to fear of regional
autonomy and rebellion.
Japanese mythology
Every country has fictions as part of its nationalist baggage,
whether it is the Wild West, forthright and hardy heroes of
the revolution—or wise and stately kings. Japan is no different.
The mythological origins of the Japanese state are complicated,
convoluted, vague and full of differing interpretations, reflect-
ing the different ethnic groups which eventually became the
Japanese people.
In one brief version of Japanese folklore the world was
a ‘chaotic mass like an egg’, and there was no division between heaven and earth. Gradually the purer part separated
into heaven and the heavier, impure part became the earth.
Between heaven and earth divine beings emerged. After a time
an object resembling a reed shoot emerged between heaven
and earth, which turned into a god. Seven more followed, the
most important of whom were Izanagi and Izanami (Male
Who Invites and Female Who Invites). They stood on the
floating bridge of heaven and thrust a jewelled spear (clearly
a phallic symbol, in keeping with early ideas of creation) down
into the ocean. As they raised the spear some water dripped
from it and congealed into an island, to which they descended.
After a time they decided to become husband and wife and in
due course Izanami gave birth to islands, seas, rivers, plants
and trees. Izanagi himself gave birth to Amaterasu, the sun
goddess, while purifying himself (washing one of his eyes). She
was so strikingly beautiful that he decided to send her up the
ladder to heaven to forever illuminate the earth. Again while
purifying himself Izanagi gave birth to the moon god,
Tsukiyomi. He was also sent to heaven, but had a disagreement
with Amaterasu. She refused to look at Tsukiyomi, and so they
were separated by day and night.
The next child was Susano-Wo (the ocean, or storm god),
who was cruel and had a violent temper. After having a terrible
fight with him over his bad behaviour Amaterasu hid herself
in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. The other gods
were understandably upset by this turn of events, and so
brought a sacred tree and set it up outside the cave. In its
branches they placed a bronze mirror and a jewel. When
Amaterasu still did not appear, one goddess performed a lewd
dance; the laughter of the others made Amaterasu curious and
enticed her out of the cave, whereby the world was again filled
with light. For his part in this affair Susano-Wo was eventually
expelled from heaven (the world of the gods). After this he
had many adventures, during one of which he killed an
eight-headed serpent (after getting it drunk) which had a sword
hidden inside its tail, and this he gave to Amaterasu as a
symbol of contrition.
So what does this sliver of Japanese mythology mean? One
telling point is that the mythological beginnings were written
down relatively recently compared to other civilisations,
coming from the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the
Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). These are among the oldest
records of Japan, from AD 712 and 720 respectively. They
were written at a time when the emperor was trying to
consolidate his power—having divine origins was obviously
useful. Indeed, the conflict between Susano-Wo and Amaterasu
appears to be an analogy for several groups competing for
power at the time (there were a number of regional powers).
In any event, the works are full of scholarly inconsistencies
and are clearly partly fabricated.
The use of myths for political purposes shows up period-
ically in Japanese history, and especially during the Meiji
period in the nineteenth century. In recent times they were
perhaps most obviously manipulated in the years preceding the
Pacific War to bind the Japanese together in a spirit of
ultranationalism. Generally speaking, it is politically advantageous to have an emperor as the titular head of the Japanese
people and the myths legitimise his power. The current
emperor is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Amaterasu
(the counting, too, is clearly inaccurate). Such symbols are
obviously important, and the mirror, jewel and sword are sacred
symbols that continue to be revered by many in Japan today.
The worship of the sun also hearkens back to a time at
the dawn of civilisation. One version of Japanese history has
it that the early inhabitants were sun-worshippers, and the
mythology is connected with rites at the time of the winter
solstice to encourage the sun to return, a practice not so
different from Western Christmas festivities. Indeed, the names
Nihon, Nippon and Japan may be corrupted forms of the
Chinese word Jih-pen, which means ‘the place where the sun
comes from’, hence ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’.
The myths also help explain the existence of various gods,
or spirits (kami), which are at the core of the indigenous
religion of Japan, Shinto (‘the way of the gods’). This religion
is fundamentally one of nature-worship, an animistic belief
system that helped explain changes in the natural environment
to a primitive people. A notable characteristic of Japanese
mythology is the absence of good and evil. Rather, gods tend
to be hot-tempered, or calm, and so on. There is also a
complex examination of gender roles and male–female relationships, and the nature of life and death running through
these early myths.
There are a few other ideas which emerge from the myths,
one of them being the divine origins of the islands, a point
reinforced from time to time during Japanese history. There
are also explanations for disasters and conflict, and for the
divisions between the present world, the world of dead people
and the world of the gods. There is also a strong female
presence, similar to that seen in the origins of many societies
(with a later shift from matriarchy to patriarchy); indeed, some
of the early leaders were empresses.
One cannot say that such ideas or belief systems are
positive or negative—they are both, like any form of national
identity. In the Japanese case, however, they seem to reinforce
the perception many Japanese have that they are different from
others, a notion much more prevalent in older people, particularly those who were educated before or during the Pacific
War. While this may stimulate national pride and identity, the
downside is arrogance and xenophobia. This phenomenon
finds its way into the present day in a number of forms,
particularly in nihonjinron writings (which reached their zenith
in the late 1980s). In trade discussions, for example, statements
such as ‘our stomachs are different from yours so we can’t
digest the food you want to sell us’ dumbfounded foreign
negotiators in the 1980s.
The archaeological record
Just how different are the Japanese? What does the archaeological record show about their origins? Although the research
is still controversial, it appears that people first came to Japan
from Korea, China and the Pacific islands perhaps 200 000
years ago, although some put this figure at 600 000 years. The
last glaciers receded about 15 000 years ago, and until that
time a number of land bridges intermittently connected Japan
to the mainland in the north, west and south. Archaeological
evidence clearly shows that waves of migration to the islands
occurred some 30 000 years ago, forming the Palaeolithic (old
stone age) basis of the Japanese people. DNA analysis today
shows that the first wave of migrants originated from South-east Asia, and subsequent ones from the Asian mainland.
The first substantial Neolithic (later stone age) civilisation
of hunters and gatherers in Japan is called the Jomon (roughly
10 000 to 300 BC), named after the cord pattern of their
pottery—indeed one of the first examples of pottery in the
world. These people were from different genetic backgrounds,
depending on whether they came from the Pacific islands, the
southeastern part of Asia or the eastern and northern parts of
the mainland. There was naturally some mixing between
groups but some, such as the Ainu, which are believed to have
come from northern China or eastern Siberia, remained
relatively isolated on Hokkaido (as well as, perhaps, on the
The Japanese people are genetically close to the peoples of both
Southeast Asia and the Asian mainland.
Kurile Islands and Sakhalin Island). Originally known as the
Ezo (the old name for Hokkaido), they were renamed Ainu
about the time of the Meiji period. They are regarded, though
only officially since 1997, as the only remaining truly indigenous Japanese people.
The Jomon period, although the inhabitants remained
primarily hunter-gatherers, saw the beginning of a number of
changes. Because people tended to remain in particular areas
more complex social behaviour appears to have developed and,
connected with this, small bands of nomads began to combine
into larger communities (up to, perhaps, 500 individuals).
Religious rituals became more complex. Very early farming
practices may also have emerged; in Kyushu a form of dry rice
was harvested from about 1000 BC, a practice which subsequently spread to other regions. Shellfish in particular
provided sustenance, and some 2000 shell mounds have been
discovered on the Kanto Plain. The population during this time
probably varied between 20 000 and ten times that number,
depending on changes in the physical environment.
Around 300 BC a group of newcomers from the mainland
arrived in (or invaded) Japan by boat, eventually displacing
the Jomon, a process which took hundreds of years. The new
group brought bronze and iron technology, and the period has
been named Yayoi after an excavation site in Tokyo. Their
knowledge reflects their North-east Asian origins, as do arte-facts of the time, such as mirrors, weapons, bells and coins
from the mainland. The Yayoi period lasted from approximately 300 BC to AD 300.
Wet rice agriculture was introduced during this time, an
innovation which led to a massive impact on Japanese society,
and was one of the first examples of borrowing ideas from
abroad. It provided the inhabitants with a relatively high level
of food production, which led in turn to an increase in
population and a consequent settlement of new areas. One can
speculate (since these people left no written records) as to the
social and political impacts of this form of agriculture that, at
its base, requires a high level of social cooperation (building
rice paddies, an irrigation system, planting and harvesting). It
may be that the strong communal aspect of Japanese society
has its origins in this period. In any event, from a practical
point of view, it is clear that the emphasis on rice as a staple,
along with a dependency on fishing, established the basic diet
that exists in Japan today.
The new inhabitants settled first in the western part of the
island of Kyushu (the part of Japan closest to the mainland)
and then spread northeast to the Kanto Plain. They mixed to
some extent with the Jomon inhabitants but the Jomon were
largely displaced to the fringe areas of northern Honshu and
Hokkaido, southern Kyushu and the Ryukyu Islands, since
more people and wet rice agriculture meant the need for more
land. Although generally the Yayoi people and their culture
spread peacefully, some of the Jomon resisted domination by
the newcomers and eventually were given the name of Emishi,
meaning ‘barbarians’. They were in periodic conflict with the
people of central Japan until well into the Edo period. Thus
from very early times the Japanese were a mixture of ethnic
(cultural practices) and racial (physical characteristics) groups,
which stands in contrast to the claim frequently made by Japanese today that they are ethnically and racially homogeneous.
Around this time Japan begins to show up in Chinese
records, one of the first contacts being recorded in AD 57,
when a Japanese mission travelled to China. There were a
number of subsequent visits, in both directions, over the
ensuing five centuries. The chiefs of different clans were
already competing, and made contact with the Chinese to
obtain trade goods and especially new technology. The History
of Wei, completed by Chinese scholars in AD 297, is the most
thorough description of Japanese society in this period. It notes
that Japan was occupied by a number of independent tribal
units, headed by both men and women, who combined secular
power with some degree of religious authority, and that people
survived mostly through fishing and agriculture.
The Chinese remarked especially on the clear class distinctions within Japanese society, presumably the result of the
relatively permanent settlement associated with wet rice cultivation. In such a culture an interdependent, stable population
would be more easily controlled by social elites. War-like
competition between tribes was common, and would have led
to some becoming more powerful than others. Within tribes
the status of warriors naturally grew, a system of slavery
emerged, and the complex social hierarchy that developed was
noted by the Chinese visitors.
The Chinese description also mentions Yamatai, the
agglomeration of about 30 Japanese settlements or ‘kingdoms’
at the time under the shaman-queen Himiko, which paid
tribute to the Chinese emperor. Some scholars believe that
Yamatai is the present-day Yamato, in central-eastern Japan
(in the vicinity of Nara), while others argue that it was in
northern Kyushu, the eventual site of the first Japanese state;
the archaeological evidence is not clear.
The Yamato state, 3rd to 6th century.
From about AD 300 the Yayoi inhabitants began burying
their leaders in large earthen mounds, suggesting a strong
hierarchical power structure similar to, for example, that
which led to the building of the pyramids of Egypt. The
mounds also indicate a strong Korean influence, with similar
structures evident in Kyongju, South Korea, today. They are
known in Japanese as kofun, which has given its name to the
period of Japanese history following the Yayoi, about AD 300
to 700, though there is no exact agreement on these dates.
West Japan in ancient times.
More than 10 000 such burial mounds dating from this time
have been discovered. Some of them are both large and
elaborate, and the carved figures (haniwa pottery) decorating
them suggest a number of developments in Japanese society.
The social system, for example, was clearly very hierarchical,
with the elite wealthy enough to secure the labour to work
on the mounds. The carvings on the tombs suggest sophisticated building techniques, and a relatively complex religious
The Yamato Court—the first Japanese state
The version of events set out mainly in the Nihon Shoki has
it that the first emperor of Japan was Jimmu, who founded
the Japanese state in 660 BC. Although this is accepted
officially1 it is clearly fictitious. The scholars of the eighth
century skilfully blended myth and reality to justify the imperial line of the time, so dates are impossible to determine
accurately. Most Japanese authorities agree that the first
emperor was named Suijin and died in AD 318 (though the
Nihon Shoki puts Suijin as emperor number ten). About this
time a clan emerged as the leader in the Nara area through,
it appears, mostly negotiation along with occasional warfare
with other clans. The result was the Yamato Court, a political
union of kingdoms with kofun culture as its base. The head
of this court was known as the O‘kimi (‘great king’). The
process took some time, however, and it was not until the
early part of the sixth century that this clan can be seen as
evolving into the imperial family.
Japanese society at this time (in central/southern Honshu)
appears to have been divided into three major groupings. The
uji, loosely translated as ‘clan’, were families bound together
through loyalty to, and intermarriage with, the main family
(polygamy was commonly practised). This is a very important
characteristic since it played a critical role in how the culture
developed through to (at least) the nineteenth century. Below
the uji, who were the ruling elites, were artisans, organised
into communities called be whose members had the same
occupation, such as weavers, potters, armourers, builders, and
temple servants, and whose positions were hereditary. At the
bottom of the social hierarchy were household slaves.
Japanese society at this point began to be transformed
through its contact with Korea and China. The influence of
the latter was particularly powerful, especially from the beginning of the influential T’ang dynasty in AD 618, which lasted
for nearly 300 years. The impact on Japan continued for
several hundred years, only waning in the eighth century,
dramatically changing the culture. Specific dates are, naturally,
only approximations used to anchor the period. Some sources
give the dates of AD 552 (introduction of Buddhism) to 784
(end of the Nara period) as the period of the greatest Chinese
cultural impact.
In the fifth century Japan had a significant presence (sometimes erroneously called a colony or proto-colony) in the
southeast part of Korea, around the present-day city of Pusan.
At the time Korea contained several major kingdoms but in
this area, called Kaya, there were a number of smaller independent ‘principalities’. Japanese took advantage of the lack
of a central power in the region to make frequent contact, and
for more than a century this allowed for a substantial flow of
Chinese and Korean ideas and trade goods (especially iron)
through to Japan. Japan also provided soldiers in the fights
between Kaya and the larger Korean kingdoms. In the seventh
century, numbers of Japanese envoys (sometimes several hundred people at a time) were sent to China, often staying for
many years, even decades, studying Chinese society, and bringing Chinese ideas back to Japan.
A very important development for Japan was the arrival
of Buddhism from China through the Korean connection. The
main factor entrenching Buddhism was the support of Shotoku
Taishi (Crown Prince Shotoku) who ruled as regent 593–622).
One may speculate on the reason for his advocacy; perhaps it
was respect for China and a desire to appear ‘civilised’,
admiration of the structure of Buddhism (as opposed to the
relatively primitive structure of Shinto), or philosophical appreciation. Buddhism was certainly supported by a number of
subsequent emperors, underscoring the point that major social
changes in Japan usually occurred from the top down rather
than as grassroots movements.
Buddhism had other impacts too, giving rise to the theme
of the transience of life that runs through Japanese art and
literature and underlies the near reverence placed on, for
example, cherry blossoms. Lafcadio Hearn, an expatriate
American living in Japan in the late nineteenth century,
reflected this mood when he spoke of their ‘melancholy brevity’. In practical terms Buddhism was responsible for strictures
against eating meat, and the shift to cremation from entombing
the dead, signalling the end of the kofun period (though this
practice was common only among the elites at the time).
Architecturally Buddhism has made a substantial impact on
the Japanese landscape, not only in terms of statues and
temples, but in structures where its ideals of harmony and
balance predominate, such as in formal gardens.
The type of Buddhism which arrived in Japan was called
Mahayana, or ‘Greater Vehicle’, which developed as it moved
across China from India. The essential difference between this
type and Theravada Buddhism (or ‘Lesser Vehicle’, found in,
for example, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka) is that the
former holds that anyone can achieve eventual enlightenment
through proper behaviour, and the emphasis is on accepting
that followers will have varying degrees of understanding of
life depending on their effort and karmic level. It puts more
emphasis on the behaviour of individuals than on the role of
the Buddhist clergy. In its journey across China, Mahayana
Buddhism also picked up a range of Chinese characteristics
and by the time it arrived in Japan it had a heaven and hell,
numerous deities, and alternative interpretations of Buddhist
teachings and ways to achieve enlightenment. These differing
views led to the emergence of multiple sects, which have had
varying historical impacts.
Buddhism brought an element of structure to Japanese
religion. In spite of early secular frictions, reflecting the power
of rival clans and other groups with vested interests, Shinto
and Buddhism fitted together with relative ease, the two belief
systems broadly complementing each other as they dealt with
essentially different aspects of a person’s life. Indeed, in later
years it became common practice to build Buddhist temples
on the grounds of Shinto shrines, and policies were worked
out to allow the two religions to function together in philosophical terms. Philosophically, from the Buddhist point of
view, the various Shinto spirits (kami) could be seen as bodhisattvas (sometimes loosely translated as ‘saints’): those who
had achieved enlightenment but who had chosen to stay on
earth as guides to nirvana for others. Structurally, Buddhism
was primarily concerned with moral behaviour, through the
eightfold path to enlightenment (basically, rules to live by),
and with death (one example in Japan today is the Buddhist
festival of Bon, a type of All Souls’ Day).
Shinto, with its pantheon of gods (collectively referred to
as yaoyorozu no kami, literally ‘eight million deities’, meaning
too many to count) is concerned with day-to-day matters,
mostly keeping various spirits onside and out of mischief. It
is fundamentally an animistic religion, and there is no substantial ethical code implied, though it is grounded in the close
relationship with the natural environment and the early communal life of Japanese. It is also concerned with natural
disasters and seasonal cycles. Shinto shrines are often located
on the tops of hills and mountains, in beautiful natural
surroundings—places which are emotionally or spiritually
stimulating. The connection with nature is also apparent in the
fertility festivals and phallic cults associated with Shintoism.
Purification rituals also play a large role, and this may be at
least partly related to health issues, that is, to preventing the
spread of disease. Certainly the daily bath plays a prominent
role in the lives of Japanese people—there may be a connection
here. The emperor is the titular head (or chief priest) of the
Shinto religion and still performs ceremonies symbolic of
planting and harvesting; it is partly his place within Shintoism
that has accorded him sacred status throughout most of
Japan’s history.
It is generally accepted that Confucian ideas came to Japan
early in the fifth century. It is a philosophy of moral behaviour
and social stability, and would have found fertile soil in a
society that already had a well-established hierarchical social
order (it remained most powerful among the elites, however,
until the advent of feudalism). It rarely came into conflict with
Japanese Buddhism. Confucianism focuses on the duties of
care, obedience and respect in relationships between ruler and
subject, father and son, husband and wife and so on, where
the former must take proper care of the latter in return for
obedience. In Japan it is usually said that the aspect of
obedience, or loyalty, was emphasised more than care, or
benevolence—a philosophical reinterpretation called Neo-Confucianism. In other words, respect for and loyalty to
Examples of the derivation of Kana.
superiors was paramount. This philosophy has had an
enormous impact on the way in which Japanese society
is structured, from the family to the government to the
workplace. The system of senpai/kohai or senior/junior relationships, where the former are responsible for nurturing the
latter, who in turn are obligated to learn and obey, as found
in Japanese companies, appears to have its origins here. The
same may be said of the value Japanese place on service.
Confucianism is a theme which runs through Japanese society
in many different ways, and has had an impact on the social
system from early state development to feudal times through
to the present.
Politically, Japanese leaders accepted the Chinese concept
of a centralised state, though the Japanese emperor rarely
enjoyed the power accorded his Chinese counterpart. The
complex Chinese bureaucratic system was also adopted
to reinforce the power of the centre. Borrowed, too, was
an intricate system of court ranks. The two together meant
that one’s rank in the bureaucracy was often determined by
inherited position rather than individual ability, though a
limited system of entry by examination was also used, adapted
from the Chinese model. Japanese bureaucracy thus stood in
opposition to the Chinese bureaucracy, where individual ability
was paramount. Chinese laws were also taken on board. These
were adopted first by Prince Shotoku, at least partly to limit
the power of the clans while building up that of the imperial
family, and were written down in a set of seventeen principles—somewhat akin to an early constitution—in AD 604.
Other threads running through the laws of the seventh century
are an emphasis on social hierarchy, obedience and responsibility. By the beginning of the eighth century Japanese society
was thus characterised by a very complex system of codified
rules and regulations underpinning a strongly hierarchical
social order.
Japan also adopted and adapted the Chinese writing
system. While the Korean and Japanese languages may have
a common root in an Altaic language from central-northern
Eurasia (some linguistic connection with both Hungarian and
Finnish is apparent, perhaps through these tribes splitting up
and moving in different directions), there is no linguistic
connection with Chinese. The Japanese language seems to have
first appeared between 5000 and 3500 BC on the island of
Kyushu, and spread out from there.
Chinese characters, though, were readily accepted, some
time in the fourth or fifth century. Before this there was no
written language in Japan. Japanese scholars, however, were
faced with a formidable task in adopting a writing system
which is inherently different from the spoken language, and it
took many centuries for it to evolve and to move out from
the educated elites. The fundamental problem was that the
existing Japanese word for a particular item and the Chinese
pronunciation of the Chinese character for that item were
different. This eventually led to multiple pronunciations (and
sometimes multiple meanings) for many of the Chinese characters used in Japanese. In spite of this, there remained a gap
between the way in which Japanese was spoken and how it
was written in the new characters (kanji). The problem was
solved between the seventh and eleventh centuries by taking
about 100 Chinese characters, removing their Chinese meanings completely, and giving them Japanese sounds only. The
result was today’s phonetic Japanese alphabets, katakana and
hiragana. Hence, modern Japanese is a mixture of early spoken Japanese, Chinese characters and two phonetic alphabets (Chinese in shape but Japanese in sound), along with numerous other foreign words. The Japanese language, like other
languages, is a product of diverse origins.
Large numbers of Chinese and Koreans settled in Japan in
this period, including artisans skilled in metalwork, weaving
and writing. These skilled immigrants were held in high regard,
unlike immigrants in the twentieth century, and were assimilated into the Japanese mainstream over time. Indeed, in the
family register of 815 about one-third of Japanese aristocratic
families stated they had either Chinese or Korean ancestors.
In spite of the massive changes resulting from their influence, the Japanese selectively borrowed from China and
Korea. The Japanese elites did this partly to reinforce their
own standing, but the selectivity also occurred because of the
different stem onto which foreign practices had to be grafted.
The distance between the mainland and Japan also meant that
Chinese and Korean ideas became altered over time in particularly Japanese ways.
The mid seventh century was a time of both change and
consolidation. In 645 a coup d’etat was carried out against
the ruling Soga clan, which at the time held power in Japan.
It was planned by a prince who later became Emperor Tenchi
(r. 661–71) and led by a man named Fujiwara no Kamatari2
(614–69), who established the Fujiwara family as a substantial
power, a situation which was to endure until the eleventh
century. This was a consolidation of an earlier trend of influential individuals or families (sometimes though not always)
wielding power while emperors remained figureheads.
Fujiwara no Kamatari used the Chinese form of
government as the basis for a number of political changes in
Japan, which taken together are known as the Taika (‘Great
Change’) Reform of 645. Enhancing the power of the central
government was a key feature, with the result being that a
very small number of people (about 400) could run the
country. The other major change was the abolition of private
ownership of land. Although it progressed in stages and was
never fully carried out, this policy meant that farmers began
to work for the state rather than individuals, and land was
controlled and parcelled out by the government.
In addition to the control of land, which clearly increased
the government’s power, there were other measures designed
to reinforce the authority of the centre. One of these was the
first census, taken in 670. For the first time an attempt was
made to determine who owned what, which naturally allowed
for more vigorous social control as well as a more efficient
taxation system. As we know all too well today, the latter also
increased the government’s power.
By the time this first Japanese state ended a number of
characteristics were apparent. The status of the imperial family
had been set firmly in place, and the mythology written within
the next few years accorded it divine status. An attempt to
count the Japanese people was undertaken (the population was
estimated at about five million), and occupational categories
were recorded that would allow them to be more efficiently
taxed and controlled. The structured system of religion generally reinforced the status quo. For the first time Japan had
a codified system of criminal and civil law statutes (ritsuryo),
though the emphasis was on the latter function of government
structure rather than on the criminal system. Japan had
become a highly stratified society, underpinned by a range of
social conventions.
The Nara period (710–784)
Along with a centralised state came a capital city. Nara was
the first ‘permanent’ capital, built between 708 and 712 to a
design imitating the rectangular grid pattern of the imperial
Chinese city of Ch’ang-an (Sian). The beauty of its design and
architecture, and especially its temples, reflects the increasing
Korea and Japan.
refinement of the time, dominated by the influence of China,
but with other influences coming from as far away as India,
and even Greece and Italy. Buddhism in particular was the
focus of a wave of artistic expression coming from the Japanese elites expressed in architecture, sculpture, drawing and
music. The great Buddhist statue in Nara—the Daibutsu of

the Todaiji temple—was completed in 749. It stands about
16 metres tall and weighs 560 000 kilograms, an impressive
example of religious art that even today attracts visitors from
throughout Japan and around the world.
The Nara period may be seen as a bridge between the
establishment of the Japanese state, which set in place a
number of the fundamental characteristics of Japanese society,
and the sophistication of the Heian period (784–1185), a time
of flourishing Japanese culture which preceded control of the
country by military elites. Nara was an initial attempt at
permanency, to provide a lasting physical centre for the new
state, and reflects the shift from the very beginning of a state
to a relatively sophisticated one over a short period of about
300 years.
Generally speaking, Japan’s governing system of the time
was highly conservative. Essentially, the country’s isolation
from the continent allowed elites to resist change which would
have been forced on them had they had hostile groups on their
borders. This ability to slow social change is a broad theme
that runs through the country’s history. In spite of massive
Chinese influence, the institutions that developed in Japan had
distinctly Japanese characteristics. The Japanese system, for
example, did not allow for upward mobility through a civil
service examination system like that developed in China. In
Japan positions in the civil service were primarily allocated on
the basis of birth rather than ability and court rank was also
hereditary. Indeed, the aristocracy was set firmly in place
during this period, evolving from blood connections with the
emperor’s family. To consolidate their position further the
aristocracy did not adopt the Chinese idea of ‘mandate of
heaven’, where an emperor (or, periodically an empress) could
be legitimately removed through revolution if he or she failed
to provide good government.
Buddhist philosophies also began to permeate the lives of
upper class Japanese, with a number of different sects becoming active. In addition to material manifestations, such as
temples and statues, the underlying beliefs began making
themselves felt. Execution became much less common, being
gradually replaced by exile. Cremation rather than burial
became the norm. The idea of earning merit through good
deeds began to take hold, linked to the idea of improving one’s
karma, so the practice of charity became more widespread.
Buddhism also provided hope and comfort to those in need.
Kannon, for example, came to be a key figure of worship.
This is the same deity as the Chinese Kuan Yin, the goddess
of mercy (originally the Indian Avalokitesuara).
The move of the court away from Nara seems to have
been associated with competition for power between rival
groups, though the growing political power of the Buddhist
clergy also appears to have played a role. In any event,
Emperor Kanmu (r. 781–806) moved the capital to nearby
Nagaoka in 784. Because of intrigue, murder and alleged evil
spirits, it was moved again in 794, this time to Heiankyo,
meaning ‘Capital of Eternal Tranquillity’. Like Nara, Heiankyo
was set out in a grid pattern modelled on the Chinese city of
Ch’ang-an. This is present-day Kyoto, a magnificent example
of urban design, which remained the home of the Japanese
court (though not necessarily of political power) for more than
a millennium, until the nineteenth century move to Tokyo.
The Heian period (794–1185)
The Heian period has come to be seen as a golden time in
Japanese history. While Europe was just coming out of the
Dark Ages and China was going through the turbulence of
dynastic change, Japan’s culture was blossoming and developing in uniquely Japanese ways. This was a time of courtly
elegance in which the arts flourished in an aesthetic, cultivated
and highly ceremonial atmosphere—some say effeminate and
over-refined. It was also a time of decay that saw power slowly
slip away from the emperor. A unique system of government
evolved, where the emperor became essentially a figurehead
while powerful families ruled from behind the scenes (though
this had already occurred periodically), a system that was to
prevail for most of Japan’s subsequent history. This period also
set the foundations for feudalism in Japan, a system which
was to endure for almost 700 years.
Historians usually divide the Heian period into at least two
subperiods—the Early and the Late Heian. The first century
of the Heian was effectively a continuation of the trends
associated with the previous Nara period, where China
remained the dominant influence. The Late Heian was a time
of relative isolation, of 300 years of slow decline to the point
where the rulers became vulnerable to rival forces.
In the early Heian period the country was governed for
nearly 30 years by Emperor Kanmu, one of the most powerful
rulers Japan has seen. The Chinese style of powerful central
government was in place, and the shifting of the capital to
Kyoto is one example of the authority of the emperor. Various
policies adopted around this time reinforced the power of the
centre, even after the departure of Emperor Kanmu. In 810,
for example, the kurodo-dokoro, or household treasury office,
was created, where a few close advisers worked with the
emperor to control the government. A new metropolitan police
force emerged and spread its authority to the provinces where
developments were watched closely. By the ninth century Japan
was a highly centralised and unified state. This is not to say
it was despotic, however. On the contrary, it is known for its
humanistic and relatively benign rule.
An important date, signalling the beginning of the Late
Heian, was 894, the year that Japanese rulers decided to stop
sending official missions to China, which for hundreds of years
had provided a steady flow of information and ideas and
influenced Japanese political and social development.3 Primarily because of the decline of the T’ang dynasty, both China
and the Korean peninsula had become very destabilised, and
Japanese rulers were afraid that this social upheaval would
spread to Japan. Civil problems in China also retarded the
country’s dynamism, so there were relatively few new developments to interest the Japanese. By the end of the tenth
century contacts were reestablished in commerce, as well as in
the areas of religion and art, but official government linkages
were not. This lack of political contact with China was to
endure for some 400 years. During this period the Japanese
government reworked some early Chinese ideas and developed
institutions that had a distinctly Japanese flavour.
Political changes of the time had far-reaching implications.
One of the most important developments was the growing
strength of the Fujiwara family. Effectively the Fujiwaras
started acting as regents (sessho) for emperors who were too
young to rule, encouraging them to abdicate before reaching
adulthood. Various forms of manipulation included marriage
to Fujiwara women, which meant that subsequent emperors
had Fujiwara mothers. Eventually the Fujiwara clan came to
rule in place of the imperial family, despite ongoing friction
with abdicated emperors who tried to control their younger
replacements. The height of Fujiwara power came with the
rule of Fujiwara no Michinaga (r. 995–1027) who saw several
emperors come and go. Many Fujiwara leaders during this
period also assumed the title of kanpaku, or ‘civil dictator’.
Fujiwara practice set in place a system of government which
effectively continued up to the Meiji restoration of 1868, and
even then the power of the emperor was limited in practical
terms because of his need to rely on trusted and capable
It is perhaps not surprising that this shift in power occurred
without causing a major stir. In some respects it is a very
sensible system. The emperor was thought (at least officially)
to be divine. As we know, daily involvement in politics can
reduce the perceived ‘holiness’ of a country’s leader, so by
removing the emperor from effective power the imperial institution was protected. This has allowed the imperial family to
endure for many centuries, and has given support to the system
of separating the head of state from the government, found in
Japan through most of its subsequent history.
The literature of the period highlights the fact that the
court had lost its power of government by the end of the
millennium. Given the intrigue and struggles for power taking
place within the court, it is no surprise that the government
had become divided and weak. Nobles who had no governing
role generally spent their time playing games, writing poetry,
practising calligraphy (a true mark of a person’s level of
refinement), painting, dreaming of love and distracting themselves with other pleasurable pursuits—not so different,
perhaps, from the lives of the idle rich today. Linked to this
sense of an age coming to an end was a melancholy, reflected
in the term aware, meaning ‘the sadness of things’. It is the
feeling that life is wonderful but over too soon, an aesthetic
sense reinforced by the Buddhist perception that life is like a
dream, a notable characteristic of Japanese arts of the period.
We are familiar with the activities of the nobility principally because of several literary works of the time, written by
maids of the emperor’s wives. Murasaki Skikibu wrote Genji
Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) around 1003, a story of court
life of the preceding century.4 Her contemporary was Sei
Shonagon, whose Makura no Soshi (Pillow Book) is a description of daily life in the capital at the time. These books
highlight the point that the Heian period has left Japan with
a tremendous legacy of artistic creativity, attention to refined
detail (such as emphasis on the visual presentation of food or
gifts) and a respect for education that is still evident today.
The Heian period came to an end, as dynasties often do,
for a variety of reasons. One is the old story of the struggle
for power between the central government and the periphery,
where traditions of local identity and the rough topography
of Japan made control of outlying regions difficult, which was
reinforced as the power of the central government began to
fade. Another element was the practice in which members of
aristocratic families were periodically awarded estates from
government-owned land (often tax-free) as a reward or, perhaps, to remove mischief-makers from the capital. Eventually
many began to identify with their new homes rather than
A second reason had to do with land, the basic unit
of wealth and therefore of power. It was the problem of
land scarcity that led to a return to it being privately owned.
The population at the time was increasing and there was a
consequent need to bring more land under cultivation. To
encourage this the government allowed newly cultivated land
to be tax-free for three generations. Because of the already
heavy demands on peasants, however, those best able to take
advantage of this new policy were farmers (especially clan
leaders) who already had substantial landholdings (and who,
if they possessed business acumen, bought land from poorer
peasants in these new areas), aristocrats and bureaucrats governing in the countryside, and those looking after larger shrines
and temples. They often used slave labour (i.e. indentured
labour or criminals) or landless peasants for the work on the
new fields. Many of the latter had fled their villages when the
demands on them became too much, and negotiated with those
opening up new areas to work in the fields while avoiding
corvée labour and military service.
This new land formed the basis of the private estate, or
−en, system. Private ownership provided tremendous incensho
tive for various groups to enlarge their estates as much as
possible, leading to the emergence of new regional centres of
wealth and power. Generally speaking there were two different
kinds of shoen. The first were owned by aristocrats or bureaucrats sent out from the political centre. The second were owned
by farmers who had, over time, built up sizeable holdings. The
latter were constantly fearful of losing their tax-free status to
a government that needed revenue. In order to protect themselves, they often gave up the formal title of their lands to a
local aristocrat or bureaucrat, or a clergyman from a shrine
or temple. The latter protected them from government pressure, in exchange receiving a portion of the rice cultivated on
the land.

The shoen spread throughout Japan from the eighth century onwards. By the twelfth century about half of the
agricultural land in Japan fell under such estates, with the
other half belonging to the government under the old land-allocation system. Ultimately, this new development reinforced
the decentralisation of power away from the Chinese model
of a centralised state, and strengthened the earlier Japanese
structure of relatively powerful provincial leaders. The loyalty/
obligation system that formed between farmers and those to
whom they looked for protection of their tax-free status also
contributed to the early development of feudalism.
Another locus of power was Buddhism, which continued
to flourish through the Heian period, and became even more
syncretically connected to Shinto. Over time a number of sects
amassed substantial wealth, and developed armies to protect
it. In this way Buddhism became more than just a religious
force; rather it was a force with a measure of political and
military power—not so different from Christian groups such
as the Knights Templar in the West. Various Buddhist sects
also evolved with variations in doctrine and leadership (Tendai
and Shingon were the largest) and periodically they came to
blows as well.
In the late Heian period a warrior class also emerged, a
response to the abolition of military conscription in 792, with
several points of origin. In the urban areas, especially Kyoto,
the guards who served as protectors of aristocratic families,
and as police, evolved into warriors. The second group, the
kondei, or ‘stalwart youths’, were given legal authority by the
central government to protect their landholdings in outlying
areas, and to protect the borders from ‘barbarians’. The third
group was connected to the shoen. Local elites (provincial clan
leaders, aristocrats/bureaucrats and clergy) had to protect their
estates, sometimes from bandits and at other times from
officials of the central government (as well as each other), so
warriors also emerged there. Some families focused particularly
on developing their military prowess and over time became
powerful regional forces. These groups, taken together, formed
the basis of the early samurai. Those who came from aristocratic families carried proud names. Two of the great warrior
families of the time were the Taira and Minamoto.
Eventually the weakened central government came to
depend more and more on the military power of these families,
partly to control unruly elements in the countryside, and partly
to help settle disputes over succession within the imperial
family. The power of the Fujiwara clan declined from the late
eleventh century, with subsequent disputes over who would
become the next emperor. Direct military intervention by
regional clans in a political dispute (called in to back rival
claimants to the throne) first occurred in 1156, and from that
time the warrior families played a central role in governing
Japan. By 1160 the government was controlled by the Taira
clan but eventually, after much intrigue and fierce fighting on
both land and sea, a Minamoto rival, Minamoto no Yoritomo,
took power. Many of his Taira opponents were put to death,
the first time this had been officially done to political rivals
in more than 300 years. It was a sign of the growing ascendancy of the military.
The shift of leadership to warrior clans heralded the effective
start of feudalism, even though its seeds had been planted
centuries earlier with the growth of regional centres of wealth
and power. While for most of the ensuing four centuries
political power (and the imperial family) remained in Kyoto,
the first of the military-dominated governments fixed its
headquarters at Kamakura, on the southeast edge of present-day Tokyo, and the next chapter in Japan’s history begins there.
is widely recognised that feudalism long-dominated Japanese society, but this is frequently a distorted understanding, based on clichéd images
drawn from popular Western films and novels. They have
given us images of sword-wielding samurai in winged helmets
fiercely battling stalwart foes, of warrior heroes who, faced
with dishonour, might disembowel themselves in ritual suicide
or seppuku. Added to this mix is frustrated love, always a
popular topic. Given the rigid social structures of the 700-year
feudal period there was plenty of opportunity for this, as well
as displays of pride, honour, duty and glory. Men and women
stoically endured the unendurable. This era is also a favourite
among Japanese, a period bursting with images of strength
and power—vibrant with masculinity, in contrast to the effete
Heian period which was likely to present an image of a young
man crying with his lover over a particularly touching poem
(not a picture that appealed to everyone).
What, then, were the key developments in Japan’s feudal
period? What type of political and social structures emerged
and why? How has this era shaped the Japan we know today?
This period is characterised by civil conflict and ended with
Japan shutting itself off from the rest of the world for more
than 200 years, appearing reluctantly on the world stage in
the middle of the nineteenth century, the result of which was
a dramatic change in the world’s twentieth-century history.
The rise of the military—the Kamakura bakufu
The Kamakura period signals a shift in Japanese society, as
anthropologist Ruth Benedict might have put it, from the
chrysanthemum to the sword. The rather confused days of court
bureaucrats trying to manage a complicated administrative
structure while power steadily slipped from their hands was
largely over. The more vigorous, focused power of the military
took its place. The samurai were also innovators. They were not
bound by the old formalities of the Japanese court, but
developed their own very practical culture that attempted to
restructure Japanese society. Attitudes to commoners became more flexible, and culture spread from the elites into the mainstream of Japanese society. At the same time, the upheavals in
China caused many refugees from the mainland elites to flee to
Japan, bringing their own particular values and ideas. The
threat posed by the Mongols also led to a greater sense of unity
among Japanese, as they resisted foreign domination.
There are several key aspects to the way in which the
government was structured at this time, one being the use of
the earlier practice of leaving the imperial family intact as the
symbol of ultimate authority in the land while real power was
exercised behind the scenes. This was, perhaps, especially
appealing to Minamoto no Yoritomo, who reportedly held the
imperial court in high regard. The imperial family remained
sacrosanct. Indeed, it was necessary to pay it due respect to
gain proper legitimacy. Hence, Yoritomo asked the emperor to
grant him the title of shogun, the abbreviated form of seii
tai-shogun (‘barbarian-suppressing supreme general’), first
accorded to Sakanoue no Tamuramaro in 797 for his part in
subduing restive Emishi. Yoritomo received the title in 1192.
Yoritomo’s government was known as the bakufu, meaning
‘tent headquarters’, a reflection of its military origins. It was
not located in Kyoto (which remained the official capital) but
in the then small town of Kamakura, near present-day Tokyo.
This was near Yoritomo’s power base of Izu, and he probably
felt safer there (away from the rival Taira power in Kyoto),
not to mention relief at being away from the interference of
court officials. It also bordered the rich agricultural area of
the Kanto Plain, an important source of revenue.
Feudalism matured slowly in Japan. It did not spring forth
fully developed in 1185, having already been evolving for several
hundred years. Even before he received the title of shogun, and
while still fighting the Taira clan in some provinces, Yoritomo
was reinforcing feudal structures. In 1185 he ‘requested’ permission from the court to appoint military governors (or
‘protectors’) for the provinces, known as shugo, and under them
jito, or land stewards. The former held regional political power
while the latter were primarily responsible for collecting taxes
on behalf of the bakufu. In this way Yoritomo was able to govern
(and spread his power throughout Japan) without completely
replacing the administration set up during the Heian period,
which would have meant massive social upheaval.
Once peace returned to Japan Yoritomo continued to use
this administrative structure, as well as his (often very personal)
connections with his vassals, to preserve his authority as well
as the peace in the countryside. This built on the well-
established system of loyalty to a leader that hearkened back
to the time of the early family clans, though in the early part
of this period connections were also based on formal contracts,
where a vassal was financially rewarded for his services. The
vassals were known as gokenin (‘housemen’) and the mounted
warriors who served them were called saburahi, from an old
word meaning ‘to serve’, which eventually evolved into the
well-known term samurai. The principal duty of the saburahi
was to serve their lords rather than the emperor, thus dimin-
ishing the emperor’s importance—he became simply a symbol
without real power. The code of behaviour that eventually
developed among the samurai came to be known as bushido,
‘the way of the warrior’, and contained elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto. Training in the martial arts was
central to their lives, and from here we eventually see the
refinement of Japanese swordsmanship, archery and horseback
The shugo-jito system worked well, not only to control the
countryside and raise revenue for the bakufu but, in combination with the idea of vassalage, it formed an early explicit
structure of loyalty and financial reward. Vassals received land
and the right to keep private soldiers. This reciprocal obligation
(loyalty/benevolence), underpinned by Confucianism, over time
became an established pattern of vassalage, the hallmark of
feudalism. This is not to say that all vassals or lords were
trustworthy, and there are numerous examples of broken promises, treachery, double-dealing and opportunism, but a rough
form of ideal behaviour was laid down at this time.
In these early years the shugo-jito system lay rather thinly
on top of the old, not yet being strong enough to ensure
complete control, and many aspects of the old administration
persisted for some decades. The shogun continued to derive
his power, at least in principle, from the emperor, and the
bakufu could be seen as the imperial government’s military
force. The shoen estate system also continued to exist, in
spite of many estates being confiscated by Yoritomo from his
defeated rivals and redistributed.
The nascent feudal structure was not without problems.
Yoritomo in particular was highly suspicious of those
who might challenge his authority. This led to his liberal use
of violence to control others, including murdering his brother
Yoshitsune and his family. As in many other countries, an
enduring theme in Japan is the desire of its leaders to hold
onto power and a fear of other powerful forces, which often
leads to ruthless and violent acts as well as policies to limit
potential threats. This was to reach an apex centuries later
under the Tokugawa shogunate.
The Hojo regency
An ongoing theme in Japanese history is government characterised by a difference between official authority and real
power. The imperial family had experienced this for centuries
by the time of the Kamakura bakufu and Yoritomo continued
the practice. After Yoritomo died in 1199, the Hojo family
came to act as regents for his successors, an ironic twist given
that the Hojos were descendants of the Taira family,
Yoritomo’s early enemies. For various reasons Yoritomo’s heirs
were not strong enough to exercise the power of the shogunate
in those chaotic times. Hence, there developed a situation
where there was real power (the Hojo regent) behind official
power (the shogun) behind imperial authority (the emperor).
Family relationships muddied the waters further, with the
Hojo regent Yoshitoki (1162–1224) being the brother of
Masako (1156–1225) who was the widow of Yoritomo. It is
generally accepted that Masako was the real power in the
bakufu, so one could add a fourth behind-the-scenes power at
this point. She had become a nun (ama) after Yoritomo’s death,
and was widely known as the ama-shogun.2 Government at
this time was astonishingly complicated, and it is a reflection
of the ability of the regents and the personal loyalty that they
commanded that it worked as well as it did. The governing
system also points to the phenomenon of kuromaku (‘black
curtain’), referring to the power-brokers that operate invisibly
behind the scenes, a practice well-established early in Japanese
history and which continues today.
In spite of Yoshitoki’s questionable hold on power, in 1221
the Emperor Go-Toba (1180–1239) targeted him in a bid to
regain imperial power. At issue in this first major challenge to
the authority of the bakufu was the right to allocate land,
which was at the heart of the reciprocity aspect of feudalism.
The resulting Jokyu War (1221) saw the banishment of
Go-Toba to the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan and the
cementing of the feudal system. Some 3000 shoen were confiscated from the losing side and distributed to faithful vassals
of the bakufu, thereby reinforcing its authority, especially in
the (often rebellious) central and western provinces. The conflict also meant that the imperial court came to be very closely watched and regulated by the bakufu.
Overall the next half century was a relatively peaceful one,
in spite of ongoing intrigues among the elites. The Hojo regents
continued to rule well. A notable development was the first
legal code of 1232 (the Joei Code), which set out practical
rules for the behaviour of vassals, as well as regulations
governing such things as land tenure and punishments for
various crimes. This code was so well-constructed that it was
incorporated into the legal system that endured until the end
of feudalism in the late 1900s. These rules were for vassals
only, however—the rest of the population continued to be
governed either by customary law or remnants of the older,
more general legal system (the Taiho Code).
The thirteenth century is also known for the beauty of its
court poetry, and the Shinkokinshu (New Collection of Poems
Ancient and Modern), published in 1205, is the outstanding
example. Interestingly, Go-Toba did much of the editing and
contributed 33 poems to the anthology.
Buddhism flourished, perhaps because of the widespread
suffering of the people through civil disruptions as well as a
number of natural disasters. The weakening of the court
system also led to the more rapid spread of Buddhism to the
common people. Its increasing importance is reflected in the
creation of the huge bronze statue of Amida Buddha in
Kamakura (the Dai Butsu), cast in 1252. The Kamakura
period also saw the beginning of several new Buddhist groups,
including the Jodo (‘Pure Land’) and Nichiren sects. While
these had widespread public appeal, given their relative simplicity and pragmatic characteristics, the refined Zen Buddhism
that came to be practised primarily by samurai emphasised
discipline and austerity, which closely fitted the warrior code.
A range of social practices that we identify with modern
Japan have their origins in this period. The bath, for example,
came into vogue then, and was often associated with treatment
for illnesses. The tea ceremony was introduced, strongly influenced by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Along with tea
from China came porcelain and Japan began to manufacture
its own, of very high quality. Sword-making reached high levels
of sophistication and formed a principal export to China.
Overall this was a time of significant cultural advancement,
and art and literature enjoyed the support of the feudal
warriors, even though many had come from humble back-
grounds and had little education.
This period is also famous for the Japanese resistance of the
Mongols, who tried twice to invade the Japanese islands in the
late 1200s. China had come under the sway of its northern
tribes around the middle of the thirteenth century, and in 1268
Kublai Khan (grandson of the founder of the Mongol empire,
Genghis Khan) sent the first of half a dozen envoys to Japan,
demanding a show of submission. The bakufu chose to ignore
the messages and/or beheaded the messengers, and in 1274 and
again in 1281 Mongol invasion fleets arrived off the northwest
coast of Kyushu. Both times Japanese defences held, though the
fighting lasted for nearly two months in 1281, the Mongols
showing up with a massive force of some 4400 ships and
140 000 troops. Both times, too, storms scattered the Mongol
fleets, the second one being particularly severe—a typhoon. The
Japanese called it a ‘divine wind’, or kamikaze, a term which
called up the perceived divinity of the Japanese islands, and
which was to resurface in the mid 1940s with the suicide pilots
during the closing months of the Pacific War.
Despite having saved Japan from the Mongol invasions,
the Kamakura bakufu only lasted another half century. The
major problem, strangely, related to the victories in the two
battles, where costs had been high but there were no spoils of
war with which faithful warriors could be compensated, and
this led to grumbling in the ranks. Costs continued to mount
because of the expenditure on defences in preparation for a
third Mongol invasion (which never materialised). Added to
this was a lack of leadership under the later Hojo regents.
Finally, the emperor of the early 1300s, Go-Daigo (1288–
1339), attempted to wrest power from the bakufu, convincing
several leading families to withdraw their support for the
government. In 1333 a battle took place which saw the
Ashikaga family (along with a few other powerful clans) switch
sides from the bakufu to Go-Daigo at a critical juncture,
leading to the defeat of the government. The last Hojo regent,
his family and some 800 retainers, were killed or committed
suicide. The Kamakura period was at an end.
The Muromachi period (1336–1467)
The battle of 1333 had been fought, presumably, to restore
the emperor to power but Go-Daigo’s reign lasted less than
three years. He tried to consolidate his postion by reintroducing the system under which all land belonged to the imperial
family. By this time, however, the power of the samurai had
grown too strong. The head of the Ashikaga family, Takauji
(1305–58), defeated the emperor’s forces in 1336, and set
himself up as shogun in 1338. His successors eventually established their administrative headquarters in an area of Kyoto
called Muromachi, which gives its name to this period. Go-Daigo fled to the mountains near Kyoto and set up a rival
government that contributed to the instability of the next half
Loyalty at the time existed principally between each
regional lord and his retainers rather than to the shogunate,
so power became increasingly diffused. This change was reinforced by the taxation system, with regional leaders keeping
an increasingly large share. This naturally reduced the power
of the central government and enhanced the capacity of
regional lords to reward followers. The lack of income to the
centre struck particularly hard at the old imperial court and
a number of old aristocratic families slowly faded away. Even
emperors were at risk of becoming impoverished, and there is
a well-known story of one emperor having to sell samples of
his calligraphy to pay his bills.
At the other end of the social scale the peasants, too, were
becoming restive. The early 1400s saw both famine and
plague. The peasants suffered under heavy tax and debt burdens, with commodities other than rice (e.g. sake) being subject
to tax for the first time, along with services such as transportation. In 1428 the first armed peasant uprising took place.
Kyoto itself was attacked in 1443. These events indicate both
the difficult circumstances under which the majority of Japanese lived and the increasing weakness of the bakufu. At the
same time, it is important to remember that the peasants of
the time were usually free—not the serfs of the Heian period.
They often grouped together for protection and this gave them
cooperative strength, a factor that was also evident in the
The stresses of the time did not preclude advancement in
cultural pursuits. The third shogun of the Muromachi period,
Yoshimitsu, was a strong patron of the arts, as were a number
of his successors. An enduring example of ‘high’ art, as well
as an indication of the affluence of the elites, is the Kinkakuji
(Golden Pavilion) that Yoshimitsu had built on his estate
near Kyoto. This building remains today as an example
(though now a replica) of the creativity of the age. The
Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), which is actually made of wood,
was built nearly a century later on the other side of the city
and illustrates the delicate, subtle and more austere taste of
the Muromachi period, a characteristic that remains evident
in Japanese culture today.
No theatre, which aims to create a sense of mystery in the
telling of a story through abstract drama, also developed into
a refined form, and most of the 240 classical plays now
performed date from the fifteenth century. It remains today an
element of Japanese ‘high’ culture. Added to this art form were
landscape painting, refinements of the tea ceremony and flower
arranging, and linked-verse poetry which hearkened back to
the days of courtly sensitivity. Gardening, too, was raised
to new heights, and included the creation of the famous Ryoanji
(‘Rock Garden’) of Kyoto. Many gardens of this period were
strongly influenced in their design by Zen Buddhist philosophy.
In 1467 tensions came to a head between two feudal lords
in Kyoto, and Japan disintegrated into civil war. The O‘nin
War of 1467–77, over the succession of the shogun, began
what is known as the Sengoku-Jidai, the Age of Warring States,
a century of conflict reminiscent of feudal Europe. The
Ashikaga family became progressively weaker, with the last
shogun of this line stepping down in 1573. Japan became a
stronger feudal state, based on powerful lord–vassal relationships in the provinces.
The Sengoku period—the Age of Warring States (1467–1568)
The Sengoku period was a chaotic time of struggles for power
within and between feudal families. Relatively small cohesive
units emerged within the larger ones controlled earlier by the
shugo (though sometimes these new units were similar in size
to the old provinces), and it was the leaders of these areas
who became the feudal lords, or daimyo, of the next four
centuries. Some were from old families while others were from
lower ranks who had managed to overthrow the failing shugo.
Samurai swore allegiance to a particular daimyo and in return
were granted fiefs, in which each samurai had control over
both land and people. The old shoen system of estates disappeared, along with many other remnants of the centralised
Japanese state.
Many daimyo built castles around which grew up commercial activities, similar to urban developments in mediaeval
Europe, which facilitated economic activity. These castle-towns
were regulated by new ‘house laws’ which set out the rights
and responsibilities of those who served the daimyo, the
emphasis remaining on a highly personal connection between
lord and retainer, with vassal loyalty at the centre. Not all
vassals were loyal, however, and betrayal was commonplace
in struggles for power. To counter this to some degree, the old
practice of a family or village having mutual responsibility for
its members was reinforced.
Given the loyalties within each feudal unit, and the anarchic character of the times, it is not surprising that fierce
fighting between rival daimyo was endemic. At the same time
Buddhist monasteries and their lands came to be protected by
warrior-monks, so we see the emergence of an additional type
of regional authority. It was an age when success or failure
depended on one’s military power, and this also gave rise to
much larger armies of which foot soldiers were the mainstay
rather than (relatively expensive) mounted warriors.
There was significant growth in the economy despite the
chaos of the time. Indeed, because survival depended on
military power, which in turn relied on income, there was great
incentive to promote economic expansion. New types of rice,
double-cropping and improvements in agricultural techniques
led to much higher output. More land was brought under
cultivation. Markets flourished and a rudimentary money
economy developed. Both domestic commerce and trade with
China and Korea grew (though so did Japanese piracy along
the mainland coast). Japan exported such items as swords,
copper and sulphur, which created some modest industries.
Ports developed to handle the cargo—especially notable here
was the growth of the town of Sakai (present-day Osaka) as
a type of free city (not under the control of a particular
daimyo) run by merchants. Its strong commercial character is
still evident today.
To protect themselves from civil strife and the often arbitrary taxes of different daimyo, merchants combined to form za. These were an early form of guild based on economic
activity (carpentry, sake-brewing and the like), and merchants
paid dues in return for protection by powerful daimyo, shrines
or temples. Ultimately the daimyo came to control the za; the
tendency for government to closely regulate economic activity,
and to use it for political ends, has remained characteristic of
Essentially the Muromachi period was one of transition,
from the old centralised system to a system of feudalism in
which power was regionally based. Elements of both systems
were apparent throughout the period, but progressively Japan
moved towards a comprehensive feudal state.
The Momoyama period (1573–1603)3
The century of conflict, or the Age of Warring States, was
terribly wasteful of money and lives, and it left Japan broken
up into numerous, mostly small, principalities. A divided country is fundamentally a weak one, and into this scene stepped
the first of three great leaders, Oda Nobunaga (1534–82). He
was followed by his contemporaries Toyotomi Hideyoshi
(1536–98) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616). Each brought
to bear different characteristics and talents, and the end result
was the unification of Japan under strong feudal leadership.
There are numerous stories and sayings about these three
famous men. One saying has it that Nobunaga mixed the
dough, Hideyoshi baked the cake and Ieyasu ate it, indicating
the sequential roles they played.4 Another story has the three
men confronted by a bird which would not sing. Nobunaga
is supposed to have responded by saying, ‘I’ll kill it if
it doesn’t sing.’ Hideyoshi said, ‘I’ll persuade it to sing’,
and Ieyasu added, ‘I’ll wait until it sings.’ This vignette is
said to demonstrate their different characters—impulsive, selfconfident and patient.
The story of this period is one of careful planning, hidden
deals, self-interest, bold action and, of course, massive bloodshed. Nobunaga, a particularly capable and ambitious
daimyo from central Japan, was a brilliant tactician and a
ruthless adversary. In a cruel age he was particularly merciless,
murdering family members, burning thousands of defeated
enemies and their families alive and butchering troublesome
Buddhist priests. His rather pointed and appropriate motto
was ‘Rule the Empire by Force’.
Two foreign imports in this period were to have an enormous impact on the way in which Japan developed. One was
Christianity, the other modern weapons. Western contact had
begun in 1543, when three Portuguese traders were blown
ashore by a storm onto an island in southern Kyushu. Christianity and weapons were closely connected, since trade
occurred primarily where Christianity was allowed to be practised. The daimyo were very competitive, and some accepted
Christianity simply to secure trade, especially in weapons.
Muskets were adopted quickly, and several daimyo began
to manufacture them. By 1575 Nobunaga was able to field
musketeers carrying smooth-bore weapons at the Battle of
Okehazama (near Nagoya), where they gave him a crucial
Nobunaga had taken the first step in unifying Japan. He
followed up with a number of administrative changes. Trade
between different daimyo-controlled areas, for example, was
made easier through the abolition of customs duties. More
roads were built. Christianity was encouraged to balance the
power of the Buddhist sects. Weapons were confiscated from
the peasants. Finally, a land survey was undertaken to determine the contents of Nobunaga’s domain. Despite Nobunaga’s
brilliance, however, less than half of Japan’s provinces were
under his control by 1582, with powerful daimyo remaining
in the outer provinces. In that year, at age 49, he was murdered
by one of his officers and Hideyoshi became embroiled in the
struggle for succession between other officers and Nobunaga’s
sons. When he emerged victorious he carried Nobunaga’s plans
Hideyoshi, like Nobunaga, had personal characteristics
that allowed him to flourish in difficult times. Reportedly very
small and ugly (Nobunaga called him ‘Monkey’), he was a
self-made man, a peasant foot-soldier’s son who rose through
the ranks to become one of Nobunaga’s most capable generals.
Perhaps most importantly, Hideyoshi was known as a brilliant
leader, able to win friends and forge alliances to avoid needless
bloodshed, yet he could fight ruthlessly when necessary, and
the story of his life is principally one of conflict. He continued
the old policy of redistributing the fiefs of defeated enemies
to faithful followers, in part so they could keep an eye on
potential rivals. This was necessary given the perennial
problem of controlling both the regional daimyo and the
powerful ones close by, like Tokugawa Ieyasu. Sending troublesome vassals to remote areas cut them off from their
original bases of power, and they were less likely to scheme
against Hideyoshi. The technique became so commonplace it
was given the name kunigae, or ‘province-changing’.
Hideyoshi also began a number of practices (or continued
those of Nobunaga) that were later used by Tokugawa Ieyasu
to consolidate his power. One was to confiscate swords so
only samurai had access to them. This move helped substantially to reduce peasant uprisings. At the other end of the social
spectrum Hideyoshi made use of the hostage system, whereby
regional daimyo had to leave family members under his ‘protection’ while they were away visiting their fiefs. He also made
social mobility difficult—it was easier to control people when
they could not change their vocations or places of residence.
A rigid class system was put into place which was to severely
curtail upward mobility until the late nineteenth century.
Added to this was a continuation of the policy of collective
responsibility to reduce the possibility of rebellion. A comprehensive land survey was carried out. All of these measures
were further amplified under Ieyasu’s rule, and to this day
have left a strong cultural imprint on Japanese society.
By 1591 Hideyoshi finally had all of feudal Japan under
his nominal control, the first time Japan had been at peace in
more than a century. He never sought the title shogun, partly
because he had left alive the last of the Ashikaga shoguns,
Yoshiaki, and partly because of his humble beginnings. Instead
he took the title kanpaku (‘civil dictator’) and later taiko
(‘retired regent’). He continued the policy of governing through
the authority of the emperor, administratively consolidating his
gains and building a number of strategically located castles,
the most impressive of which is in Osaka.
Hideyoshi needed revenue for his vassals and to support
his army. He therefore placed key trading cities, such as Osaka
and Nagasaki, under his direct control. He encouraged international trade, securing substantial income from this as well
as through control of gold and silver mines. He strengthened
government control over economic activity begun in the Age
of Warring States.
Hideyoshi used his wealth to send armies to invade China
and Korea in the 1590s. The reasons for this remain a point
of debate among historians. He may have wanted to extend
his power, or to realise a dream of humbling an arrogant
China. Some scholars argue that he wanted to kill off the
soldiers of troublesome daimyo. Others believe that he needed
more land to distribute to faithful followers. In any event, the
result was the weakening of the government of China and
substantial destruction of parts of Korea, but the attempt at
empire ultimately failed. It also poisoned relations between
Korea and Japan, accounting in part for the enmity that exists
between the two countries today.
Of concern to Hideyoshi was the growing popularity of
Christianity, first spread by Jesuits under the leadership
of Francis Xavier, who arrived in Japan in 1549, and later by
Franciscan and Dominican friars. It is difficult to accurately
estimate the number of converts, but some put the figure at
300 000 out of a population of 15–20 million. If this is
reasonably accurate it would make the proportion of Christians about 2 per cent, compared to less than 1 per cent today.
Hideyoshi’s initial response was to follow Nobunaga’s policy
of welcoming Christianity (with the practical agenda of
increasing trade—it was apparent that Nobunaga was a strong
opponent of organised religion), but he distrusted the power
of a religion that was not closely connected to Japanese
tradition and hence threatened his legitimacy. Christianity was
also the religion of technologically advanced foreigners, and
he must have been concerned with the possibility of proselytisation being followed by colonisation. At the same time,
missionaries did provide a window on the outside world, and
were connected to trade with China as well as Europe—and
the weapons trade was especially important. Since a number
of Hideyoshi’s generals were Christians, to appear to welcome
Christianity was also a useful technique for avoiding the
formation of a cabal that might oppose him. Christianity was
a useful counterweight, too, against the power of the Buddhist
clergy. These pros and cons are reflected in Hideyoshi’s erratic
policy towards Christianity, at times harsh (torturing and
killing of Christians and friars) followed by periods when
tough new edicts were promulgated but not enforced.
This early contact with the West had other implications.
Pumpkins and corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes were introduced. Tobacco was first planted in 1600, beginning a blight
that still plagues Japan today. Cotton, too, arrived. Portuguese
words connected to these consumables made their way into the
Japanese lexicon as well, including pan for bread and tenpura,
a popular dish of battered and fried vegetables and seafood.
Hideyoshi became a father very late in life when one of
his concubines bore him a son he named Hideyori. Worried
that his heir would be eliminated (which was partly the reason
behind the severe policies of his later rule), he created a
five-member Council of Regents. His plan was to have the
council govern until Hideyori came of age, on the assumption
that the opposing forces within the council would preclude
any one member taking over.
Given the tradition of centuries of scheming and treachery
among leaders vying for power, however, it comes as no
surprise that the structure Hideyoshi left in place did not last
long after his death in 1598. In October 1600 Ieyasu
Tokugawa was victorious in a battle at Sekigahara against a
coalition led by Ishida Mitsunari, another member of the
Council of Regents (which generally supported Hideyoshi’s
heir). Although the battle was decisive in the struggle, and
Ieyasu secured the title of shogun in 1603, the conflict only
completely ended in 1615 with the deaths of Hideyori and
other family members, and the establishment of the Tokugawa
shogunate in Edo, present-day Tokyo, on a site dominating
the rich Kanto Plain.
The Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868)
Ieyasu Tokugawa was of the Minamoto family, a descendant
of the founder of the Kamakura bakufu, Minamoto no
Yoritomo, and thus had the lineage required to take the title
shogun.He abdicated two years later, however, and was
replaced by his 26-year-old son, Hidetada (r. 1605–23), but
continued to formulate policies behind the scenes, and to
strengthen the family’s hold on power. The practice of leaving
the imperial family intact but politically powerless was continued, and theoretically the shogun ruled at the pleasure of
the emperor. In reality the emperor was primarily occupied
with symbolic ceremonies and spiritual issues, and had no
active part in running the country.
Ieyasu and his successors, especially Hidetada and the next
gun, Iemitsu (r. 1623–51), were to set in place policies that sho
have left an indelible mark on Japanese society. The guiding
principle of the Tokugawa leaders was maintaining control, a
reaction to a century of civil war and their own tenuous hold
on power. Their policies were implemented out of fear—fear
of provincial lords, unruly peasants, organised religion, foreigners and, naturally, each other.
Ieyasu initially used the ‘province-changing’ technique to
remove unreliable daimyo from their home bases and also
placed loyal followers on fiefs located between his former
opponents. Added to this he instituted the buke-sho-hatto
(‘laws for military houses’) which set out a variety of rules for
the daimyo, from the need to report on castle repairs to the
right of the shogun to approve their marriages. A well-
developed network of informants was established and govern-
ment officials frequently inspected fiefs. Everyone was
watched. The number of samurai that the daimyo were
allowed to have was fixed. The sankin-kotai (literally ‘alternate
attendance’), or hostage system, continued to be used to
control provincial daimyo. The usual practice was for their
families to remain permanently in Edo while the daimyo
themselves had to spend four months every year or every
second year in the capital. Linked to this practice, since a poor
person is easier to control than one with money, the daimyo
were also forced to maintain a second (frequently elaborate)
residence in Edo, which often proved to be very expensive.
Curiously, regular taxation was not used, though special levies
were made from time to time.
Daimyo were divided into groups, depending on their
closeness to the Tokugawa line and their previous loyalty to
Ieyasu. The shinpan, or ‘collateral daimyo’, were related to the
Tokugawa family, and provided shoguns when the main family
line was unable to do so. Bakufu officials were mostly drawn
from the fudai, or ‘house daimyo’—those from families who
had been vassals of Ieyasu prior to 1600—while the offspring
of Ieyasu’s opponents (tozama, or ‘outside houses’) were
barred from government posts. Of the 250–300 daimyo of the
early seventeenth century, about 90 were tozama.
The government that developed was a composite type,
sometimes referred to as ‘centralised feudalism’, or baku-han.
Baku came from bakufu and han (‘domain’) from the houses
(landholdings) of the daimyo. In other words, it recognised
the fact that there were multiple centres of power in the
country and yet tried to manage and control them. As each
han generally functioned as an independent unit, few bureaucratic mechanisms evolved at the national level, but instead
did so within each han. This was reinforced by the system of
land distribution, where the Tokugawa family and loyal vassals
held about 60 per cent of the land in the country while to zama
houses, mostly located in Tohoku, Shikoku and Kyushu, jointly
held about 40 per cent. Ieyasu was apparently very cautious
in his dealings with these powerful regional families, including
the well-known Shimazu clan in Satsuma (present-day
Kagoshima prefecture), the Choshu han (western Honshu), the
Hizen han (Nagasaki area) and the Tosa han (Shikoku Island),
though he killed the Tosa leaders. Generally speaking, Ieyasu
did not want to cause the tozama such offence that they would
create long-term problems, and this was especially the case in
the early years of his leadership when his position was not yet
secure. The outer regions were difficult to control, and leaving
the existing power structure in place (with its web of formal
and informal linkages), while controlling the leaders, was a
sensible solution to a difficult problem.
Japan came to have the characteristics of a police state,
begun by Ieyasu and, after his death by illness in 1616,
consolidated by his successors. Fear drove the Tokugawa
leadership to ever greater regulatory heights. Travel was constrained with the need to secure permits, and roads had
numerous checkpoints. Minute details of people’s lives were
regulated, including the clothing they could wear, appropriate
gifts, the food people of different classes could eat, and even
housing design. A limit was set on the size of ships that could
be built. A curfew system was put in place. Most bridges were
destroyed so that the movement of people could be controlled.
Punishments for criminal activities, though more clearly set
out, regulated and consistently applied than previously, were
often severe. Torture and execution were common, even for
relatively minor offences such as petty theft (though heavy
punishments were also the norm in the West at this time).
Mutual (group) responsibility also meant that family and
friends might be killed along with the offender. This is undoubtedly one source of the high level of social responsibility
(including a very low crime rate) that continues in Japan today.
Some scholars also point to this period as being important in
the development of the concepts of honne and tatamae, literally ‘inner reality’ and ‘outward appearance’. Under the system
of mutual responsibility it was important for groups (such as
villages) to preserve the appearance of harmony at all costs,
even if there were problems beneath the surface. This behaviour eventually developed into a type of etiquette in which
conflict is avoided by never being blunt or direct, and this
remains a marked characteristic of Japanese society.
Social mobility was highly restricted as another means of
social control. A caste-like class system developed, comprising
the four classes of daimyo/samurai, peasants, artisans and
merchants (in descending order of importance). There was little
movement between classes though it did occur occasionally.
There were also ‘outcast’ groups, the eta (those who worked
with dead animals and made leather goods) and the hinin
(‘non-people’, outcasts through occupation, including beggars,
guards in jails, executioners, police informants and road cleaners). These groups are today called burakumin and continue
to fight for equal treatment.
It was primarily fear on the part of the Tokugawa leadership
that led to the closing of Japan to the outside world (sakoku,
or ‘national seclusion’), similar to the path followed by Korea
at the time. In part this was done to stop regional daimyo from
becoming too powerful through international trade. Indeed,
Japan had well-established trading networks by this time, with
Western countries as well as Asia. Some 100 000 Japanese living
abroad, mostly in Southeast Asia, formed networks similar to
those fashioned by the overseas Chinese today. A second reason
for closing Japan was religion—a reaction to the machinations
of foreign priests and the concern first voiced by Hideyoshi that
Christians (especially priests from Spain and Portugal) would
undermine the existing power structure and perhaps pave the
way for foreign control of parts of Japan. A number of powerful
daimyo had become Christians, a further source of concern.
A series of edicts against Christians was set out in the early
seventeenth century. Then, in 1637, there was a revolt at
Shimabara (east of Nagasaki) by some 37 000 peasants, most
of whom were Christians. Although the primary reason for
the revolt was the peasants’ dismal economic circumstances, the
uniting force of Christianity worried the shogun, and ultimately
nearly all who took part in the revolt were killed. Thereafter
Christianity was effectively banned. In a sense the reaction to
this religion was symbolic of the reasoning behind closing
Japan—all foreign influences were dangerous, and could be
used by anti-Tokugawa forces to create civil disruption. Control
meant isolation.
The result was that foreigners were permanently ejected
from Japan, and the Japanese themselves were not allowed in
or out of the country, on pain of death. The building of
ocean-going ships was prohibited. Trade with Europe, however, continued, albeit limited to annual contact with the Dutch
on Dejima Island in Nagasaki Harbour. Much greater trade
continued with China, with about 26 ships arriving in Nagasaki each year, compared with the single Dutch ship. There
was also a good political relationship with Korea, though this
was not important commercially. Thus, while Japan was officially closed, contact with the outside world did continue to a degree.
For the most part the two centuries following the closing
of Japan were peaceful ones. As had happened during previous
periods of relative isolation, such as the late Heian period,
particular Japanese cultural characteristics came to the fore.
From this time we see even greater emphasis put on group
identification, respect for authority and a strong sense of
loyalty. Confucianism (especially Neo-Confucianism) became a
very powerful philosophy—indeed the ideology underlying the
Japanese state. A greater sense of national identity emerged.
Many schools were established for the debate of various
philosophies, however, and the principles of science and technology (including those of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton)
filtered through from the foreign contacts in Nagasaki. In
the early eighteenth century the ban was lifted on foreign
books, provided they were not concerned with Christianity.
So, although Japan was closed this meant neither cultural
stagnation nor complete isolation.
During this period of peace, strangely enough, the virtues
of the samurai came to be polished, and this has left a legacy
of appreciation of characteristics such as duty, loyalty, discipline and sacrifice. The ‘way of the warrior’, or bushido, came
to be seen as a philosophy of moral behaviour. Loyalty to
one’s lord was the centrepoint, based on Neo-Confucian ethics.
A famous story which exemplifies bushido virtues is ‘The
Forty-Seven Ronin’, which tells of the ‘masterless samurai’ who
took revenge on an official who had been responsible for the
death of their master. Their actions and subsequent deaths are
still seen in Japan as a reflection of traditional samurai values.
The earlier part of the Tokugawa period was not only
peaceful but a time of substantial economic expansion. In part
this was because the burdens of expenditure placed on the
daimyo to keep them relatively malleable generated economic
activity in the urban centres. This in turn led to pressure on
the agricultural system upon which the daimyo depended for
their wealth, and the result was a significant jump in agricultural output through improved agricultural practices, the use
of better technology and the eventual doubling of the area of
land under cultivation. The introduction of a money economy,
initially necessary for the daimyo to convert agricultural produce to currency to support their Edo residences, also made the
agricultural system much more efficient.
The population remained reasonably stable (at about
30 million by the end of the period), partly because of periodic
famines in the countryside and partly because, according to
bakufu law, only the first son could marry and have children
(unless a younger son married the first daughter of a family
without sons, thereby becoming part of a different family and
taking a new name). This reduced conflict over rights to land,
as did the law that land could not be bought or sold, and
slowed population growth.
A relatively small population combined with economic
growth led to a general rise in the standard of living, though
mostly in urban areas. Edo had a population of more than a
million by the nineteenth century—probably the largest city in
the world at the time. Educational levels were perhaps the
highest in the world, with a literacy rate of about 30 per cent
(45 per cent for men and 15 per cent for women), a result of
the expansion of both private and religious (temple) schools.
The merchant class also grew. The upper class looked
down on trade, so usually did not become involved in it,
though some samurai families became merchants (such as the
family behind Mitsubishi). As commercial activities were
perceived as unimportant, they were not taxed heavily; consequently, some urban merchants amassed great fortunes through
activities such as sake-brewing, pawnbroking, shipping and
selling dry goods. The Mitsui family, for example, started off
selling kimono cloth in Ise in the early seventeenth century,
and today is one of the world’s leading commercial firms. In
the late 1600s the Sumitomo family began mining copper and
silver. Some merchants also went into money-lending (Mitsui
is one example). Indeed, through this activity they often
became the creditors (and, therefore, sometimes the controllers) of the samurai, since the latter remained on fixed incomes.
This led eventually to a serious imbalance in the power
One famous result of the growth of the affluent urban
merchant class was the creation of pleasure quarters in the
cities, the so-called ‘floating world’ where men of various
classes could shed their worldly cares. The best known was
probably the Yoshiwara district of Edo. It was often in adjoining areas that new types of art, theatre, music and literature
developed.8 The woodblock print has its origins during the
Tokugawa period, and the ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating
world’ (often sexually explicit), are especially well known.
Kabuki theatre, too, started at this time. It was seen as being
a corrupting influence on women (most of the female actors
were prostitutes) and so the bakufu banned them from participation, the result being that even today all kabuki actors
are men. It was during this time that geisha, or female entertainers, made their debut, a reflection of the overt sexuality
of the period. The poet Matsuo Basho (1644–94) became
famous for the type of short poem known as haiku. All these
artistic developments reflect the stresses between a dynamic
commercial class and a traditional, culture-bound leadership.
Over time the rigid structure that the Tokugawas had put
in place began to crack, for a number of reasons. Through
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the introduction of a
money economy at the village level, as well as the increase in
cash crops (e.g. cotton, tea, sugarcane, tobacco), meant that
some peasants prospered more than others. Headmen in particular tended to accumulate wealth. In time they began to
lend money to poorer peasants to tide them over difficult
times, and this led to the development of a class called jinushi,
or ‘usurer-landlords’. They were able to invest their profits in
various commercial activities, such as textile-making and the
processing of foodstuffs, which further increased their wealth.
This naturally exacerbated inequalities at the village level, and
ultimately led to conflict in the countryside.
It is difficult for a country to remain economically viable in
isolation. The same argument put forward by the proponents of
globalisation in the twenty-first century can be applied to Japan
in the Tokugawa period. Isolation inhibits the development of
effective production systems and the generation of wealth
through the production of specialised goods. For a while the
sankin-kotai system forced a type of wealth generation and
redistribution but over time it was not enough to sustain
economic development. Economic problems were at the core of
the Tokugawa government’s eventual collapse. The feudal system’s stress on stability led ultimately to a lack of vitality, and
could not be sustained. The economic and political systems had
become seriously out of step, with many wealthy citizens now
in the bottom, merchant class. The system where elites’ income
was tied to agricultural production meant that when agricultural
output fell (due to both periodic famines and frequent riots in
the countryside) so too did the incomes of the daimyo and the
samurai, and this income fluctuation meant that many samurai
in particular found themselves in dire financial straits. These
financial problems led to a growing discontent with the leadership of the country. At the same time the samurai, who
comprised a relatively large 5–7 per cent of the population, and
who staffed the bloated and overly complex han bureaucracies,
were on balance a burden on the economy. Bureaucratic positions became hereditary, talent being replaced by lineage.
The bakufu had its own economic problems, running a
deficit from around the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Attempts to deal with the problems included forced loans, a
reduction in the number of officials employed by the bakufu
and currency depreciation, which occurred on nineteen occasions between 1819 and 1837. Fundamentally, however, the
rigid political economy of the seventeenth century had become
largely irrelevant. Economic problems led to political ones, and
the government became progressively weaker in the early
nineteenth century.
Into this scene in 1853 sailed Commodore Matthew C.
Perry of the United States Navy. He was not the first foreigner
to arrive in Japan in the nineteenth century—the Russians and
the British had been there before—nor even the first American,
but his visit coincided with domestic problems coming to a
head. He was sent by President Fillmore to establish proper
treatment for shipwrecked American sailors, ensure supplies
for visiting vessels (especially whaling ships) and open ports
to trade. With steam engines coming into production coal was
needed, and Japan was a convenient refuelling stop on the San
Francisco to Shanghai route. The Industrial Revolution in the
West was also creating a need for new markets, and a closed
Japan was not a country where profits could be made.
Perry’s ‘black ships’ created quite a stir in Edo Bay—both
for their steampower and their weaponry. His visit brought
home dramatically to the Japanese that they were at the mercy
of the technologically more advanced countries of the West,
particularly when Perry defied the shogun and his guns and
sailed directly into the bay. The striking power of the foreigner
even led to a call in Japan for temple bells to be melted down
to make guns. Perry sailed away after presenting his letter of
demand, making it clear that he expected a positive response
when he returned in a year. Thus, in 1854, the Treaty of
Kanagawa was signed, which gave in to the principal American
demands; this was followed by commercial treaties with
Britain, France, Holland and Russia. Gunboat diplomacy had
carried the day.
Reaction in Japan to the foreign incursion was, naturally,
mixed. Some favoured closer contact with the West while the
views of others were encapsulated in the slogan sonno-joi,
meaning ‘honour the emperor—expel the barbarians’. In between were more cautious yet nationalistic groups, their
attitude exemplified by a slogan meaning ‘open the country to
expel the barbarians’. These groups advocated learning as
much as possible about Western science and especially military
technology, and were instrumental in the opening in 1857 of
the ‘Institute for Investigation of Barbarian Books’. The need
to know more about modern weapons was driven home to
the leaders of the Satsuma and Choshu han in particular, when
both lost in battles with the British.
Various groups in Japan would either profit from, or be
disadvantaged by, closer contact with the outside world, so
there was naturally significant self-interest in positions taken at
the time. Also, although trade opportunities hinted at the
possibilities of greater wealth, events in China must have
worried Japanese leaders as various European countries carved
off pieces of that country. Britain in particular was engaging in
the opium trade that not only spread drug addiction in China
but also led to the humiliating treaties that awarded it Hong
Kong and associated territories. Indeed, for a time the UK
supported the Satsuma and Choshu han (which formed close
relationships with the British after their losses in battle) while
the French backed the bakufu. The divide-and-rule approach
of the Western powers brought Japan close to suffering the same
fate as China. Adding to this turbulent time was the arrival of
numerous Western traders who tended to look down upon the
‘backward’ Japanese. Foreigners also enjoyed the right of extraterritoriality, that is, when they broke the law they were tried
by their own consuls under their own laws rather than by
Japanese authorities. Not only did this damage the prestige
of the Japanese government, it also carried with it an aura of
condescension—that Japanese were in some way uncivilised.
The reaction to this was the addition of Japanese nationalism,
including the extremist variety, to the emotional mixture.
Foreign trade caused other problems. The bakufu’s mon-
etary system worked reasonably well in isolation but not as
part of an international trading system, since the Japanese
currency was not sufficiently backed by gold reserves. This
problem, coupled with the rapid increase in demand for foreign
goods, led to a dramatic rise in inflation. The price of rice,
for example, increased fourfold between 1853 and 1869,
causing substantial hardship. Worse, the bakufu seemed incapable of implementing policies which would resolve the
economic problems it faced.
The period 1853–68 was a time of confusion and instability.
Both Japanese leaders and foreigners were assassinated as the
conflict between the various groups escalated. Alliances shifted,
and different Western countries backed different groups. The
Satsuma and Choshu clans, traditional enemies of the
Tokugawas, were principals in the fray. The bakufu tried
different policies but was unable to navigate the shifting
currents. There are many details of political manoeuvring
during this time, but the end result was that the fifteenth
Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu (1837–1913), resigned and was
banished to his lands at Mito, northeast of Tokyo. He had
put the unity of Japan before his own personal position, as
did most of the other principal leaders of the time. After some
skirmishes and outright battles between his followers and their
rivals, the Tokugawa period, and along with it some 700 years
of shogun rule, came to an end. Japan was about to enter the
modern world.
with the exception of the years of the Pacific War, is perhaps the most
tumultuous era in Japan’s history. In the span of one person’s
lifetime virtually every aspect of society underwent profound
change—government, legal codes, class and economic structures, education, foreign relations and dress—as part of the
shift from feudal authoritarianism to a form of constitutional
democracy, from isolation to one of the most powerful
countries in the world. The changes also unleashed a fierce
nationalism, which in turn fed the fires of imperialism.
Ultimately this led to war—with China, Russia and eventually
the Western Allies. From the end of isolation to consolidation
as a world power took less than 70 years.
The Meiji restoration (1868–1912)
Japan was faced with enormous difficulties in 1868. The
government of some 250 years had been overthrown. Having
been forced to open up by foreign powers, it was apparent to
the Japanese elites that the country was technologically backward and militarily weak—vulnerable to the same forces of
colonisation that had already infected much of Asia. Japan
had little industry, poor defence capability and in feudalism
a seriously outmoded system of social organisation. Added
to this were enormous divisions between clans, classes and
geographical regions, in attitudes towards foreigners and the
ideas about the course the country should now chart.
The immediate goal was to make Japan strong, in order
to resist foreign pressure. The rallying cry was fukoku-kyohei
(‘rich country, strong army’). Ironically, while fear of internal
rivals had driven the policies of the Tokugawas, it was fear of
foreigners, even xenophobia, that now drove the country to
unite. This is understandable, given that for more than two
centuries distrust and rejection of foreigners was a key government policy. Descent into anarchy would most likely have
meant direct foreign involvement in the government of Japan,
and the overriding goal of the Japanese leadership was to
maintain independence and, indeed, to have the country take
its rightful place with other leading powers as quickly as
possible. The last Tokugawa shogun therefore stood down
with grace and an appeal to national unity. To achieve this a
rallying point for the disparate groups was needed, and found
in the ‘restoration’ of the authority of the emperor, an auth-
ority not enjoyed for a thousand years. The person on whom
this burden fell was Mutsuhito (1852–1912), who chose the
period name Meiji, meaning ‘Enlightened Rule’. The main
feature of the Meiji restoration was a return to centralised rule
from a diffuse feudal state, and a consequent growth in
national identity as a mechanism for holding the country
together during a time of massive social and economic change.
The main supporters of the emperor were primarily middle
and lower ranking samurai who had helped overthrow the
Tokugawa bakufu. Those from the Satsuma and Choshu han
in particular gained substantial power. They had for years
understood the need for change, while seeing their own position steadily erode, but had been frustrated in their attempts
at reform by the conservative forces at the top levels of
government. No one asked the peasants what they thought,
even though they made up about 90 per cent of the population
of the time. It was clear they had a poor deal, with very hard
work expected, high levels of taxation and little personal
freedom, and they often rebelled against changes that worked
to their disadvantage. The new policies were again implemented from the top down, one of the enduring themes of
Japanese history.
In June 1868 a new government was established. It was
based on the American model, with a separation of powers (to
placate those who were calling for democratic reform), but with
a more highly centralised focus. The emperor (a youth of just
sixteen) was advised and aided by a Council of State (Dajokan).
The bureaucracy was staffed at the upper levels by daimyo and
members of the imperial family, but many positions were
occupied by young samurai who came to have considerable
power in shaping the new Japan. Change was also signalled by
the move the following year of the emperor and imperial house
to Edo. The city was renamed Tokyo (‘Eastern Capital’), and
the emperor installed himself in the former castle of the shogun,
now the Imperial Palace.
Once the new government had been set up changes came
quickly. One of the first was a decision on land ownership,
whereby the major clans, followed by others, voluntarily gave
their lands (and control of people) to the emperor, a dramatic
gesture that underlined acceptance of the end of feudalism.
Wealthier farmers were able to gain ownership of land, and to
buy and sell rice, while poorer farmers often came to work for
them. Although the change was by no means universally
accepted at the time, by 1871 the Minister of Finance was able
to announce that all fiefs had been abolished. In their place
prefectures were established with governors (sometimes former
daimyo) appointed by the government. State stipends replaced
han revenue—the daimyo received 10 per cent of former
revenues as personal income while samurai allowances were cut
by half. These were, in 1876, changed to lump-sum payments
and government bonds, which helped reduce the government’s
ongoing deficit at a time when the spending priority was on
modernising the country’s society and economy.
The samurai, too, had to surrender their individual rights
for the greater good. In 1871 the government urged them to
quit wearing their hair in topknots, reducing their visibly
special status. Trousers replaced hakama, the skirt-like traditional pants worn by the male elites. In 1876 the samurai
were forbidden to wear swords. Their martial role was also
undercut by a move to a conscript army in 1873, following
the disbanding the year before of han-based military forces.
All Japanese citizens could be called up for three years of
military duty followed by four years of reserve service.
With the initial reduction and eventual loss of their stipends, the nearly two million samurai also had to find jobs.
Some continued in the bureaucracy where they had been a
long-time presence. Others became entrepreneurs, occasionally
enjoying outstanding success with the application of their
martial ethics to the business scene, though most failed
dismally. Still others became teachers, journalists and farmers,
or found careers in the police force or the new military. Many
others were unable to adjust and suffered poverty and humiliation at their loss of status.
In terms of foreign relations, associations with Western
countries were mixed. Reformers soon came to realise that
they needed Western help in order to industrialise rapidly, and
one of the new mottos became ‘catch up, overtake’. This did
not preclude some radicals from periodically murdering foreign
merchants and officials, but generally speaking the shift was
from vehemently anti- to pro-foreigner in the early years of
the restoration. Necessity, it seems, was at the heart of this
Young Japanese were sent abroad in droves, particularly
to the technologically advanced countries of the West. As early
as the 1860s many of the more powerful daimyo had sent
people overseas to learn about the outside world. The Iwakura
Mission, for example, comprising nearly a hundred people and
including a number of future Japanese leaders, spent the period
1871–73 in the USA and Europe. The mission included five
women, who stayed abroad for more than a decade, substantially contributing to the development of women’s education
on their return. Foreign influences began to pervade Japan’s
social structure.
Education in particular was a focus for the reformers, given
that it was the primary mechanism for facilitating nationalism.
It was also a necessary underpinning for the new technology
arriving in the country. In 1871 a new Ministry of Education
was established, and in 1872 compulsory education was introduced. At first it was only for sixteen months, but by 1907 it
was for six years, by which time attendance was near universal,
putting Japan far in advance of many countries in the West
at the time. The educational system was initially based on the
French model and later incorporated American practices.
German ideas emphasising duty to the state were added to the
amalgam, all of this resting on a basis of traditional Japanese
Confucianist beliefs. The latter was especially apparent in the
1890 ‘Imperial Rescript on Education’, which set out the
ideological basis of the new educational system. Its emphasis
on such values as loyalty, duty, respect and obedience reflected
the influence of former samurai in the Ministry of Education.
This, coupled with the use of symbols such as the Japanese
flag and patriotic songs, was effective in promoting national
identity and, at its core, a respect for the emperor.
Universities, too, were created at a rapid rate. In 1877
Tokyo Imperial University (Todai) was established from an
amalgamation of educational institutions from the Edo era,
and many others followed in the late nineteenth century,
including Kyoto, Waseda and Hitotsubashi. Fukuzawa Yukichi
(1835–1901), the founder of Japan’s first private university,
the eminent Keio University in Tokyo, was particularly inter-
ested in the way in which foreign societies were organised and
he even wrote best-sellers on the topic. Not for a thousand
years had Japan been so massively exposed to foreign ideas
and Japanese leaders had no qualms about utilising an early
form of the contemporary ‘world best practice’ approach in
their drive to modernise the country.
Western customs were taken on wholesale by ordinary
Japanese citizens. Western-style clothes made significant
inroads. Men’s suits were called sebiro, the Japanese pronun-
ciation of London’s famed street of tailors, Savile Row, and
bureaucrats were the first to wear them to the office. Women
donned Western dresses complete with bustles. Western-style
haircuts came into vogue. Western uniforms were adopted by
schools and universities, and they are still visible on the streets
of Japanese cities today.
Western literature made inroads, including works by Jules
Verne and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Books which gave
advice about how to cope with the widespread changes in the
country were especially popular, such as Samuel Smiles’ 1859
publication Self-Help. Associated with the flood of Western
literature came an interest in learning Western languages. New
medical practices were imported, principally from Germany,
and even today many Japanese medical terms are of German
origin. The Western calendar replaced the lunar one in 1873.
A new transportation device, the jinrikisha (‘human-powered
vehicle’—later known in English as the rickshaw) made its
debut in 1869 and subsequently spread throughout Asia. The
electric grid was extended substantially under a joint venture
with American Western Electric, the origin of today’s Nippon
Electric Company (NEC). The Tokyo Shibaura Electric company, which later became Toshiba, also came to the fore at
this time, again connected with electrical generation. Baseball
was introduced in 1873.
In the artistic world the scene was similar. In the early
years of the Meiji restoration Western influence was a dominant factor in art, music and literature. At the same time,
it should be noted, the West developed a fascination with
Japanese art and architecture, so influence flowed in both
directions. Even the Japanese diet began to change, with beer
being produced for the first time in the 1870s and beef
consumption growing significantly. Today’s popular dish sukiyaki (similar to beef fondue) dates from this period. Some of
the fascination with Western practices bordered on the absurd,
however. There was some discussion among Japanese elites,
for example, of replacing rice with bread as the staple carbohydrate. The period was characterised by the impact of
Western practices throughout Japanese society, though urban
dwellers and the relatively wealthy had much greater exposure,
and a substantial cultural gap grew up between the cities and
the countryside.
As a result of both international influence and domestic
imperatives, the life style of many Japanese changed at break-neck pace. By 1882, for example, when the Bank of Japan
came into being, there were already more than 150 banks in
the country, often based on the American model. Banking
through the post office (another innovation) was also made
possible in order to utilise people’s savings for national economic development; this has played a major role in Japan’s
growth through to the present day.
The tremendous upsurge in transportation and communication technology, including the introduction of the railway
and telegraph, had far-reaching implications not only for
economic development but also for the daily life of Japanese
citizens. Commuting came into being, and the problems of
overcrowded transport associated with Japan today were
already evident by the turn of the century. There was a virtual
explosion in newspapers. The first English-language newspaper
appeared in 1861 and ten years later the first Japanese daily,
the Yokohama Mainichi Shimbun, went into circulation. These
were often the vehicles of criticism of the government, and
consequently the first laws controlling the press were enacted
in 1875. By that time there were more than a hundred
newspapers in circulation.
The class system of the Tokugawa period was altered,
though a basic nobles-and-samurai/commoners division
persisted. The eta and hinin ‘outcast’ categories were formally
abolished and subsumed into the commoners class. Com-
moners were also legally allowed to take surnames from 1870.
Restrictions on changing one’s place of residence and occupation were lifted, a significant social shift from the Edo era.
It is not surprising that such massive change met with stiff
resistance in some quarters. Even today, relatively minor policy
shifts cause the government to come under severe criticism,
and the country then was undergoing wholesale change. This
resulted in a number of regional rebellions in the early 1870s.
Opposition came to a head in 1877, however, with the Satsuma
rebellion, when more than 40 000 troops battled the Japanese
government. The rebellion was led by Saigo Takamori
(1827–77), who had played a key role in the overthrow of the
Tokugawa shogunate and enjoyed a lofty reputation in Japan
at the time. Such resistance was doomed, however, and government forces overcame the rebels later that year. This last civil
conflict in Japan ended with the suicide of Saigo and a
widespread acceptance of the inevitability of the new Japan.
Japan’s transformation, however, did not mean a complete
break from the past—a near impossibility in any case. The
country’s symbolic core remained the emperor, as the embodiment of Japanese tradition. In a deliberate move to foster a
connection between the bulk of the population and the
emperor, he was removed from his previously secluded existence and brought into contact with elites around the country.
It was important to the stability of the government and its
modernisation program that there was seen to be imperial
support for the new social and economic policies. The leadership also wished to retain ‘the spirit of the old Japan’. The
rallying call was ‘Japanese spirit, Western learning’, indicating
a desire to maintain fundamental cultural characteristics such
as duty, obedience, loyalty and discipline, though it may be
argued that these ideals reflected the wishes of the upper class
rather than the bulk of the population. In any event, they were
characteristics which met the needs of the reformers admirably.
Despite the popularity of their ideas, Westerners were often
kept at some distance. As early as 1873, for example, a law
prohibiting foreign ownership of land was passed.
Political parties emerged at this time, a development
that must have seemed outlandish to many Japanese. They
represented a radical departure from the tradition of authoritarian rule, which had been particularly harsh in the preceding
two centuries. Along with other things Western came philosophies of representative government. The works of the English
political scientist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, and the
French writer and philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were
particularly in vogue, and their ideas spread rapidly, in step
with the dramatic increase in literacy levels under the new
mass education system.
The early Meiji leaders recognised the need for a legitimate
outlet for the new ideas circulating at the time, even though
their primary goal was to harness and control the populace
during the drive to modernise. In the early stages, however,
the call for democracy came from the relatively small middle
class. Groups with different interests naturally gravitated
toward each other, and the two earliest parties reflected this
division. The Jiyuto (Liberal Party) represented the centre-left,
taking many of its ideas from French liberal doctrines. It
gained support from some samurai and journalists but mostly
from wealthier farmers in the countryside. The Kaishinto
(Progressive Party) appealed to the centre-right, its beliefs
loosely based on British ideas of constitutional democracy.
Support came mainly from new capitalists, academics, merchants and small landowners. The Teiseito (Imperial Government Party) was further to the right, and found support among
religious leaders, those with strong Confucianist principles and
the military. Not surprisingly, there was substantial conflict
between these groups, as well as factional rifts within each.
A landmark political development of the period was the
Meiji Constitution of 1889, which established the first representative government in Asia.1 This marked a significant
change in the course of Japanese history, the beginning of a
shift away from authoritarianism. The constitution contained
elements of both the old Japan and the new, reflecting the
disparate positions of different groups and the tensions between tradition and change. Indeed, one should not forget that
these reformers were products of the Tokugawa era and its
authoritarian government. Finding the best model available
was again the approach taken by the leadership. Ito Hirobumi
(1841–1909),2 the individual who figured most prominently in
the development of the constitution, had gone to Europe in
1882 to study constitutional forms. The upshot was a constitution that tended towards the German (Prussian) system
which, while limiting the authority of the emperor, accorded
greater power to the higher mechanisms of government and
the bureaucracy, and was more strongly centralised than the
systems of other countries such as Britain.
The Meiji Constitution set out the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Freedoms included speech and assembly,
religion and the sanctity of the home. Responsibilities were
essentially limited to paying taxes and military service. An
important rider, however, is found throughout the constitution
in the phrases ‘except in the cases provided for by law’ and
‘within limits not prejudicial to peace and order’ which effectively made a citizen’s rights conditional rather than absolute.
The tradition of authoritarianism in Japan was not dead.
The constitution also provided a venue in which the new
politicians could argue. The upper house, or House of Peers,
was reserved for the elites. They were drawn from a hereditary
peerage established in 1884, and included former daimyo,
court nobles, Meiji leaders and senior military officers. The
lower house, or House of Representatives, was an elected body,
but the right to vote was limited to the relatively wealthy, then
about 1 per cent of the population. Together they formed the
Diet, the new government of Japan; curiously, members of the
powerful Cabinet did not have to belong to this body, but
could be outside appointees.
We can trace a number of prominent aspects of contemporary Japanese society to this time. The bureaucracy, for
example, is immensely powerful. The pre-eminent position of
Tokyo Imperial University was consolidated then, and its law
school became the premier path (as it is now) to high-level
positions in the civil service. The competitive examination
system, which in turn is the path to Tokyo and other elite
universities, came into being at this time as well. A departure
from the earlier system of inherited positions, it was a major
factor in releasing the talents and energies of the general
New policies focused in particular on industrialisation
since this was the key, along with the requisite socioeconomic
underpinnings, to a strong country. A Ministry of Industry was
established as early as 1870 and the government often took
the lead in the early years in establishing new enterprises,
where the private sector was unable or unwilling to invest. It
must be said that it was often difficult to find investors, since
Japan’s industrial structure in the early years of the Meiji
restoration was primitive and its manufactured products were
inferior to those of the West. As economic growth was the
linchpin of Japan’s emergence as a national power, the government felt it must direct and control industrial development,
and thus very close links were established with the business
sector. From the 1870s, therefore, the government became
heavily involved in such industries as coal-mining and
ship-building, and in the production of textiles, machine tools,
cement and bricks.
At the same time foreign experts were brought to Japan,
as advisers on railway construction and operation, shipbuilding, agricultural innovations, military organisation,
educational systems, mining practices and so on. Not for the
Japanese the Chinese disdain of foreign knowledge—they
could not learn fast enough, an enduring characteristic.
The first railway track was formally opened in 1872
(Yokohama–Shinbashi in Tokyo) and the length of track
increased from about 120 kilometres in 1881 to 3300 in 1895
and 5000 by the turn of the century. Britain provided a loan
for the first track between Yokohama and Tokyo in 1870 as
well as engineers and train drivers. British experts also supervised construction of the first telegraph line.
As was later the case in a number of other Asian countries,
notably China, income from agriculture was used to support
industry. In 1880 about 80 per cent of tax revenue came from
the agricultural sector and was ploughed into industrial development. Agricultural output also grew substantially, especially
from this time through to the early twentieth century. Partly
this was because of the new farmland opened up following
the settlement of Hokkaido by people from other parts of
Japan, and partly it had to do with the use of new types of
seeds and better farming practices.
A land tax implemented in 1873 meant that farmers were
now taxed a fixed amount on the value of their land rather
than on a proportion of their harvest. As output varies from
year to year depending on growing conditions, however,
many farmers eventually found themselves in financial straits.
They had to borrow from money-lenders at high interest rates
during the lean years, which eventually had the result of land
becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. Not surprisingly, many people in the countryside came
to resent the Meiji government, and the period is characterised
by violent protests in rural areas.
The government was perhaps visionary in its realisation
that the private sector was more efficient than the public in
the day-to-day operation of businesses, and once new industries were up and running they were often sold. As in modern
times, the sales of these assets also helped to balance the
government’s budget. From the late 1880s onwards such enterprises were often sold to individuals closely connected to
government officials, and it is during this period that we see
the emergence of some of the great family-owned industrial
combines known as the zaibatsu.4
Mitsubishi was founded by a former low-ranked samurai
of the Tosa clan, Iwasaki Yataro (1834–85). He purchased the
government shipyards in Nagasaki, and was given thirteen
ships (used for the military expedition to Taiwan in 1874,
mentioned below) by the government which allowed him to
start what eventually became the Nihon Yusen Gaisha, Japan’s
first shipping line (which incidentally broke the foreign monopoly on shipping). These two enterprises laid the foundation
for his family’s industrial empire. The four industrial groups
of Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Yasuda emerged during
this period as part of the country’s military–industrial complex.
Their owners all had close personal ties as well as strong
political links with politicians and bureaucrats, and their view
of business as being a patriotic enterprise in addition to a
profit-making venture made working for their concerns socially
acceptable to the samurai class.
The bureaucrats supervising this handover of assets were
mostly still of samurai descent, and were not hesitant in
exercising their personal and professional authority. The substantial influence of the bureaucracy in the economic affairs
of modern Japan can be traced from this time, in particular
the contemporary Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Ministry
of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Hence we can say
that, in addition to some members of the old merchant class,
Japan’s industrialisation was powered by the government and
the new group of entrepreneurial samurai.
Along with the sweeping changes in other areas, the military was substantially reorganised. Officers were sent abroad
to study modern methods and by the mid 1870s Japan had a
new army of about 9000 based on the French model.
Conscription dated from the Conscription Ordinance of 1873.
In 1878 the structure was again altered to include a general
staff organisation based on the German system. The driving
force was a Choshu samurai named Yamagata Aritomo
(1838–1922). Interestingly, most troops were recruited from
the former tozama han, especially Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa.
The Satsuma clan dominated the new Japanese Navy, which
was based on that of Britain—indeed, the British Navy played
a significant role in its organisation.
An ongoing irritant to the country’s leadership was the
form of the treaties under which Japan interacted with Western
powers, which constantly reminded them of their second-class
status in the community of nations. The treaties, dating from
1858, were particularly objectionable on the issues of extra-territoriality and the restrictions placed on the government
over the setting of tariffs (which meant effective Western
domination of Japan’s foreign trade). The former issue was
tackled through legal reforms between 1872 and 1898, and
both criminal and civil laws were revised to bring them into
line with Western practice (such as banning the use of torture).
The problem of tariffs proved more difficult, however, and it
was not until 1911 that Japan gained complete control over
its tariff rates. That these two issues took decades to resolve
was a potent indicator of the degree of Western self-interest,
and served to hinder the development of positive international
relations over the period. They were also issues that Japanese
nationalists could focus on in their crusade against the over-Westernisation of Japanese society.
Changes in religious structures were also attempted to
support the increase in nationalistic sentiment. Shinto, which
had become syncretically linked to Buddhism over the centuries, was (at least partly) separated out as a truly Japanese
religion. At its core, of course, was worship of the emperor,
which tied in nicely with the values being encouraged by the
educational system, the government and the military. A formal
Shinto office (jingikan) was established in 1869 with the goal
of bringing Shinto under government control. It was not
effective, however, and after two years was closed. Not until
the 1930s would Shinto emerge as part of the nationalistic
ideology. Christianity, being a foreign religion, continued to be
suppressed early in the reformation. The ban was reaffirmed
in 1868 but lifted in 1873 following Western protests. The
1889 Meiji Constitution provided for freedom of religion, with
the qualification that it must not disturb the harmony of
Japanese society.
The increase in Japan’s military power went hand in hand
with the growth of nationalism. Japan’s leaders remained very
concerned about the threat of Western colonisation, given the
instability of the country early in the restoration. This concern
underpinned Saigo’s 1873 plan to invade Korea (which
remained in isolation—the time of the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’). The military thought that a pre-emptive strike in Korea would preclude Western countries from establishing themselves
there, which would give them a base for threatening Japan.
Saigo was dissuaded, however, by others who felt that the
military was not yet strong enough to make such a move. A year later a Japanese force was sent to Taiwan (then Formosa)
following the murder of a number of shipwrecked Okinawan
sailors by the locals. China eventually paid an indemnity and
the Japanese troops withdrew. It was a harbinger of events to come.
In 1894 a rebellion took place in Korea, in the course of
which both Chinese and Japanese troops entered the fray.
Japan then pressured China to accord it special privileges,
which China refused to do. The Japanese Navy (with the tacit
support of the UK) then attacked Chinese ships and the Sino–
Japanese war broke out. Within a year Japan had defeated the
Chinese on both land and sea, and the 1895 Treaty of
Shimonoseki gave it, among other things, Taiwan, Port Arthur
and the Liaotung (Liaodong) Peninsula, and also removed
Korea from Chinese control. Under pressure from Germany,
France and Russia, however, who felt their imperial ambitions
threatened by the Japanese control of these areas, Japan
handed back Port Arthur and the peninsula before ratification
of the treaty. The result of this was a tremendous popular
nationalist backlash in Japan. It also drove home to Japanese
leaders the lesson that the use of force was the deciding factor
in international affairs. Another outcome was the growth in
prestige of the armed forces, and as a result a legal change in
1890 made it compulsory for the Japanese government to
choose the War and Navy ministers from serving officers. This
was to have serious implications over the coming decades.
Both the government and the military, for the first two
decades of the twentieth century, were dominated by members
of the Satsuma and Choshu clans. Between 1885 and 1918,
for example, all but two Japanese prime ministers came from
these two clans. They were also overrepresented in the bureaucracy, though their influence was diluted once the competitive
examination system was introduced into the educational
system (particularly the pathway of the Faculty of Law at
Tokyo Imperial University). The clans’ dominance of the
machinery of government brought them into conflict with the
more ‘popularly’ supported parties in the House of Representatives, and the result was often brutality and violence
during elections. A second complicating factor was a degree
of division within the two-clan oligarchy. Essentially, some
members favoured the long-term prospect of at least some
measure of parliamentary democracy while others wished to
retain the government’s authoritarian characteristics. This was
to give rise later to a civil–military division within the
The early years of the century were a confusing time in
domestic Japanese politics. The shifts in alliances, parties and
policies were more a game of musical chairs than the operation
of a coherent political system. An event which put a temporary
halt to the problems, and brought Japanese together, was yet
another external threat, this time from Russia.
The Japanese had been displeased with Russia since being
forced to hand back to China the strategically placed Liaotung
Peninsula. Russia had subsequently made a grab for it, securing
a 25-year lease in 1898 and beginning a military build-up in
the region, using the Trans-Siberian Railway and its spur line
across Manchuria, the Chinese Eastern Railway. This gave
Russia access to ice-free seaports and some of the mineral
Territory under Japan’s control, 1910.
wealth of the region. Both these developments worried Japanese leaders and reinforced their ‘might is right’ view of
international relations, the lesson learned in 1895. The resultant military build-up was reflected in the defence budget,
which accounted for 50 per cent of government expenditure
after 1897.
Russian ships were attacked by the Japanese Navy on
8 February 1904, and two days later Japan declared war on
Russia, a move that enjoyed widespread support on the domestic front. The result, after much bloody fighting, was Japanese
victory on the sea and at least a good showing on land, leading
to a stalemate. Japan felt its position was strong enough
militarily by the middle of 1905 (though it was in dire straits
in terms of loss of soldiers and expenditures on the war) to
ask US President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate a settlement.
The Tsarist government, reeling from the 1905 revolution, also
favoured a resolution. The upshot was the Portsmouth Treaty
of 1905 which gave Japan the southern half of Sakhalin Island,
the Liaotung Peninsula (under lease this time), a section of
Russia’s South Manchurian Railway and recognition of Japan’s
‘paramount interests’ in Korea (which it subsequently annexed
in 1910). The lack of an indemnity from Russia, however,
which Japan needed to pay for this costly war, produced an
upsurge of nationalism in the country, including riots in Tokyo.
Martial law had to be declared before order was restored.
The Japanese victory sent shock waves through the international community, with the realisation that Japan was a
power to be reckoned with. It also challenged the idea of white
superiority, which in turn galvanised nationalistic movements
throughout colonial territories in Asia. At home Japan had the
beginning of an empire with its new possessions and Taiwan,
and they were used as areas of settlement for the rapidly
growing population. The country also came away with a new
confidence in its ability to use force on the international stage
to secure its interests.
The end of the period came with the death of the Meiji
emperor in 1912. His 44-year rule had seen tremendous
change, with Japan transformed from an isolated feudal
country to a major player on the global stage. The country
was rapidly becoming technologically modern as well, though
politically there remained strong elements of authoritarianism,
and nationalistic sentiment was especially powerful. These
trends were to become particularly apparent over the next
three decades.
The road to war
During World War I Japan was on the Allied side, declaring
war on Germany and attacking German possessions in Shantung (Shandong), China, and their Pacific islands (Mariana,
Caroline and Marshall island groups). Japan also sought to
extend its influence in China, though the Western powers at
first constrained its activities there. The Chinese began to see
Japan, rather than the West, as their main threat.
As the European powers became preoccupied with war in
the West, Japan seized the opportunity to expand its influence
in China. The ‘Twenty-One Demands’ of 1915 was an attempt
to place China under effective Japanese control in the chaotic
period following the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Although
the demands were far-reaching in a number of areas, the key
point was for Japanese advisers to be spread throughout the
Chinese bureaucracy. While a watered-down version was
eventually forced on the Chinese, the result of the original set
of demands was twofold. Popular opinion in China became
vehemently anti-Japanese and the USA in particular came to
see Japan as a serious competitor for influence in China. It
was the beginning of the perception in the USA of Japan as
the enemy, and contributed to its later support of Chinese
nationalism in the form of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang.
The Peace Treaty of Versailles confirmed Japanese control
of Shantung and the former German Pacific islands, and Japan
took her place on the Council of the League of Nations,
forerunner of the United Nations. It had clearly become a
major world power. This did not mean complete acceptance,
however. Even at the time the League was formed Japan had
sponsored a clause of racial equality which was defeated,
partly because of opposition from Australia, the government
there fearing that such a clause would undermine its ‘White
Australia’ policy. Racial equality was also a delicate issue in
the USA, not only because of restrictions on Asian immigration, but because of laws suppressing its African–American
population. The message was that Japan might be respected
for its military power but would not be accepted as an equal
(with an emphasis on racial differences) among Western
Japan’s economy fluctuated considerably in the early twentieth century. Over the course of World War I the economy
grew by 50 per cent and exports increased threefold. Heavy
industry, including naval ship-building, prospered, despite
being highly dependent on imports of iron, steel and petroleum. The zaibatsu benefited greatly during this period,
though there was a huge difference in both their economic
power and their better treatment of labour, compared with
smaller companies. By the early 1920s, however, substantial
problems were besetting the country. The boom produced by
World War I came to an end by 1921, resulting in substantial
labour unrest in the industrial sector. The disparity between
the rich, especially those who had profited from the war, and
the poor, caused popular resentment. The price of rice had
also increased dramatically during the war, leading to the Rice
Riots of 1918, which spread to almost all of Japan’s prefectures. Added to this was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923
and the subsequent fires that destroyed Yokohama and half
of Tokyo, killing somewhere around 100 000 people and
leaving three million homeless. Finally, in 1927 there was a
crisis in the banking sector in which 25 per cent of Japan’s
banks went under.
Following the sweeping changes of the Meiji period, in the
1920s different interest groups sought to find their place, and
relative power, within the new Japan of the Taisho era, begun
in 1912 and lasting through to 1926. Though the new emperor
was physically weak and died at a relatively young age, it was
a time of flourishing democracy. More political parties
emerged, including the Social Democratic and Communist
parties. Labour unions gave workers a voice and there were
numerous strikes through the 1920s as they struggled with
management. Some liberal ideas took hold, reflected in the
granting of universal suffrage for males over the age of 25.
Social roles underwent further change. Women began to make
up a larger share of the labour force, in factories (where
working conditions were often deplorable) and offices, and
began to appear more assertive, reflected in the term moga
(‘modern girl’). The male equivalent was mobo (‘modern boy’).
Western books, music and theatre made further inroads. This
was reinforced by a substantial rise in urbanisation, which
nearly quadrupled between 1895 and 1935, by which time
about 45 per cent of Japan’s population was living in cities of
more than 10 000 people. The mood of the time was summed
up by the phrase ‘ero, guro, nansensu’, meaning ‘eroticism,
grotesqueness and nonsense’.
As a counterweight to the modernisation, urbanisation and
Westernisation of Japan, the military, the repository of conservative influence, now expanded to include conscripts from
relatively poor, backward, mostly rural areas. They were receptive to the nationalistic line being fostered at the time, in part
through the basic education they were provided with in the
military. At the same time the hawks in the upper echelons of
the armed forces were pressing for a greater regional role for
Japan, especially in China. Moderates in the military risked
assassination by extremist groups.
Domestic politics was characterised by a swing back from
democracy to authoritarianism. Various parties vied for power
and cabinets were regularly formed and dissolved. A particular
problem was the rule that the War and Navy ministers had to
be chosen from the active (later, also the inactive) officer list.
Given the solidarity of the armed forces, no replacement for
these ministers was forthcoming when they resigned, and a
cabinet would therefore be forced to dissolve. This inevitably
led to a rise in the influence of the military within the
government. Additionally, as Japan had never worked out clear
democratic conventions, politicians tended to use whatever
tools were available to garner support, including bribery,
intimidation and violence, which became particularly apparent
during elections. The growing move to the right was reflected
in the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, which made it illegal
for anyone to agitate for fundamental changes to the political
system. Linked to this law were stronger powers for the police.
Democracy was steadily fading in the face of growing right
wing power.
The Great Depression, which began with the stockmarket
crash in 1929, hit Japan hard, and there was a subsequent
loss of prestige for the centrist parties in the government.
Extremists began to emerge as ‘champions of the people’. The
most difficult period was the early 1930s. By the middle of
the decade, however, Japan’s economy was on the road to
recovery and annual growth through the later 1930s was about
5 per cent, the result of low-cost Japanese goods being in
demand during a time of global recession. This naturally
caused friction with manufacturers in competitor countries and
ultimately led to restrictions on Japanese imports in a number
of Western countries, causing resentment in Japan.
The instability of the political system, as different groups
competed for power, led to the emperor becoming a much
stronger symbol. In part this was the result of cynical manipulation of his position by some members of the elites (as had
often been seen before), and in part it was a way of reassuring
people caught up in a time of great change. The new emperor,
Hirohito, who acceded to the throne in 1926, gave his reign
the title Showa, or ‘Enlightened Peace’, and remained a symbol
of stability and continuity. Emperor worship reached its theoretical apex in the book Kokutai-no-Hongi (Cardinal Principles
of the Nation), published in 1937 by the Ministry of Education. This document pushed the line that the head of state
was divine and the life goal of every Japanese should be utter
devotion to, and self-sacrifice for, the nation. Education was
thus used as a key mechanism in strengthening a form of
nationalism centred on the emperor as a figurehead. This was
reinforced by state sponsorship of Shinto, which in turn reinforced the idea of the divinity of the Japanese islands as well
as that of the emperor. In short, the nationalism of the time
had a religious, or perhaps crusading, flavour to it.
The economic improvements, however, did not benefit
everyone equally. Those most disadvantaged were naturally at
the lowest levels of society, principally small farmers and
factory workers, and they suffered grievously. Some starved.
Others were forced to sell their daughters into prostitution.
The fact that much of the conscript army was drawn from
The growth of Japan’s empire.
rural areas led to a demand within the military that it take
steps to solve Japan’s problems, which further fed the fires of
ultra-nationalism and imperialism.
In September 1931 troops of the Japanese Kwangtung
Army (troops assembled for use in China), in an unauthorised
response to a (possibly faked) attack by Chinese bandits,
assaulted Chinese troops in the Manchurian city of Mukden—
the so-called ‘Manchurian Incident’. By early 1932 the puppet
state of Manchukuo had been established, the titular head of
which from 1934 was Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. A
Chinese bureaucracy was put in place to run the state under
Japanese control. Japan continued to expand its influence in
northeast China and Inner Mongolia.
The League of Nations condemned the Japanese actions
and Japan left the organisation in March 1933. Japan in turn
produced the concept of the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity
Sphere’ (Dai Toa Kyoei-Ken), which would unite Asians, with
Japan as leader, to resist the power of the Western countries.
The prized mineral resources of Manchuria were quickly
exploited. Coal mines, iron and steel factories and railways
were opened or expanded. The zaibatsu of Mitsui and
Mitsubishi benefited in particular, even more so than
Sumitomo and Yasuda; to balance their power the government
promoted newer companies such as Nissan and Toyota, which
rapidly became common names.
On the domestic front the government moved steadily to the
right. The emperor remained publicly silent on the military’s
activities in Manchuria, partly because he was perhaps not
fully informed, and partly because he chose to make his
reservations known only in private. The public generally
accepted that this meant his tacit approval. Those agitating
for a more moderate course, including some scholars and
members of left-wing parties and labour unions, were often
assassinated, arrested or jailed. Media came under stricter
censorship. The army was particularly right wing, the navy
less so, but the presence of active officers in the cabinet made
it difficult for moderates to advance their positions. An
attempted overthrow of the government was mounted by
right-wing junior army officers in February 1936, at which
time both the Diet and Army Ministry buildings were occupied
and several ministers murdered (the most serious among
numerous attacks on government in the early 1930s). Though
unsuccessful, this attack signalled the growing power of the
radical right.
Imperialism was accepted as a doctrine in the military—
seeking first to occupy China, then Southeast Asia and India.
The Japanese government sought security by signing an anticommunist agreement with Germany in 1936. In Manchuria
the Japanese army began practising manoeuvres which brought
it into conflict with Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge
near Peking. The scene was set for the Pacific War.
the scars of the Pacific
War in its constitution, armed forces, international
relations, economic structures and internal social divisions. No
other event in the country’s history has had such a traumatic
impact and so changed its historical course. The Pacific War
was a confusing time. In the years leading up to it Japan simply
played the international relations game as it had been taught
by other major participants: When diplomacy fails, use threats.
When threats do not work try gunboat diplomacy. Be prepared
to go to war if necessary—audacity and tenacity often pay off.
Japan’s teachers were the British, the Americans, the
Russians and the French—the major colonial powers of the
day—and they too were ruthless in their pursuit of raw
materials and markets. Hence, while one cannot condone the
inhumane behaviour of Japanese troops during the war, it is
also unfair to portray the country as some kind of ‘Evil
Empire’, along the lines of the propaganda generated in the
West at the time. This chapter looks at Japan’s road to war,
its attempt to carve out an Asia-Pacific empire, its failure and
resurrection. The period covered is a mere fifteen years—
starting with war in China in 1937 and finishing with the
formal end of the Allied Occupation in 1952—but it changed
Japan and the world forever.
Prelude to war (1937–41)
In the last chapter we saw Japan emerge from self-imposed
isolation in the middle of the nineteenth century. There
followed a remarkable period of extremely rapid change
throughout its society and economy, in good part a response
to the threat of colonisation by the dominant Western powers.
During this tumultuous period a unifying force was needed to
prevent social disintegration, and the Meiji leaders found it in
the ancient symbol of the emperor. A powerful nationalism
was encouraged with worship of the emperor, both secular
and sacred in nature, at its core. The advantage was social
cohesion at a time when it was desperately needed. The
disadvantage was a wariness, even hostility, towards foreigners.
These elements came together as Japan sought to increase its
economic strength. Given the relative poverty of its home
islands, the country had to secure raw materials from outside
its borders, and this eventually brought it into armed conflict
with China and then Russia. With victories in both wars, Japan
sought further expansion into China, a desirable hinterland of
natural resources given its proximity to Japan and existing
Japanese control of parts of Manchuria and Korea. Such was
the scene in 1937, with troops poised to push further into
Chinese territory.
There is no clear picture of Japanese plans at this time,
partly because of the conflicts between the (mostly) civilian
government and the military (and competing factions within
each), with the government having only partial control over
the latter. It appears that even the military was reluctant to
engage in a full-scale war with China, recognising the limited
resources available for engaging in a long-term conflict, but
the ultra-nationalists carried the day. At the same time it
seemed almost inevitable that, with Japanese troops stationed
in Peking and Shanghai as well as in parts of northeast China,
open conflict would eventually occur. This took place on
7 July 1937, at the Marco Polo Bridge just outside Peking
(Beijing), and marks the effective beginning of the Pacific War.
Within three months Japan had 200 000 troops stationed
in China—the new North China Army. Peking and Tientsin
(Tianjin) fell quickly and the army continued on to Nanking
(Nanjing), the headquarters of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang
(Guomindang) government. One of the worst atrocities of this
ugly war occurred in Nanking, where approximately 42 000
civilians, primarily women and children, were massacred, and
there were perhaps 20 000 cases of rape. Some 100 000 military and civilian ‘prisoners of war’ were also killed. These
figures come from the Tokyo War Crimes Trials of the late
1940s, and would seem to be relatively accurate. Today,
however, there are counter-claims, with the Chinese putting
the figure as high as 340 000 killed and the Japanese insisting
on one as low as 30 000. Matsui Iwane (1878–1948), the
commander of the Japanese troops in the city, was hanged in
1948 for his role in the massacre. This incident remains a
stumbling block in relations between China and Japan today,
partly because of Japanese reluctance to admit fault. One
argument put forward in rebuttal of the charges is that many
of the atrocities were perpetrated by communist Chinese, who
saw that in the chaos they could settle old scores with their
Kuomintang enemies. More publicly, some Japanese leaders
continue to deny either that the event ever occurred, or that
Japanese troops were responsible for the carnage.
The Japanese atrocities in Nanking produced concern in
the West, but not enough to bring Western countries into open
conflict with the aggressor. Their attention was on events
in Europe. The same response had been forthcoming earlier,
when Japanese troops encountered Westerners (including
British and American naval ships, which they sank) in their
push up the Yangtze River to Nanking, and later when they
occupied Chinese ports such as Shanghai, Hangchow
(Hangzhou) and Canton (Guangzhou), damaging British and
American commercial interests in particular.
Japan set up a puppet government in 1940 with co-opted
Chinese nationalist Wang Ching-wei (Wang Jinwei) as its head.
In spite of this structure and their domination of a number of
cities and ports the Japanese were never able to achieve full
control of China. As happened in the later conflict in Vietnam
between the French (then the Americans) and Vietnamese
nationalists/communists, the Japanese were able to control the
main roads, railway lines, rivers and cities, but not the countryside. Guerilla forces, especially those organised by the
communist Chinese, harried the Japanese throughout the war.
The main Chinese armies (both nationalist and communist),
poorly equipped and fighting in appalling conditions, set up
bases in the western part of the country, where they formed
a temporary truce. Supplies for the Chinese troops came
principally from the USA and Britain, first overland from
Burma and later via aircraft from India over the ‘hump’ of the
Himalayas, and through to the mid 1940s Japanese troops had
to regularly engage Chinese forces.
Neither did Japan do well against the Soviet Union at the
time. In 1938 and 1939 there were border conflicts between
Soviet and Japanese troops, first in the area where Korea,
Manchuria and Russia meet and later at Nomonhan, on the
border between Outer Mongolia and northwestern Manchuria.
Soviet mechanised forces stopped the Japanese advances. By
this time, however, the USSR had to contend with the build-up
to, and then the outbreak of, war in Europe, and a cease-fire
was signed with the Japanese in September of 1939.
Partly to reduce the Soviet threat and partly to send a
warning to the USA to maintain its neutrality, Japanese leaders
had earlier signed an anti-communist pact with Germany, in
1936. By September 1940, following the German occupation
of France, the pro-German Vichy Government allowed Japan-
ese troops into French Indo-China. The Japanese left the
French administration largely in place while taking over effec-
tive control of the colony. Japan’s empire was growing.
On the home front, the political scene was characterised
by a steady move to the right, with suppression of both
left-wing and liberal politicians. There were waves of arrests,
imprisonments and some executions. Assassinations continued
to be carried out, especially by extreme nationalists, and the
voices of moderation were pressured into silence. Military
budgets were increased. Prime ministers changed regularly,
with ten men holding the post between 1935 and 1945. (Prince
Konoe Fumimaro was, for example, three times Prime Minister
during this period.) Eventually, in an attempt to reduce this
instability, a coalition called the Imperial Rule Assistance
Association was created in 1940, into which all political parties
as well as lobby groups (such as labour unions) were subsumed. Key government decisions came to be made by a body
entitled the Liaison Council (between the government and
military), composed of the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister,
War and Navy ministers and the chiefs of staff of the branches
of the military. This concentration of power moved Japan
closer to a totalitarian state, though there was never a dictator
similar to Hitler in Germany. General Tojo Hideki took over
as Prime Minister in October 1941, and general mobilisation
for war began.
The government had, over several years, passed a number
of laws designed to give it more direct control over the country.
It was largely able to control savings levels, wages and prices,
and some key industries under the National General Mobilization Law of 1938. For the exploitation of resources in
Manchuria the Manchurian Industrial Development Corporation was established in 1938, followed in 1940 by the North
China Development Corporation.
Japan steadily built up its military strength, stockpiling
strategic material, including a two-year supply of oil. In the
key area of naval shipping, an agreement had been reached in
1930 (the London Disarmament Conference) to limit the size
of the navies of Britain, the USA and Japan to a ratio of 5:5:3.
This eventually became unacceptable to Japan and it withdrew
from the agreement in the middle of the decade, beginning a
massive build-up of its navy and by 1940 feeling confident in
the strength of its Pacific fleet.
At the same time, with the German–Soviet non-aggression
pact of 1939, Japan suddenly found itself once again under
potential threat. Germany, Japan felt, had betrayed it, underlining the weakness of a marriage of convenience between
partners who fundamentally neither liked nor trusted each
other. Japan therefore tried to shore up relations with the USA
to limit the problems it might have to deal with. The USA was
unwilling, however, to enter into any agreement while Japan’s
army continued to advance into China. This had the effect of
pushing Japan in the opposite direction, and in September
1940 the government signed a defence agreement with
Germany and Italy (the Tripartite Axis Pact). Germany must
have looked like a good bet at the time, given its spectacular
military successes (the blitzkrieg) in Europe.
In the convoluted realm of international relations there
were additional benefits for Japan. Since Germany and the
USSR had a non-aggression pact, and Japan had a defence
agreement with Germany, it followed that Japan and the USSR
could come to some arrangement. Hence, in April 1941 the
two countries signed a neutrality pact, thereby relieving pressure to Japan’s northeast. Only two months later, however, in
June 1941, Germany turned on the USSR. Japan’s foreign
relations were again thrown into confusion, but its leaders
resolved not to meet its defence obligations to Germany until
it was clear who would be victorious (and by September 1941
German forces had bogged down before taking Moscow). It
suited the Japanese to have the USSR preoccupied in the West,
thereby removing the Soviet threat from Japan’s flank.
The USA at the time was still dominated by a policy of
non-intervention, in spite of war in both Europe and China.
Its response to Japanese aggression in China was to impose
economic sanctions, a familiar reaction today. Japanese leaders
were outraged by limits on the sale of raw materials to their
country, including aviation petrol, scrap iron and steel—all
matériel necessary for waging war. Then, with the Japanese
move into Indo-China (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) in
1941, at least partly to get closer to the oil supplies in the
Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the USA, along with Britain
and Holland, completely cut exports to Japan. The reduction
in oil supplies was particularly serious as approximately
75 per cent of Japan’s oil came from the USA (and a further
15 per cent from other foreign sources). Indeed, it is surprising
that the USA continued to trade with Japan as long as it did.
One explanation is that the USA welcomed the anti-communist
activities of the Japanese government and was thus willing to
continue its support until Japan’s military activities made this
position untenable. Some of the black humour later circulating
among American troops in the Pacific had to do with their
own iron and steel being fired back at them, a situation that
was to be repeated in coming years, indeed as recently as the
Gulf War (where American weaponry provided to Iraq during
the Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s was subsequently used against
American troops).
The embargo has been a point of debate ever since. Did
it in fact force Japan to go to war with the USA? Leaving
aside moral positions, the situation could be seen as a continuation of geopolitics, the struggle for supremacy among the
major powers of the day. Each was attempting to maximise
its self-interest, though to be fair to Japan, the situation was
complicated by the refusal of the Western powers to accept
the country as an equal, a situation that had caused resentment
for many years. Conflict appears to have been nearly inevitable. Japan entered China in large part for access to raw
materials. To guard its flanks it made agreements with
Germany and the USSR. Both threatened the USA, which
responded by trying to force Japan to back down through
starving it of the materials it needed to continue its industrial
build-up and wage war, especially petroleum. This left the
Japanese leadership with a fundamental choice: give in to
American demands and accept second-rate status in the global
power structure, or go to war with the USA in a calculated
gamble that it could win before its supplies ran out (or it could
secure new sources in Southeast Asia). Japan did not have
enough time, given its limited reserves of oil, to enter into long
negotiations over the issue. As we know, driven by its military
successes over the preceding half century, its military dominated government and the nationalism Japanese leaders
had encouraged for a century, Japan chose war.
The Pacific War (1941–45)
Japan’s military leaders appeared to hope that with one massive attack they could destroy US naval power to such an
extent that the Americans would agree to a peace treaty. Few
(except, perhaps, those in the highly nationalistic army)
thought that Japan could win a drawn-out war, but based on
their experiences with China and Russia a decisive defeat
should force their opponents to the bargaining table. Japanese
naval strategists estimated that Japan could not maintain a
war effort for more than a year and a half without new sources
of raw materials.
The well-known Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor took
place on 7 December 1941. In just two hours approximately
350 Japanese bombers attacked, resulting in the loss of four
American battleships, three destroyers and 180 aeroplanes;
three aircraft carriers were at sea and thus were spared. Nearly
3400 personnel were killed and more than 1000 wounded.
The American public was outraged, particularly at what it saw
as an unfair move—Japan had attacked before it declared war.
While this ploy had worked against Russia at the beginning
of the century, it galvanised America into action. The attack
was a serious miscalculation of American attitudes, and
resulted in the resolve to destroy Japan.
For most of the past half century conventional wisdom has
had it that the attack came as a complete surprise. Indeed,
Admiral Nomura Kichisaburo, who was in the USA at the
time trying to persuade the Americans to lift their oil embargo,
was reputedly deeply offended at not having been told of the
plan. Alternative versions of the truth have been suggested
over the years, however. For example, a recent book by Robert
Stinnet, entitled Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and
Pearl Harbor, contends that the American President and his
advisers knew the attack was coming (the US military having
broken Japanese diplomatic and naval codes and received
other intelligence that suggested a Japanese attack was imminent). It was allowed to go ahead in order to swing American
public opinion away from isolationism (the policy of not
getting involved in the problems of other countries). The truth
perhaps lies somewhere in between, with America at the very
least not taking the Japanese threat seriously. The result,
however, was unambiguous—the USA entered the war against
Japan and Germany.
At about the same time as the bombing of Pearl Harbor
the Japanese military launched attacks against Malaya, Hong
Kong and the Philippines. It seemed for some months that the
Japanese forces were unstoppable. In the early days American
aircraft in the Philippines were destroyed while still on the
ground. The British ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were
sunk off the coast of Malaya on 10 December 1941. Hong
Kong was taken in late December and Manila in early January
1942. Thailand negotiated an ‘accommodation’ without fighting and Japanese forces occupied it in short order. The
Malayan states, starting with Kelantan in the northeast, were
overrun one by one. February saw the fall of Singapore, in
spite of 70 000 British and Australian troops being stationed
there, double the number of the Japanese forces attacking it.
The Japanese launched their attacks from the Malayan Peninsula to the north while Singapore’s major defences faced south.
On 6 March Batavia (Jakarta) was taken by Japanese troops
and two days later Rangoon (Yangon) fell.
Why were the Japanese so successful? One reason is that
the Western powers were principally concerned with the war
in Europe and thus were not paying sufficient attention to
Japan’s activities, nor did they have the resources at the time
to fight on both sides of the world. Another is the audacity
of the Japanese attacks, by troops who were highly motivated,
courageous and imbued with nationalistic fervour and fighting
spirit. Western arrogance seems also to have played a role, in
part due to a colonially inspired belief in white superiority.
Indeed, in a number of colonies the local inhabitants initially
welcomed the Japanese as liberators. The framework for ‘cooperation’ had been set out years before in the Japanese
concept of the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’. The
motto used by Japanese leaders at the time of the Pacific War
was ‘Asia for the Asians’, though there was a certain arrogance
in assuming Japan would play the leadership role in such a
movement. Disillusionment with the Japanese set in quickly in
the overrun countries—one colonial master had merely been
substituted for another.
The fighting spirit of the Japanese forces produced problems, however. Officers had tremendously high expectations of
their troops and discipline was often harsh. The army mentality retained vestiges of older civil conflicts in Japan where those
defeated neither expected nor received mercy. Soldiers who
allowed themselves to be taken prisoner were despised, and
this attitude extended to the Allied troops who fell into their
hands. Few Japanese soldiers allowed themselves to be taken
prisoner, preferring to die fighting or to commit suicide. Army
troops were often recruited from the lower classes of Japanese
society, most from poor farming backgrounds—they were used
to a hard life and severe discipline from their superiors. When
they had control over prisoners they treated them as they
themselves had been treated, or worse. Korean soldiers were
also recruited into the Japanese Army; often used for lowly
jobs, such as guarding prisoners, they too handed out to
prisoners of war (POWs) the kind of treatment that they
themselves received. This hierarchical problem was compounded by different customs and the language barrier.
Western prisoners may not have shown their captors what was
expected in terms of due respect, a failing exacerbated by the
problem of communication. Frictions arising from these problems often led to even harsher treatment of prisoners. While
it is well known that POWs suffered severely from lack of
food, it must also be remembered that the Japanese troops
themselves suffered from a lack of supplies, thus even less was
set aside for the despised prisoners. Once the Allied blockade
of Japan began to take effect, even Japanese living in the home
islands experienced severe food shortages. Finally, there were
frictions between commanders in the field and the generals in
Japan. The Geneva Convention was usually unknown or disregarded in the field in spite of the Ministry of War issuing
directives about the proper treatment of prisoners. This behaviour contrasted sharply with Japan’s relatively good treatment of Russian prisoners in 1904–05 and of German prisoners
during World War I.
The maltreatment of prisoners of war has to this day left
lingering hostility towards the Japanese throughout the
world—the conditions of the POW camps such as Changi in
Singapore, of the forced marches such as the ‘Bataan death
march’ in the Philippines and the use of forced labour where
tens of thousands perished in appalling conditions (not to
mention the recent publicity over the Japanese army’s use of
women from Korea and other countries as sex slaves—the
so-called ‘comfort women’), means that even now there is a
clear anti-Japanese sentiment throughout Southeast Asia and
the West. Perhaps the worst case of forced labour was the
building of the ‘death railway’ between Bangkok and Rangoon
in 1942–43 by Asian and Allied prisoners, made famous (or
infamous) by Hollywood in the film Bridge Over the River
While POWs have received much attention from Western
historians, the exploitation of native labour has often been
overlooked. Throughout the region local people were often
treated with disregard, and those resisting Japanese rule were
dealt with harshly. In the building of the Thai–Burma railway
mentioned above, for example, many more Asians died than
Allied prisoners. Reliable estimates are difficult to find, but
one figure is 63 000 total deaths, of which only 16 000 were
Australian, British and Dutch prisoners. Japanese military
archives discovered in the early 1990s have detailed experiments by Imperial Army Unit 731 (Biological Warfare),
in which thousands of Chinese and Koreans died after
being deliberately infected with plague bacteria (as well as
cholera, anthrax, typhoid and haemorrhagic fever). The military police (kempeitai) were particularly feared and hated
(often by the Japanese themselves as well as by the people in
occupied territories). Ethnic groups were often pitted against
each other in the colonies, such as Malays and Indians against
the Chinese, in the old divide-and-rule approach. The ethnic
Chinese in particular suffered; there was widespread killing of
Chinese in the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. This often
resulted in a move towards communism, especially among the
Chinese, a legacy that later proved difficult to remove in many places.
On the other hand, the Japanese did encourage selfdeter mination when it suited their ends. Throughout the war
hundreds of offspring of the elite families of conquered
countries in Southeast Asia were brought to Japan to be
indoctrinated in the spirit of Japanese imperialism (and, ironi-
cally, anti-colonialism), though a less subtle purpose was to
use them as hostages to make sure their parents supported
Japanese actions in the occupied territories. These endeavours
were aided by the fact that an Asian country had so decisively
defeated the forces of the Western colonial rulers, thus destroying the notion of white supremacy. Hence, nationalist
movements in Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and Burma,
among others, were assisted by the Japanese (mostly in the
final days of occupation), with the end result of hastening
The antipathy towards Japan remains strong in Australia
(especially among older Australians), partly because of the
many Australian POWs who died in Japanese camps, and
partly because the country narrowly escaped invasion. Darwin
was bombed repeatedly from February 1942 to November
1943. The Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 may have
prevented the Japanese invasion of Australia via airbases in
southern New Guinea; subsequent overland movements were
stopped by Australian troops along the Kokoda Trail. The next
month saw the Battle of Midway, where the US Navy
destroyed four Japanese aircraft carriers, significantly affecting
Japan’s ability to use air power, and hence their capacity to
invade other countries. Some historians view this early battle
as the turning point of the Pacific War.
For a while Japan was able to maintain war production
through tremendous efforts on the part of domestic industry
and the people. However, in spite of new sources of raw
materials now being available in Southeast Asia, ensuring
steady supplies proved impossible. Heavy-handedness on the
part of Japanese managers alienated local workforces, and
transportation of materials to Japan proved increasingly difficult once the Americans had organised their Pacific submarine
force. Japanese shipping losses during the war, the most significant factor in disabling the economy, were estimated at
between 75 and 90 per cent, and about 60 per cent of this
was due to American submarines.
The war had clearly turned against Japan by the middle
of 1943. On all sides Japanese troops had been stopped or
pushed back—in China, Burma and the Pacific islands. By July
1944 Saipan had been captured and Japan’s cities came within
range of American bombers. General Tojo was replaced as
Prime Minister. A year later, after ten weeks’ intense fighting
and terrible loss of life on both sides, Okinawa fell. Major
Japanese cities were levelled by bombing. Only Kyoto, because
of its historic significance, was spared. In a single air raid in
March 1945, more than 100 000 people died in the incendiary
bombing of Tokyo. The famed kamikaze (‘divine wind’) pilots
could mount only a heroic, not a significant, defence of their
home islands.
On 6 August the Enola Gay, an American Superfortress
bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on
Hiroshima. On 8 August the Soviet Union declared war against
Japan, and invaded Manchuria. A second atomic bomb was
dropped on Nagasaki the next day. Approximately 340 000
people died in these two cities. Japanese leaders continued to
debate whether or not the country should surrender and, if
so, what form surrender should take. (In July 1945, at
Potsdam in Germany, the Allies had called for unconditional
surrender. The argument was mostly over the issue of the
postwar position of the Imperial House, even though Hirohito
himself supported a complete surrender. On 13 August a major
air raid on Tokyo took place, involving some 1500 Allied
aircraft. The next day Emperor Hirohito recorded his message
of surrender, to be broadcast throughout Japan. After the
suppression of an eleventh-hour attempted coup, it was broadcast on 15 August, the emperor asking Japan’s citizens to
‘endure the unendurable and suffer what is unsufferable’. The
formal surrender was signed on board the USS Missouri,
anchored in Tokyo Bay, on 2 September 1945. The Pacific War
had come to an end.
There continues today a debate over whether it was necessary to use atomic bombs on Japan. Conventional wisdom has
it that Japanese forces, entrenched as they were in many parts
of Southeast Asia and China, would have been difficult to
remove without such a horrific incentive. (Indeed, until
recently Japanese soldiers were occasionally being discovered
in isolated parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.) Any
invasion of the major Japanese islands (based on Allied experience in taking Okinawa) would have been very costly for the
Allies in both men and matériel, which was also why the Soviet
Union was asked, at the Yalta Conference in February 1945,
to enter the war against Japan. Opponents of the bombing
argue that an atomic bomb could have been dropped on an
unpopulated area, that a second bomb was unnecessary, and
that the USA primarily wanted to test its new weapon.
Occupation and resurrection (1945–52)
Japan was destitute at the end of the war. The country had
lost massive numbers of its people—some say 2.5 million
soldiers and nearly one million civilians died. Many of its cities
and much of its infrastructure had been destroyed. A quarter
of its industrial base lay in ruins. The population, bewildered
and tired, was on the edge of starvation. Adequate shelter and
medicines were in short supply. The problems were exacerbated by high levels of unemployment, made worse by vast
numbers of demobilised soldiers. Its empire gone, Japan had
now to face the prospect of the relative poverty of its home
Initially many were terrified at the prospect of occupation,
the first in Japan’s long history. They had little idea of what
to expect. The occupying Allied troops were a mixed lot.
Enlisted troops often behaved poorly, with rape being a particular problem, and women left the cities in droves to avoid
assault. Those in authority, however, especially the officer
corps, on the whole acted responsibly. On the Japanese side,
the emperor’s call for surrender was almost universally obeyed,
underlining the entrenched authority of this institution. This
set the stage for broad support for the changes that were to
be made during the Occupation.
The main administrative body for the Occupation was
technically the Far Eastern Commission, headquartered in
Washington and made up of representatives of the thirteen
nations who had fought Japan. In Tokyo the Allied Council
(representing the USA, USSR, Britain and China) was to
oversee policy implementation but unsurprisingly, the variety
of competing ideologies within the group meant that it was
rarely able to be effective. Real power rested with the USA,
especially the Supreme Allied Commander of the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, who was given the responsibility of
supervising the dismantling of the Japanese war machine and
its socioeconomic underpinnings. His new title was Supreme
Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) and the Americandominated Occupation administration came to be known by
this name. Curiously, he ruled from an office in the heart of
Tokyo, never travelling around the country. Some historians
view this as American arrogance (or the arrogance of
MacArthur himself), while others believe that this shogun-like
rule was understood and welcomed by Japanese citizens who
at the time desired clear authority and stability.
It is often argued that Japan is the way it is today because
of policy decisions made during the Occupation. This view
places the Japanese as the receivers of American policies rather
than effective participants in the rebuilding process, seeing
Japan today as simply the ‘step-child’ of American foreign
policy. Another view holds that the Japanese were provided
with the potential for change and they themselves were responsible for the outcome; because the Occupation authorities had
to work through the Japanese bureaucracy (since there were
few Allied administrators who were competent in the Japanese
language or understood Japan’s system of government), the
latter had substantial influence over how policies were implemented and therefore over their eventual form. A spin-off
argument here is that the bureaucrats have considerable power
today partly because they were given it then.
The initial concern of the Allied Occupation was to keep
people from starving, and to this end 500 000 tons of rice set
aside for the use of the Australian military in Japan was used.
American food aid was also critical until 1949. At the same
time the military itself was demobilised. Nearly seven million
people (the figure varies substantially) had to be brought home
from occupied territories, half of them soldiers. Unemployment
soared. One can only imagine their disillusionment at returning
to such a devastated country. Added to this group, later on,
were Japanese who had been in Korea and China where they
were used as forced labour by the Chinese and Soviet governments. Many, perhaps most, of these troops however, died
before they could return home.
The Allies immediately set out to dismantle Japan’s war
industries. Military hardware was destroyed and the industries
which had made it dismantled. The zaibatsu in particular were
targeted. They had made huge profits during the war, being
heavily involved in the production of war matériel. The Zero
fighter, for example, had been manufactured by Mitsubishi. At
war’s end these companies were of immense size, and intimately connected with the wartime government. It was felt
that if they were allowed to continue to operate they would
interfere with the American plan for a wider distribution of
income in Japan, which was expected to underpin democratic
reforms. The big four zaibatsu were special targets and 83 of
their holding companies were broken up. Approximately 3000
senior businessmen were removed from their jobs. The smaller
subsidiary companies were separated from the core businesses,
and their ability to work together was limited by tax reform
and laws against collusion (such as the Anti-Monopoly Law
of 1947). At the same time harsh measures to restore balance
in the economy were put in place by Joseph Dodge (1890–1964), a banker from Detroit. Although his plan caused
short-term suffering, it had put Japan on a solid economic
footing by 1950.
Once this economic restructuring was well under way
MacArthur and the Allied Occupation forces set out to change
the nature of the Japanese state, to turn it into a peaceful,
pro-Western, democratic country. Japan’s aggressive tendencies
were to be stopped by law. The new American-designed constitution, written in under a week by SCAP employees, was
based on the British model, which was closer to Japan’s
pre-war system than America’s. It came into effect on 3 May
1947, re-creating the Diet with two houses, and a cabinet
responsible to both. It also provided for universal suffrage,
entrenched fundamental human rights, and made the judiciary
relatively independent of the executive. Finally, the constitution
contained the well-known Article 9, in which Japan renounced
war and the creation of matériel for waging war.
MacArthur’s mandate stated that he was not to rebuild
Japan’s economy except insofar as it was necessary to make
sure the people could survive and that there was a ‘wide
distribution of income and ownership of the means of production and trade’. In this regard a key policy was the break-up
of large private landholdings in the countryside. Under the
plan no rural family was allowed to own more than ten acres
of land; the land taken from the large estates (about four
million acres) was purchased by the state and sold to tenant
farmers at low rates of interest. In spite of some lingering
inequities, this had several beneficial effects. It encouraged
rapid agricultural production at a time when Japan badly
needed food, created a substantial body of small capitalists
(about three million), and (importantly in US eyes) reduced
the power of the Communist Party. By 1946 approximately
90 per cent of Japan’s farmland was owned by the farmers
Social changes, too, were far-reaching, helped perhaps by
the purge of more than 200 000 wartime politicians and
bureaucrats, which effectively removed the ‘old guard’ and
made changes easier to effect (though many remained ‘purged’
for only a few years). Shinto was removed from state control.
The secret police were broken up and political prisoners
released. Trade unions were encouraged as a bulwark against
the power of large companies. Women were given the vote.
Education was made compulsory to age fifteen (up from twelve
years of age previously) and textbooks changed to emphasise
the values of democracy over authoritarianism. More than
100 000 teachers were fired, and the new curriculum used the
American model as its basis. The number of universities was
increased substantially to improve access to higher education
for lower income groups, and from this time we see the
emergence of the contemporary form of the university entrance
examination system so prominent in the country today. Reaction within the field of education against the previous fascist
regime was particularly strong, and the teachers’ union (Nihon
Kyoshokuin Kumiai, usually shortened to Nikkyoso) continues
to be a left-wing organisation.
The Military Tribunal for the Far East was convened in
Tokyo between 1946 and 1948 to punish those who had been
instrumental in moving Japan into war. Interestingly, there was
considerable public anger towards the leaders who had engineered a police state and brought the country to ruin, and
therefore no great resistance to the war crimes trials. Of
approximately 6000 people charged with war crimes, 920 were
executed. Of the military and political leaders, 28 were charged
with major (Class A) war crimes and seven executed. Among
these was General Tojo who, in his defence, was unrepentant;
indeed, he publicly accepted responsibility for Japan’s role in
the war. His argument was that Japan was poor and needed
colonies for resources, a telling point that highlighted a level
of hypocrisy among the Western powers (and reinforced the
idea of ‘victor’s justice’).
Some Japanese believed that Tojo was executed in place of
the emperor. In any event, Hirohito was not punished, though
in 1946 he was forced to publicly renounce his divinity. The
theoretical implications were significant. The nationalism
fomented during the Meiji period, connected with Shinto, was
rejected, and the emperor set off touring the country as a sign
of the new Japan. He remained, however, as throughout Japanese history, the symbol of the country. Indeed, Article 1 of the
new constitution stated that the emperor was the ‘symbol of
the state’. The continuity of the institution was particularly
needed during the struggle of the Japanese to survive following
the war, in the face of the social dislocation caused by exposure
to the new ideas of the Occupation authorities.
In terms of the domestic political scene the Japanese
government became, not surprisingly after its wartime adventurism, very conservative. The Liberal and Democratic parties
dominated, though about a quarter of the seats in the first
parliament went to the Socialist Party. The first Prime Minister
of note was Yoshida Shigeru (1878–1967), a pre-war diplomat
who supported the Anglo-American group during the war and
had been jailed by the government for a short time in 1945.
Appointed Prime Minister in 1946, his goal was to restore the
fundamental characteristics of Japanese society as quickly as
possible, while maintaining the values of the Meiji restor-
ation—a strong government and a regulated society. To this
end he was a tenacious adversary of the Occupation authorities, often stating that the Pacific War was Japan’s ‘historic
stumble’ and that proposed socioeconomic changes would
produce ‘anarchy, chaos and confusion’.
An early sign that Yoshida was right in his assessment was
the abrupt rise in union activity. The Allies initially supported
trade unions as a counterweight to the large Japanese corporations, and by 1948 there were nearly 34 000 unions in the
country. Very quickly, however, they proved to be a significant
impediment to economic recovery, particularly as they tended
to be ideologically based and closely connected to the Socialist
and Communist parties. On May Day 1946, for example, more
than 1.5 million unionists came out to demonstrate against
Japanese companies and government policies. This caused
alarm in both Japan and the USA, and when in 1947 a general
strike was called, MacArthur forced it to be called off. This
was the end of early union power, though they were not to
be truly curbed until the 1960s.
The reaction to unionism was a reflection of the change
in geopolitics at the time, which forced a rethink of domestic
policies in Japan and its role in Asia. The Cold War had a
number of starting points, and some argue that it had begun
even before World War II had ended. The term itself dates
from 1947, and in March that year the Truman Doctrine,
which committed the USA to the fight against world communism, was announced. Communism was seen to threaten
American interests in Asia as early as 1948, when Communist
Chinese forces overran Manchuria. In October 1949 the
People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared. The reaction
to this and other advances by communism in the region and
around the globe resulted in the rise of strong anti-communist
sentiment in the USA.
The Cold War had the immediate effect of changing Allied
economic policies in Japan. In March 1948, US Undersecretary
of the Army William S. Draper was sent to Japan. Known as
the ‘Wall-Street General’, he recommended a build-up of industry and trade that would make Japan the bulwark against
communism in Asia. George Kennan, of the US State Department, also sent to Japan to review its economic growth and
potential Cold War role, came to a similar conclusion. Indeed,
by this time the USA would have liked to remove its Occupation forces and sign a peace treaty, giving Japan free rein
to rebuild. This was proposed in the late 1940s, but the
Russians refused to support such a move and the Occupation
dragged on for another five years.
It is often said that the Occupation was put into reverse
by late 1947 and this direction was even more apparent in
1948. Japan was given aid to build up its infrastructure and
industrial base (the 1947 American aid budget for the country
was approximately US$400 million1). Japan was to be the
engine of growth for regional economies, which would provide
raw materials and markets for finished products, ironically not
so different from the economic plans Japan had envisaged
during the war. As part of these new developments, the
planned continuance of the purge of the zaibatsu, involving
the break-up of a further 1200 companies, was shelved.
Instead, a modified form of the zaibatsu, called the keiretsu
kigyo (‘aligned companies’, usually shortened to keiretsu),
emerged. They were similar in structure to their predecessors
though more loosely linked and no longer family-owned. They
did, however, retain their original appellations, so once again
the names Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Yasuda and Sumitomo became
commonplace in Japan.
In the late 1940s the Allied plan was for Japan to produce
relatively low-level manufactures, with sophisticated products
being the purview of Western countries, especially the USA.
Japan was to be ‘the workshop of Asia’. This would protect
America’s technological superiority and ensure that Japan
remained a receiver of American goods rather than becoming
a competitor (though few people thought of Japan in these
terms at the time). The disadvantage of such a plan was clear
to Prime Minister Yoshida and his government. He bluntly
stated that Japan did not want to ‘trade with beggars’. He
would have preferred access to the rich markets of the West,
but this was not part of the American vision.
The event that dramatically changed the structure of
Japan’s economy was the outbreak of the Korean War in June
1950. While the Cold War was slowly settling into place, this
conflict was a clear indication to the USA of the power of
world communism. It was apparent that communism was a
major threat and that American power had to be brought to
bear to halt it. Indeed, the USA had been caught unprepared
and was very nearly defeated early in the Korean War. The
American military, which became part of a larger UN force,
had to secure a massive supply of war matériel very quickly
to stop the sudden invasion of South Korea by the North. The
result was $4 billion in orders for Japanese companies for
so-called ‘special procurements’ (tokuju), consisting primarily
of motor vehicles, textiles and communications equipment; this
provided the basis for the subsequent development of Japan’s
automobile, clothing and electronics industries. One could
argue that were it not for the Korean War, Japan today (and
the global trading system) would be very different.
Prime Minister Yoshida called the Korean War a ‘gift from
the gods’ and officials at the Bank of Japan called American
orders for war matériel ‘divine aid’. Industry took off. To
ensure adequate quality and speed of production, American
manufacturing specialists were sent to Japan to teach mass
production techniques and methods of quality control. The
result was the rapid production of world-class products. When
the first Toyota trucks began coming off the assembly line
Toyota’s chairman claimed his feeling was one of ‘tingling joy’.
In September 1951 the San Francisco Peace Treaty was
signed, to come into effect on 28 April 1952. Only six years
had passed since the end of a devastating war, yet Japanese
industry was surging ahead and Japan was now welcomed as
an ally of the USA. Japanese incomes had almost returned to
pre-war levels. The sudden change in fortune and in Japan’s
position in the world was nothing short of miraculous—
a unique combination of Japanese cultural characteristics,
good decisions, geopolitics and luck—the exact proportions of
which remain a point of debate today.
With the end of the Occupation in 1952 the machinery
of government was formally returned to Japanese control,
although in reality the country had been managing most of its
affairs for several years. While the USSR and China (and a
few less prominent countries) boycotted the conference where
the peace treaty was signed, Japan and the USA also signed a
Mutual Security Treaty which placed Japan under the US
nuclear ‘umbrella’ and allowed the US to retain military bases
in Japan. These were part of a circle of American bases in the
Pacific, from the Canadian Arctic through the Aleutian Islands
down to Japan, Korea, Taiwan (American-supported), Guam,
the Philippines and Australia—the front line of defence against
communism in Asia. US commentators began referring to the
Pacific as the ‘American lake’.
The USA would have preferred that Japan also build up
its own military as part of the bulwark against communism,
US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles pressuring Japan to
rearm (only five years after Article 9 had been written into
the constitution at American insistence). As early as 1953 US
Vice-President Richard Nixon admitted during a visit to Tokyo
that Article 9 had been a mistake (from the US point of view).
Prime Minister Yoshida, however, refused to rebuild Japan’s
military forces, rightly seeing that Japan’s economic surpluses
could be eaten up by military expenditures. At first Yoshida
argued that Japan was economically too weak to afford to
rearm, and besides, the constitution forbade it. Under continued American pressure, however, and in exchange for signing
the security treaty, he did agree to a small defence force (with
funding limited to under 1 per cent of GNP), which by 1954
numbered a not insignificant 165 000 personnel and came to
be known by the name it has today, the Self Defence Forces
(SDF, or Jieitai). As the name implies, the force was for defence
only—it could not be used outside Japanese territory, a point
that continues to cause friction with Japan’s allies today.
The years from 1937 to 1952 covered arguably one of the
most dramatic periods in Japanese history. It began with a
country that was strong, dynamic and aggressive. The example
of Western colonialism had inspired the Japanese to strengthen
their own country through conquest, and the relative economic
poverty of their home islands forced them to search outside
Japan for the raw materials crucial to their economic development. Unfortunately, the nationalism of the time, and
competition with Western powers (along with their rejection
of Japan as a major international player) precluded the peaceful development of a trading empire such as we see today.
Japan’s leaders chose aggression, and in doing so seriously
misjudged their country’s strength and the reaction of other
world powers. The eventual destruction of Japan is not so
surprising. What is astonishing is its dramatic recovery. From
utter devastation Japan rose like a phoenix, partly of its own
volition and partly because of events beyond its control. The
result was an almost complete turnaround of its position in
only a few years, and in spite of the Occupation there was
substantial cultural continuity. By 1952 Japan was once again
under Japanese control. It had a solid, if small, industrial base,
a coherent government and strong allies. In many ways this
could have been accepted as a sufficient victory, but it turned
out to be only the starting point. Japan was, amazingly, about
to take off.
for being pessimistic
about Japan’s future at the time it regained its
independence in 1952. The country was faced with a plethora
of problems. In addition to a relatively small economic base
there remained considerable social dislocation from the Pacific
War. Japan had never before faced defeat nor such widespread
devastation, which called into question the way in which the
country’s political and economic systems had been organised.
The changes introduced during the Meiji restoration had somehow led to a nightmare of destruction; there was widespread
public support to prevent such a thing ever happening again.
The question was, therefore, how was society to be organised
to prevent Japan repeating its mistakes? The Allied Occupation
authorities had introduced a number of measures to remake
Japan into something akin to the USA, but would this fit with
Japanese culture? What should be the guiding principles of the
new Japan? The response to these questions divided society.
On the left were reformers who wanted to see wholesale
change in the way in which Japan’s social system was
organised, and in particular to limit the concentration of power
in the hands of a political and economic elite. In the middle
were those who desired cultural continuity but were concerned
about a return to pre-war problems and also wary of the
radical changes proposed by the left. On the right were the
powerful, conservative business groups and old-school bureaucrats and politicians who wanted to regain their power. This
group was given a tremendous boost in the early 1950s by
the Korean War and American efforts to rapidly rebuild
Japan’s economy.
The 1950s were, therefore, years of struggle between these
groups, as the postwar social, political and economic framework settled into place. The centre/right forces eventually
carried the day and by the 1960s Japan was beginning to take
the shape we know today—conservative, conformist and generally without strong political affiliation. This was reinforced
when economic success became Japan’s central goal; the
human resources of the country were marshalled for this end,
and the 1960s became a decade of economic supergrowth.
The 1950s
Only four days after Japan regained its independence, left-wing
demonstrations on May Day (mostly by students and primarily
over the issue of US bases in Japan) rocked Tokyo. More than
2000 people were injured. The far left, however, lacked substantial support; it was noisy and visible (as was the far right),
but the Japanese public by and large had had enough of radical
political movements. Social stability and economic recovery
were far more important.
Yoshida Shigeru, Prime Minister 1946–47, also held that
position from 1948 to 1954 when his government was brought
down by a financial scandal (the first of many over the years
ahead). His conservative government, characterised by his
sentiment that Japan should avoid an ‘excess of democracy’,
emphasised stability, which was welcomed by Japanese citizens
anxious about the future. By the mid 1950s the Democratic
Party found that it needed the Liberal Party (a combination
of the former Progressive Party and members of the moderate
right) in order to govern effectively in the face of rising socialist
opposition. Combined with pressure from the business sector
in particular, the result was their merger in 1955. Except for
a brief interlude in the early 1990s, the Liberal Democratic
Party (LDP) has remained in power ever since. This re-
emphasises the public’s desire for stability and continuity, and
highlights the complex web of mutual dependency that developed between politicians and other groups (the electorate,
lobby groups, business and so on), that over time reinforced
the party’s hold on power.
The main opposition in the 1950s came from the Japan
Socialist Party and, to a lesser extent, the Japan Communist
Party. Although not sufficiently powerful to pose a major
threat to the LDP, they have at least fulfilled the role of a
watchdog on government. The primary opposition to the
government is found within the LDP itself, in the form of
factionalism, a feature of Japanese politics throughout its
history in one form or another. One of the reasons prime
ministers regularly come and go in Japan, even though the
LDP remains in power, is the relative power of the different
factions at different times. They are formally constructed,
usually around a key person who has spent a considerable
number of years building up networks of support and obligation, so personalities and personal connections often take
precedence over ideologies or policies. It also takes substantial
experience in the intricacies of politics to put oneself in the
running for the top position, and one’s rise in the party is
linked to seniority, so most Japanese prime ministers are
relatively old. At the same time, because a faction leader is
responsible to his faction members, and has to balance the
interests and power of other factions, a prime minister’s position is also relatively weak. Factionalism is also supported by
the election system, under which there may be more LDP
candidates than seats in a particular electoral district. This has
the effect of pitting faction against faction in support of
different candidates.
One of the reasons the parties on the left became steadily
weaker through the 1950s was that they primarily represented
labour, and one of the key developments of the 1950s was the
sorting out of the relationship between capital and labour. Japan
has a long history of strong control over workers, principally
peasants, and it is difficult to change political culture. During
the Meiji restoration power rested in the hands of a relatively
authoritarian bureaucratic, political and business elite who
strictly regulated labour in the lead-up to, and then during, the
Pacific War. To a significant extent labour in the postwar period
found itself for the first time holding a degree of power, and
was initially given a boost by the Occupation authorities as a
democratic counterweight to big business. The result was an
outpouring of frustration over working conditions that had
been pent up for (at least) decades, manifested in widespread
strikes and demonstrations in the late 1940s and 1950s and
even into the 1960s. Two of the more notable strikes were those
at Nissan in 1953 and the Mitsui-owned coal mines at Miike
(Kyushu) in 1960. (In both cases capital came out ahead,
however.) The end result was that workers tended to organise
themselves into ‘enterprise unions’ which represent workers in
a single business organisation (i.e. they are not linked to others);
they are therefore relatively powerless.
Management practices tended to remain relatively severe
and businesses continued to have a rigid hierarchical structure.
The political circumstances of the time reinforced this trend.
Domestically the Japanese government became increasingly
authoritarian, undoing a number of Occupation reforms in a
‘reverse course’ program which included policies which weakened the left and recentralised various government functions.
The National Police Agency, the Ministry of Education and
the Ministry of Home Affairs are examples. Moreover, the far
left was not generally viewed in the context of the time as a
legitimate alternative to the LDP. The Cold War and Japan’s
role as an ally of the USA meant that labour unrest came to
be seen as a tool of the left, and this could not be tolerated
in the political climate of the 1950s. Indeed, a ‘Red Purge’ in
1950 removed some 10 000 union activists from their jobs
and made it difficult for them to find new employment. Even
earlier, in 1948, the right to strike was removed from civil
Despite this, there was broad agreement between capital
and labour, for both cultural reasons as well as practical
business decisions. While radical labour was not acceptable
industry recognised that it was necessary to provide adequate
working conditions if long-term unrest was to be avoided.
Some historians point to the cultural value of Confucianism,
and indeed feudalism, to demonstrate that Japanese capitalists
inherited a sense of responsibility for workers. Others point
to American ideas on human resources in the 1950s, which
emphasised the commercial advantages of workers who felt
themselves to be an integral part of a company. Labour won
concessions such as relatively secure and long-term employment as well as good pay (though this was generally limited
to larger companies). In response, company loyalty began to
emerge within the employment system. Japanese workers, once
they had accepted the new arrangement, proved to be tremendously dedicated and hardworking employees. They were also
relatively passive. In the late 1950s some six million work-days
were lost to strikes, but this had declined by more than half
(with some yearly fluctuations) by the late 1960s.
Japanese manufacturing also grew quickly because of the
strength of the keiretsu, the economic power that such corporate groups could bring to bear being formidable. Each
keiretsu has a financial institution to fund the activities of its
group, a cluster of companies characterised by both formal
and informal linkages and direct and indirect support. Each
group also has a trading company (shosha) which buys and
sells a range of goods domestically and abroad. In the 1950s
they tended to concentrate on the basic industries favoured by
the government, such as steel production, mining and shipbuilding, and were aided substantially by orders from the
American military for the war in Korea.
The Occupation had also opened the way for the establishment of new companies, which released energies that might
otherwise have been stifled by the rigidity of the pre-war
system. These newer companies tended to find niche markets
where cutting-edge technology and responsiveness to change
gave them advantages over their more cumbersome, much
larger, competitors. Examples here include Honda and Sony
(originally Tokyo Communication Industries).
Smaller companies, however, remained the backbone of the
Japanese economy. Even today they are not particularly visible
internationally and receive relatively little attention in the
Western press, partly because many are just providers of
components for larger companies and partly because much of
their output is destined for the domestic, not the international,
market. However, their employees constitute the bulk of the
workforce. As early as 1965, 83 per cent of Japanese workers
were employed in businesses with fewer than 1000 employees,
and 53 per cent in those employing fewer than 100 people.
This trend continues today. These businesses tend to be family-owned and their employees are both paid less (generally about
60 per cent) and enjoy far fewer benefits than employees of
large companies. The bulk of the female labour force is found
in this category.
Bureaucrats and businessmen both recognised that the old
problem of access to resources had to be dealt with. Since
imperialism was no longer an option, Japanese companies
would have to secure raw materials through trade, and this
meant making products that would be in demand in the world
market. The result in the early 1950s was an emphasis on
relatively low-level, inexpensive products that could be easily
sold abroad, initially such things as low-cost clothing, toys,
cutlery, pottery and bicycles. Profits from these manufactures
were ploughed back into research and development and better
production techniques.
Other factors which helped the Japanese economy to grow
rapidly included vision. As early as 1957 the government set
out its ‘New Long-Range Economic Plan’ which stated that
Japan would aim to compete with the advanced economies of
the world. This was backed up by the more concrete activities
of the Development Bank, replacing the Occupation’s Reconstruction Bank in making low-interest loans available to
favoured industries. Economic strategists encouraged the
diversification of older (so-called ‘sunset’) industries into new
areas through various incentives while providing other forms
of economic encouragement for the new (‘sunrise’) industries.
Industry was also highly protected during this period. While
industrial policy was considered anathema in much of the
West, Japanese bureaucrats often used it effectively under the
heading of ‘administrative guidance’ (gyosei shido). Ministries
such as the Ministry of International Trade and Industry
(MITI) were not, of course, omniscient, and sometimes they
made poor choices or applied policies in ineffective ways (the
Ministry told Honda, for example, to stick with motorcycles
and forget car production, and only very reluctantly loaned
money to Sony to buy the patent rights to the transistor).
Scholars point to the confusion of the time, with such rapid
changes occurring in technology, production and delivery systems, trade policies and so on, to make the point that
organisations such as MITI could only hope for occasional
successes. Moreover, the focus on central government-directed
economic development tends to obscure both the role of often
energetic and supportive prefectural governments as well as
the dynamic entrepreneurial spirit of individual businesspeople.
In short, multiple factors played significant roles in postwar
economic development, along the lines of what one Ministry
official termed a ‘plan-orientated market economy’.
Japanese businesses also forged links with American firms,
which facilitated the transfer of technology and production
techniques (such as the ‘just-in-time’ parts delivery system and
quality control techniques). American aid also funded the visits
of hundreds of Japanese to the USA to study new technologies
and production systems. The information they acquired was
able to be utilised immediately because of the relatively high
educational levels of the workforce in Japan. Productivity in
the late 1940s had been low because of much outdated
equipment, but as soon as new machinery was available this
changed dramatically. Military expenditures being kept to a
minimum, usually around the 1 per cent mark, left more
money available for use directly in the economy. People were
also encouraged to save, the funds so accumulated being used
for investment in the economy, precluding a need to rely on
foreign loan sources (which would have influenced domestic
economic priorities). Tax reforms also encouraged investment.
These factors all combined to give industry a massive boost
in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Japanese agriculture underwent a similar reconstruction.
Farmers began to use new fertilisers, seed strains and
machinery and quickly became some of the most efficient
agricultural producers in the world. They were aided by
substantial returns for their produce. Agriculture was highly
protected in the 1950s and 1960s (and remains substantially
so today, a continued point of friction with other countries).
Japanese consumers therefore paid a high price for foodstuffs,
but it allowed the agricultural sector to flourish. To some
extent this was also the result of self-interest on the part of
government, which was closely connected to agricultural lobby
groups for both financial support and votes, and politicians
persuaded the public that it was their duty to support Japanese
farmers. The lingering fear of starvation left over from the
1940s made such a policy relatively easy to implement. The
surprise is that it has continued to resonate with the Japanese
public for so many years. At the same time, because of the
broad move into industry, the share of the workforce in
agriculture dropped substantially between 1950 and 1970,
from 48 to 18 per cent.
A combination of the developments just outlined meant
that in the early 1950s the Japanese economy grew at 9 per
cent per year, rising in the late 1950s through the 1960s to
breakneck pace—11 per cent per annum, a sustained growth
unmatched by any other major country at any time. During
the 1950s Japan’s GNP quadrupled.
In terms of international relations, the 1950s were gener-
ally years of growing resentment towards the USA. By 1952
the population was, generally speaking, tired of the Occupation but a substantial US military presence was kept in place
because of the Cold War and the stalemate in Korea. The
continued presence of US troops began to be irritating. Then
in 1954, following the US hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll,
fish contaminated with radiation arrived in Japan via a fishing
boat in the area at the time (radiation had travelled much
further than the American scientists had predicted), causing a
huge public outcry. Therefore, although trade with the USA
grew, and Japan was a recipient of substantial investment
associated with the Korean War, the counter-current of anti-American sentiment remained. In some respects the love–hate
relationship with the USA today is not dissimilar.
Relations with other countries proceeded slowly. Trade
reopened with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), albeit at
a very low level, in 1953. Trade with Taiwan, however, a
country which at the time was officially recognised in Japan
(as well as in the USA) as the legitimate government of China,
complicated the issue. China forced Japan to choose official
trading partners. Under American pressure, Japan chose
Taiwan. With China backing North Korea and the USA sup-
porting South Korea, no other choice was possible. The result
was that China cut all connections with Japan in 1958. In
terms of the USSR, with some of the Kuril Islands north of
Hokkaido being a sticking point (both countries claimed ownership), renewing relations was a slow process and it was not
until 1956 that diplomatic relations were restored, though no
peace treaty was signed at the time. In another move indicative
of the country’s increasing economic and strategic importance,
Japan joined the United Nations in 1956 (after the USSR
withdrew its veto on Japan’s membership).
The 1960s
The 1960s, like the 1950s, began with substantial civil unrest,
this time over the renegotiation of the security treaty with the
USA. President Eisenhower was to travel to Japan in 1960 to
sign the treaty but widespread demonstrations in May and
June (by people from a wide variety of backgrounds) caused
the cancellation of the visit and the consequent resignation of
Prime Minister Kishi (1957–60). A second dramatic event,
minor in scale but taking place in front of television cameras,
was the fatal stabbing by a right-wing extremist of the
Secretary-General of the Socialist Party, Asanuma Inejiro.
These frictions highlighted both the sociopolitical divisions still
evident in Japan and the changing dynamic of US–Japan
Japanese often refer to the 1960s, however, as the ‘Golden
Years’. It was a time when Japanese society, generally speaking,
came together to rebuild the country and the result was
astounding economic success. Ikeda Hayato (1899–1965),
Prime Minister from 1960 to 1964, announced that Japanese
would become rich. Japanese incomes would double by 1970
(in fact they did so by 1967), in per capita terms rising between
1960 and 1970 from $421 to $1676. Economic growth gave
citizens a clear goal around which they could organise their
social institutions—some observers called it ‘GNP nationalism’.
There was relatively little opposition to this goal. The left wing
was unable to mount serious opposition; the new ‘Clean
Government Party’ (Komeito), connected to the Buddhist sect
Soka Gakkai (‘Value Creating Society’), was mostly (as suggested by its name) concerned with limiting corruption in a
period of rapid economic growth.
One of the features that allowed Japanese industry to
rapidly improve its products was the high expectations of the
domestic market. Competition within Japan was generally
fierce and people demanded value for money as well as
superior service. Those companies that survived in the domestic market often found that selling their products abroad
was relatively easy by comparison. A case in point was the
American market. In the 1950s and 1960s America was a
superpower, both economically and militarily, but along with
its preeminent position seems to have come an arrogance—
Americans did not have to work hard because they were
number one. While Japanese manufacturers were willing to
take on any change that would improve their products, American companies often seemed to be complacent. Nor were
Japanese companies afraid to borrow ideas from competitors,
which also gave them a long-term advantage in trade.
The 1960s saw the consolidation of what some call Japan
Inc., the close cooperation of government, bureaucracy and
big business. Some Japanese commentators called it the
‘bureaucratic–industrial complex’, as opposed to the ‘military–
industrial complex’ of the USA. This perception is partly due
to the interdependency of these groups. Campaign funds
mostly come from business (the figure was about 90 per cent
in the 1960s) and business expects favourable policies to
follow. These funds are used primarily for ‘gifts’ to politicians’
constituents, and are crucial to keeping them in power. Bureaucrats are also immensely influential in the way in which the
economy develops and therefore to the extent to which business or specific commercial activities thrive. Their expertise
also tends to make their political masters dependent on them.
Furthermore, bureaucrats tend to find employment opportunities in their later careers either in politics or business, so
they must make policies with an eye to the future. MITI, for
example, can advise on business strategies, facilitate low-interest loans, provide priority access to raw materials and set
production quotas. Members of this department have enormous expertise and power, as well as excellent networks
throughout industry and the government, so they are in high
demand upon retirement. At the same time, businesses join
together to present the government with powerful lobby
groups. The Keidanren (Federation of Economic Organisations), for example, has hundreds of the leading companies
in Japan as members. It became particularly influential after
independence in 1952 and is a very powerful voice on economic affairs, particularly given its close connections to the
ruling LDP. A second such association is the Nikkeiren (Japan
Federation of Employers’ Associations) which was established
in 1948 as a counterweight to the rise in union power, and
continues to be a vehicle for securing policies favourable to
Japanese industry was also given a boost in the 1960s by
the geopolitics of the time. Japan progressively became more
important to the USA in strategic terms, especially because of
American military bases there and its mounting involvement
in Vietnam. In return for defence cooperation, Japan was given
special consideration in economic terms. The yen, for example,
was held at its 1949 level (¥360 to the US dollar) throughout
the 1960s, which made Japanese exports very cheap. Inflation
in the US economy because of the Vietnam War also meant
that Japan was able to increase its foreign exchange reserves.
Preferential access was also given to Japanese products des-
tined for the USA. One example of the impact was in the area
of motor vehicles exports to the American market. In 1967,
370 000 vehicles were exported to America; by 1971 the figure
had risen to 2.4 million. Total exports to the USA during this
five-year period rose in value from $10 billion to $24 billion.
It was not until the 1970s that this bargain of military power
in exchange for economic power became unacceptable to the
American government.
The result of these factors was that Japan joined the group
of major industrialised nations—the Organisation of Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD)—as early as 1964, and
became the third largest economy in the world (behind the
USA and West Germany) by the end of the decade. Heavy
industry was the initial vehicle for economic growth. The
popular rallying cry was ju-ko-cho-dai (‘heavy, thick, long,
big’). In terms of value of exports, between 1960 and 1970
iron and steel production increased approximately sevenfold;
ship-building, metal products and motorcycles fivefold; and
automobiles fourfold. In the 1960s Japan became the world’s
largest ship-builder and third largest iron and steel producer
(after the USA and the USSR). Towards the end of the decade
Japan was also the world’s third largest producer of automobiles, cement, paper and fertilisers. In the 1960s Japan also
began to develop its lighter industries. The slogan switched
from ‘heavy, thick, long, big’ to kei-haku-tan-sho (‘light, thin,
short, small’). Between 1960 and 1970 production of watches
increased about 35-fold, televisions fourteen fold, and radios
and tape recorders fivefold. Japanese products flooded the
world and began to gain their current reputation for quality
and reliability.
One of the social features of the postwar period in Japan,
as in Western countries, was a baby boom. The total fertility
rate (the number of children per woman of childbearing age)
was 4.5 in 1947 and continued to be relatively high through
the 1950s, only dropping markedly at the end of the decade
(by 1960, the figure was 2.0). The population consequently
rose rapidly. In 1945 there were 72 million Japanese, but by
1967 the population had passed the 100 million mark. In part
this was a reaction to wartime losses and partly to the
traditional practice of farming families being relatively large.
The primary factor in changing the fertility rate, however, was
what geographers call ‘intergenerational wealth flows’, in other
words whether children are an economic cost or benefit. In
early agricultural communities children are a valuable source
of cheap labour and insurance for ageing parents, but in a
developed economy they tend to be expensive, and unnecessary
for long-term financial security. The economic benefit therefore
shifts from advantaging the parents to benefiting the children.
Hence, while the fertility rate in the 1950s was high, with
Japan’s spectacular economic growth in the 1960s came much
smaller families.
The drop in family size was reinforced by another great
social change, that of urbanisation. This is principally a post-war phenomenon in Japan, with the proportion of the
population living in cities increasing from approximately
56 per cent in 1955 to 72 per cent in 1970. The implications
have been significant for Japanese society, ranging from the
type of employment in which workers engage, to location of
services, the expansion of train lines and the rise in numbers
of commuters and distances travelled as well as the related
factor of the cost and size of family dwellings. The broader
social impact was reinforced by the dislocation of the population in the early years following the Pacific War. In
agricultural areas communities tended to be closely knit, with
strong interpersonal and community ties. These all underwent
significant change with the move to cities, especially as it was
difficult for grandparents and other relatives to follow, given
the restricted size of housing in the urban areas.
The rapidity of urbanisation meant that the development
of infrastructure lagged. With the primary goal of industrial
growth the Japanese government was loath to direct spending
to social welfare, a continuance of past practice. The result
was congested roads, poor sanitation facilities, little space for
parks, few leisure centres (especially any which might be open
to the public) and extremely small living quarters. Housing
costs also rose dramatically. Between 1955 and 1970 the value
of urban residential land increased fifteen fold on average, and
twenty fold in Japan’s six largest cities, adding to the burden
of their inhabitants.
The rise and then fall of the birthrate had an impact on
the educational system. Initially this was, of course, noticeable
in the area of primary education. The numbers grew significantly, peaking in 1960. Following on, secondary school and
then university enrolments also increased, partly because of
more students and partly because of the higher educational
levels demanded by an advanced industrial society. While in
1960 there were 630 000 university students, by 1970 the
figure had more than doubled, to 1 410 000.
The education system was also steadily recentralised, undoing the Occupation reforms in this area. This began in the late
1950s, with a national curriculum established in 1958. The
Ministry of Education (Monbusho) gained substantial influence over curricula and textbooks. Many of the features
identified with the contemporary educational system, such as
its rigid structure, rigorous examination system, the relative
status of educational institutions (though with the expansion
of the university system it was far less elitist than previously)
and ongoing frictions between the Ministry of Education and
the Teachers’ Union were set firmly in place in the 1960s.
Religious affiliation, too, changed during this time. With
the move to urban centres the bond with traditional practices
was often broken. New religious groups, such as the Soka
Gakkai, attracted people who were dissatisfied with their lives
or felt alienated in their new urban surroundings. Membership
of the Soka Gakkai presents people with a supportive social
system designed to make them feel accepted and comfortable
in an alien environment. The group’s attractiveness is reflected
in the growth of its membership—just a few thousand followers in the early 1950s increased to 4.3 million families by
1964. The rapid socioeconomic changes of the time created
substantial social dislocation, which continues today.
Fewer children and rapidly rising incomes meant a boom
in domestic consumption. In the 1960s Japanese went on a
buying spree—televisions, stereos and major appliances as well
as luxury items. Fostering domestic consumption was government policy, in order to increase the country’s industrial
output. Consumption levels generally doubled between 1955
and 1970. For example, in the 1960s the number of urban
dwellers owning vacuum cleaners increased nearly tenfold,
washing machine and television ownership doubled and the
number of those purchasing cameras nearly doubled. More
was also spent on entertainment, both privately and through
the well-known expense accounts. Leisure activities boomed.
A bowling craze swept the country. Travel-related expenditures
nearly doubled between 1965 and 1970 and there was a
concomitant rise in international travel after the lifting of
currency restrictions in the mid 1960s.
The XVIIIth Olympic Games, held in Tokyo in October
1964, sent a clear signal that Japan had arrived. They were
the first Olympic Games to be held in Japan and, indeed, in
Asia. It was a time to show off the new Japan to the world.
One of the outstanding images was that of the Olympic
Gymnasium, designed by Japanese architect Tange Kenzo.
Creative energies were also highlighted by the Nobel Prize for
literature in 1968 going to Kawabata Yasunari. This was an
unusual event. He was one of only five Japanese ever to receive
a Nobel Prize (as of 1999) compared to 193 from the USA,
69 from the UK and 62 from Germany.
The tremendous growth of the economy had a downside,
however, in terms of environmental destruction. This is not a
surprising development, given the focus on heavy industry,
rapidly increasing levels of urbanisation and the location of
industry and population along the coasts, especially the eastern
seaboard and the Inland Sea. The mega-cities that were emerging in the Tokyo–Nagoya–Osaka–Kobe belt, coupled with
growing automobile production and ownership, contributed to
serious pollution problems. One of the images from the 1960s
is that of the fresh air vending machines at busy intersections
in Tokyo, where one could gain a short break from the
terrifying air pollution. Policemen directing traffic suffered
from lead poisoning, as do those in Bangkok today.
The waterways and oceans adjacent to the large cities were
full of industrial effluent. The best-known result of Japan’s
water pollution was the so-called Minamata disease (named
after a bay in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu) which involved
mercury poisoning and became public as early as 1953. The
first evidence of mercury-poisoned fish came when cats began
to convulse and then die. Local people also began showing the
results of damaged nervous systems.
The way in which the problem was dealt with reflects the
power of big business, the industrial priorities of the government at the time and the powerlessness of private citizens.
For years the Nippon Chisso Corporation, which allegedly
discharged the by-product methyle mercury during the manufacture of fertiliser, denied any wrongdoing and even went so
far as to hire gangsters (yakuza) to intimidate protesters.
Doctors who investigated the problem saw their findings discredited. A research group from Kumamoto University found
its funding cut and its research findings covered up. It was not
until widespread demonstrations took place at the plant, coupled
with a press campaign and foreign involvement, that the government took action. Even then the comprehensive Pollution
Counter-Measures Basic Law passed in 1967 (preceded by
a range of more specific laws in the late 1950s and early
1960s) was relatively weak. Only in the 1970s were substantial
measures taken to deal with Japan’s pollution problems.
Another major pollution scandal was the so-called itai itai
disease (meaning ‘ouch, ouch’ or ‘it hurts, it hurts’). Cadmium
from the Mitsui Mining and Smelting Corporation had allegedly entered the food chain via rice paddies along the Jintsu
River in Toyama-kei (the prefecture next to Nigata), causing
people’s bones to become brittle and fracture. Reflecting the
overriding importance of the government’s economic drive,
however, a former Chairman of the National Public Safety
Commission, Akai Masuo, exhorted people in his electorate
to ‘have the spirit to eat contaminated rice’. Yet another
problem was sulphur dioxide pollution from oil refineries in
the Yokkaichi area in 1959, which caused serious asthma
problems in the local population. In both these cases the
government was very slow to react. Japanese citizens therefore
paid a heavy price for their economic miracle.
While there were problems at home, the 1960s was a
turbulent time in Asia and proved a difficult time for Japan
in terms of international relations. The PRC tested its first
atomic bomb in October 1964, sending shock waves through
Japan and the rest of the world. The Cultural Revolution
began around the same time, sending out images of a China
seemingly out of control, though it was also in the 1960s that
Japan and China reestablished trade linkages. Thus there were
both positive and negative aspects to Sino–Japanese relations
over the decade. Vietnam posed another difficulty for the
Japanese leaders, given Japan’s American connections, in the
competition between China, the USSR and the USA. Japan had
close defence and trade linkages with America, which were
called into question as the war in Vietnam escalated. Relations
with the UK, however, steadily improved, and in 1963 the
British Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, visited Japan, the first
time such a high-level British official had ever come to Japan.
In 1965 came a normalisation of relations with South Korea.
Generally speaking the decade was a difficult one, however,
with Japan treading carefully around Cold War conflicts while
ensuring its goal of economic growth was not damaged.
The 1950s and 1960s were important decades in which the
foundations were laid for the economic, political and social
structures the country has today. Struggles took place between
various groups in society to determine which would be more
powerful in the new Japan. A range of factors—politics,
culture, historical traditions, American influence during the
Occupation, anxiety on the part of many citizens over the
future and the geopolitical realities of the day—ultimately
pushed Japan towards a mild authoritarianism, with economic
growth the core of the new nationalism. The relative importance of these different factors, and the consequent reasons
for rapid economic growth, continue to be debated by scholars
The end result was that most Japanese pulled together to
make the country economically powerful beyond most people’s
dreams. By 1968 Japan had passed West Germany to become
the third largest economy in the world. Wealth flowed through
much of society, reducing political friction and commanding
widespread public support for Japan’s new role as manufacturer to the world. This incredible success also put the country
in the international spotlight and many outsiders began to take
an interest in the new Japan. Such interest, mingled with a
little fear, increased as Japan consolidated its economic position in the world over the next two decades.
a celebration—the World
Exposition at Osaka, where Japan was able to
demonstrate to a global audience how far it had come in a
mere 25 years. It was as good as the Olympics, and perhaps
even better, because the focus was on technology rather than
athletic prowess. While the immediate postwar period was a
time for rebuilding and the 1960s put in place the basic
structure of Japan’s rapid economic recovery, the next two
decades were a period of consolidation and expansion. What
tended to surprise many people, not least the Japanese themselves, was the continuation of strong economic growth in
spite of a series of hurdles throughout the twenty-year period.
Japan’s economy did not fall apart under the so-called ‘Nixon
(tariff) shock’, nor when the Organisation of Petroleum
Exporting Countries (OPEC) quadrupled its prices in the early
1970s. Rather, the Japanese showed themselves able to respond
rapidly to such problems and pull together to overcome them.
Good planning, cooperation, hard work and luck all played
their roles once again.
In the 1980s Japan truly came into its own. When the yen
skyrocketed in value in the mid 1980s the country’s business
leaders responded by massively moving industry offshore. The
highly valued currency also sent the country on a global buying
spree, and from this point we see again the beginning of a
perception of Japan as a threat. ‘Japan as number one?’
unsettled not a few in the region, and even in the USA there
was a taste of fear—their vanquished enemy as the next
superpower? International relations, particularly with the rapprochement between the USA and China, and the beginning
of the end of the USSR, made Japan’s role more complex as
the country’s strategic value was called into question. Was
Japan to become America’s number one threat? The country
seemed unstoppable by the late 1980s, with journalists, scholars and politicians scrambling to explain why it continued to
go from strength to strength. There was an explosion of
literature on everything, from how the shadowy power-brokers
pulled political strings behind the scenes, to the secrets of
producing high-quality industrial products, to how the Japanese mind worked. Nihonjinron, or the ‘discussions of the
Japanese’, became very popular at this time, as Japanese (either
public-spiritedly or smugly) tried to explain to each other as
well as to the outside world how different and special they
really were. In these heady days before the crash of the 1990s
Japan captured the attention of the world.
Except for those fascinated by electoral rolls and voter
turnout rates, Japanese postwar politics can look very dull
from the outside. Prime ministers change but (almost) never
the party. The political agenda remained focused on economic
growth and policies stayed highly conservative. Scandals were
interesting and there were plenty of those, but none sufficiently
outrageous to bring down the government—just ministers or
a faction. Political leadership, or at least cooperation, was very
important over this period, however. Japan faced a number of
crises that required both political will, sound policies and
effective cooperation.
The conservative nature of Japanese politics reflects the
dynamic tension between different sources of power in Japan.
The question ‘Who runs Japan?’ is often raised, and there is
no simple answer. Even in the mid 1990s Karl van Wolferen
was able to publish The Enigma of Japanese Power, followed
by Chalmers Johnson’s Japan: Who Governs? Conventional
wisdom has it that there is an ‘iron triangle’ of power in the
country: big business, bureaucrats and politicians. The three
groups need each other, and while competing for influence
must also cooperate. Business depends on government to
initiate policies that favour its activities, and because of the
damage from the war and the need to mobilise people around
some kind of nationalistic goal, business has been highly
favoured by the country’s politicians. Geopolitical priorities
have also meant that this group has received priority for many
decades. Unfortunately, this is also behind what may arguably
be called an exploitation of labour, the decimation of natural
resources both in Japan and abroad, and the terrifying pollution problems of the postwar period.
Nowhere is Japan’s self-interest more visible than in big
business. Politicians, who obtain most of their campaign funds
from business, depend on economic growth to legitimise their
government. Bureaucrats work closely with business to facilitate these economic goals and, as we saw in the last chapter,
often find employment in private enterprise after retirement
(amakudari, or ‘descent from heaven’), using highly developed
connections among industrialists, politicians and other bureaucrats. Given the nature of the political system, where politicians are preoccupied with winning the next election, and
ministers remain in portfolios for relatively short periods, it is
the bureaucrats who have the necessary skills and therefore a
disproportionate share of the responsibility in running the
country. If a politically driven policy is not supported in the
machinery of government, there are many delaying and obfuscating procedures (rather than open conflict) that can be
brought into play to make sure it is either watered down or
never sees the light of day. Bureaucrats often have an eye on
future political careers, so they must be careful not to alienate
either their political contacts or the source of future funds—
business. Added to this mix are the rivalries within each of
the sectors.
In the political and bureaucratic spheres in particular, if a
policy is well-established and working at least marginally well,
there is no compelling reason to change it. Change in one area
means adjustments in others, so there must be pressing need
before a policy shift takes place. Even then, because of the
interconnectedness of the players, policies are often developed
by cooperation, so that all may at least minimise disruption
or perhaps share in the benefits. However, when there truly is
a need to change, and it is widely supported, the system can
alter course relatively quickly and effectively. Moreover,
because of the generally close relations between workers and
management, the support of labour is usually forthcoming
when a company, or more broadly, the economy, is threatened.
Japan of the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated these characteristics, as it did in the late nineteenth century and again in
the years immediately following the Pacific War.
The first major challenge of the 1970s came with the
‘Nixon shock’ of 1971. This had to do with Japan’s trade
surplus with the USA, perhaps the dominant issue in US–Japan
relations ever since, and one which has coloured Japan’s
domestic, international and trade policies for the past 30 years.
In the immediate postwar period the USA had provided Japan
with massive aid, followed by special procurement orders for
the Korean War and preferential access to American markets.
This was not, of course, altruism on the part of the Americans.
The USA needed Japan to form part of its ‘fortress America’
in the Pacific to guard against the expansion of communism
in Asia. It was an effective trade—Japanese defence cooperation and American bases on Japanese territory in
exchange for policies favourable to the country’s economic
growth. Military power for economic power. The problem was
that few expected Japan to become so successful so quickly,
certainly not to the point of challenging the USA in economic
terms. The rapid and sustained rise of the Japanese economy
and exports to the USA prompted a US backlash in the early
1970s, American producers complaining that Japanese businesses were damaging them. The 1949 exchange rate of 360
yen to the dollar was no longer acceptable—it made Japanese
products simply too inexpensive in the American market.
Hence, President Nixon forced a revaluation of the yen, to
The Mitsubishi Group, like other Japanese keirestu, is comprised of a number of related corporations.
¥308 to the dollar. In February 1973 Japan went to a floating
currency, which strengthened the yen further, to ¥272 to the
dollar (though it slumped in the ensuing three years). Nixon
slapped a 10 per cent surcharge on all imports, in an additional
bid to cut the flow from Japan. For the first time since the
Pacific War, Japan was beginning to be seen as an enemy.
Part of the problem, as the Americans saw it, was the
economic power of the massive Japanese conglomerates, or
keiretsu.1 They not only had enormous political clout in Japan
(such as maintaining high tariff walls), but were able
to marshal their resources to target a particular sector and
destroy their competition. We have already seen their formal
structure—groups of companies characterised by cross-shareholding, independent financial backing and a trading
company at the core. Spreading outward (and downward)
from each major corporation in the group are multiple layers
of affiliated companies or suppliers which depend on the major
companies for orders. The structure is also shot through with
informal linkages. The senior executives of the largest companies get together on a regular basis in a group’s presidential
council (shacho-kai) where they discuss issues of mutual concern. Personal contacts and obligation also play a role. The
same may be said of the linkages between the larger and
sometimes thousands of smaller companies, where long-term
associations may take precedence over, for example, lower
component prices. There are also informal linkages between
companies of a keiretsu and independent companies from the
outside, under which loans may be arranged or other forms
of business cooperation take place. These linkages constitute
informal trade barriers that continue to frustrate Japan’s competitors.
The economic power that these enterprise groups can bring
to bear is enormous. Their sheer size is overwhelming. The six
biggest keiretsu had 17 per cent of the total paid-in capital of
Japan in 1990, as well as 15 per cent of sales and the same
proportion of total assets. These figures refer only to the core
companies (189 out of about two million Japanese companies
in total). If one includes the subsidiary companies, in which
the core companies have at least a 10 per cent interest, then
the figures become 32 per cent of capital, 25 per cent of sales
and 27 per cent of assets. These larger figures still do not
include the financial institutions of the keiretsu nor the smaller
companies over which the keiretsu hold informal influence or
The power generated by these groups in overseas markets
is therefore considerable. In 1990, for example, the Mitsubishi
keiretsu had more than $1 trillion in assets and $360 billion
in sales. The sales figure alone is bigger than the Gross
National Product (GNP) of most countries. Because of the
linkages, companies can sometimes afford to operate some
production lines at a deficit, even for long periods, in an
attempt to destroy their competition. Although dumping is
illegal, by the time a court case is finalised the damage has
often been done. Further, the keiretsu are not averse to employing former trade officials in the target countries to argue their
cases, and with their vast resources are able to mount substantial legal challenges. Added to these tactics are the
high-quality personnel employed by the keiretsu. Since the
groups’ companies provide substantial prestige and benefits,
many of the top graduates compete for positions in them.
Other advantages include economies of scale in manufacturing,
the ability to support high research and development costs
and, of course, significant political power in Japan and abroad.
Overlaying these considerations is the fact that larger Japanese
companies in general are not expected to show short-term
profits. Generally speaking, while about half of all US companies will refuse to invest in a project unless profits are seen
to be forthcoming within three years, in Japan the proportion
that would refuse to invest is only about 10 per cent. Longterm growth and increased market share are seen as much
more important than short-term profits. The result in the
1970s and 1980s was that, in the area of consumer electronics—black and white then colour televisions, radios,
stereos and the like—Japanese companies systematically
destroyed their American competitors, and are today dominant
in these areas. Thus the ‘Nixon shock’ proved not to be a
long-term problem.
The second major setback of the 1970s was the ‘oil shock’
of 1973, with the onset of war in the Middle East and the
consequent skyrocketing of the price of crude oil. This issue
cut to the heart of Japan’s economy—its dependence on
resources. Throughout the country’s modern period, access to
raw materials had been its central preoccupation, leading it
into imperialism and war, and eventually into a focus on trade.
With nearly 90 per cent of its energy being imported by the
1970s (including 99.7 per cent of its oil), mostly from the
Middle East, this was truly a time of crisis. It quickly put an
end to the period of supergrowth, with the economy contracting from 9 per cent growth in 1973 to –1.3 per cent in 1974,
the first time the economy had experienced negative growth
since the Occupation. Japan was, once again, faced with the
possibility of a return to relative poverty.
The response was a massive change in the economic structure—a move away from heavy industry into high technology.
In a sense the oil crisis simply pushed Japan more quickly in
the direction it had already been headed. With the rapid
growth of the 1960s and the consequent rise in wages, Japan
was finding it much harder to compete against low-wage
countries in wage-intensive areas such as heavy industry and
labour-intensive assembly lines. Countries like South Korea
could provide products of equal quality, such as ships, for
much lower cost. Japan was also, in the early 1970s, on the
verge of making another technological leap. It was already
making products similar in quality and sophistication to those
of other developed countries, and since it was so far advanced
could no longer depend on technology transfers from countries
such as the USA. Additionally, the ‘Nixon shock’ had made it
clear that Japan would have to pull ahead in the technological
race if its products were to remain in demand throughout the
world. It was no longer good enough to manufacture products
of similar quality, even if they were less expensive on world
markets. Protective tariffs could undercut this advantage immediately. Finally, it was a natural progression for Japan to
move up the technological ladder as its industry became more
sophisticated and its competitors were increasingly the leading
capitalist countries of the West. The oil shock merely precipitated a change for which pressure had been building for some
time. The country rose again to the challenge. By 1976 Japan
accounted for 10 per cent of the world’s economic output,
even though it had only about 3 per cent of the world’s
population. It is understandable that by 1979 Ezra Vogel could
publish his landmark book Japan as Number One: Lessons
for America.
The central idea of the time was to focus on those industries which did not require huge imports of raw materials. This
meant not only lighter manufactures, but also knowledge-intensive industries. The country would have to depend on the
creativity and innovation (in addition to the discipline and
hard work) of its people. The result was a marshalling of
energies in government, academic research centres and industry
to a common goal—a focus on such items as numerically
controlled machine tools (especially robotics), computers, electronics (especially integrated circuits), semiconductors and
biotechnology. To this end the bureaucracy played a role
similar to its previous one—the provision of incentives to
stimulate development. Some projects were successful while
others were not. Mixed examples include the ‘Very Large Scale
Integration Project’, the ‘Fifth-generation Computer Project’
and the ‘Next Generation Basic Technology Project’. The
government’s role in these initiatives was primarily to set out
broad research priorities and provide some of the funding and
direction. Usually, however, the application of the findings in
commercial terms was done by individual corporations. Hence,
Japan’s technological successes through the 1970s and 1980s
were the result of multiple factors rather than, for example,
bureaucratic leadership only.
The government took other measures to deal with the oil
shock. Government spending was reduced and loans made to
industry to help compensate for the higher energy costs. The
money supply was controlled to deal with the inflation caused
by the blow-out in oil prices. Exports also grew over the next
few years, which helped the balance of payments. This partly
offset the twenty-fold increase in the cost of imports from the
Middle East due to higher oil prices. Generally speaking, the
government did not have to deal with a massive increase in
unemployment, which in the West would have been an assumed
outcome of such an economic upheaval. Rather, companies bore
the brunt of it by retraining workers, transferring them
to affiliated companies or encouraging early retirement. This
approach received much attention in the Western press. The
Japanese response highlights the reciprocal obligation of
workers and management, but also underscores the smaller role
played by government in dealing with unemployment. In
Western countries, if a worker were laid off the government
would normally be expected to help in retraining and searching
for another job and/or provide substantial unemployment or
welfare benefits. In Japan the company takes much of this
responsibility; in return, management expects a reduced tax rate
as well as other forms of government assistance. In many
respects the Japanese system is more efficient since it eliminates
another layer of bureaucracy and a huge (and perhaps inefficient) government expenditure on social welfare.
In 1979–80 came a second oil shock, just as the economy
was beginning to perform well once again. Growth dropped
to about 5 per cent—still relatively high—and unemployment
edged up slightly, but otherwise the impact of this oil shock
was not nearly as severe as the first one. Partly this was due
to measures which had been taken earlier by government,
including encouraging the use of less energy. Imports of coal
for electrical generation helped, too. In 1970 Japan imported
approximately 51 million tonnes of coal; by 1980 this
had increased to 72 million tonnes and it continued to rise,
to 105 million tonnes by 1990. Nuclear power also took away
some of the dependency on imported oil. In 1970 only 0.3 per
cent of Japan’s energy was provided by nuclear power but by
1980 the proportion had risen to 4.7 per cent. The overall
outcome was a lessening dependency on oil, from 71.9 per
cent in 1970 to 66.1 per cent in 1980, down to 58.3 per cent
in 1990. The result of these changes in industrial structure and
energy inputs was that from 1964 to 1984 there was a 60 per
cent reduction in the ratio of raw materials per manufactured
Another reason Japan was able to overcome the problems
it faced in the 1970s was that successive governments deliberately kept defence expenditure to around 1 per cent of GDP.
Article 9 of the constitution does not preclude Japan from
building up a substantial defence force, but rather forbids its
use overseas. By the 1980s the SDF had approximately
a quarter of a million personnel, which is substantial for a
developed country. Although the Japanese government had
come under considerable pressure in the 1950s to rearm, by
the 1970s it had generally accepted, as did the USA, that
America would provide an adequate defence of the country.
That said, Prime Minister Nakasone (1982–87) helped to build
up the domestic prestige of the Japanese military (though it
still has an image problem), and substantially increased the
Japanese contribution to the cost of the American military
presence in the country (which he could afford to do since the
economy grew so strongly in the 1980s).
This is not to say that the Japanese enjoyed having American bases on their soil, and there was a degree of resistance
to the extension of the security treaty in 1970 with demonstrations, mostly by student groups; Tokyo University had to
be temporarily closed. The level of resistance was not comparable to that of 1960, however. One factor that lessened
tension was the formal return to Japan of the Ryukyu Islands
and especially Okinawa (which the USA had occupied since
1945); this was announced in 1969 and took place in 1972.
Generally speaking, therefore, Japan’s economy was not burdened by substantial spending on defence. Economic historians
enjoy ‘what if’ types of scenarios, such as ‘What if Japan had
spent 6 or 7 per cent of its GNP on defence since the Pacific
War?’ Their findings suggest that this would have meant
about a 2 per cent drop in the growth rate over this period—
significant but not enough to have substantially changed the
‘economic miracle’.
The economy also recovered quickly because of the
widespread support of labour through the 1970s and 1980s.
This is understandable given the psychological shocks produced by defeat in war and occupation. National pride needed
a new anchor—one which was safer than imperialism—and
economic success proved to be effective. The new heroes were
successful capitalists. Not everyone shared equally in the benefits
of postwar economic growth, however. Larger corporations in
particular were better able to provide the so-called ‘three
sacred treasures’—of lifetime employment, wages tied to
seniority (the nenko system, a short form of nenko joretsu, or
‘seniority ranking’) and enterprise unions. The picture shown
to the outside world at this time was of a business as an
extended family, with security and substantial benefits being
provided in exchange for loyalty, dedication and hard work.
It is during this period that the West was bombarded by images
of Japanese workers doing morning exercises together, singing
company songs and wearing company uniforms. In exchange
workers could benefit from company medical plans, live in
company-provided accommodation and spend vacations at
company-owned resorts. This made good economic sense, since
substantial training and support of workers by a company
would be rewarded by long-term service, unlike the job-hopping common in the West. By the late 1980s the average
staff turnover rate in large Japanese companies was 3.5 per
cent per year, while in the USA it was 4 per cent per month.
The nenko system also avoids jealousies arising from different
rates of advancement or, generally speaking, wages. It also
saves the company money with respect to younger employees
since they will accept lower wages initially knowing that they
will increase steadily over time. In any event, wages are not
the only motivation. In 1990 the chief executive officers
(CEOs) of American companies were earning on average 119
times the wage of an average worker; the figure for Japan was
eighteen times. Many of the rewards of upper level employees
take the form of perks, such as chauffeured cars or substantial
expense accounts. It was noted by some observers in the 1980s
that the amount spent on expense accounts exceeded government expenditure on education. As we have seen, however,
these conditions applied to a relatively small proportion of the
workforce, though it was these companies that were most
visible in the international trading system and which were
(overly) focused upon by Japan-watchers at the time.
Employees of larger companies also benefited disproportionately from the shift in Japan’s economic structure
during the 1970s and 1980s. Especially in the keiretsu there
were sufficient resources to retrain workers from older industries or find them alternative employment in another of the
group’s companies. Workers in smaller companies were faced
with much greater problems and suffered substantially, though
the larger companies to which they were formally or informally
connected sometimes helped them to make the shift and
thereby softened the blow.
There was some degree of labour unrest during this time,
given the economic changes, though more involving employees
in government-owned companies than in private ones. From
the 1970s to the 1990s carefully-planned ‘spring wage
offensives’ (shunto) took place. For at least a brief period
each year considerable disruption occurred, particularly in
government-owned enterprises such as Japan Airlines (JAL),
Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (NTT) and Japan National
Railways (JNR). It is not surprising that these organisations
later became targets for privatisation. Adding to labour unrest
were frictions which had been entrenched since the immediate
postwar period, which saw debates over the structure of the
new Japan. One of these was evident in the field of education,
where the Teachers’ Union and the Ministry of Education
continued their struggles, the overall result of which was a
marked lack of dynamism in the field of education. Hence,
while some parts of Japanese society responded quickly and
effectively to change, one should not overlook those sectors
which continued policies that were out of date and disadvantageous to the country as a whole. Japan today remains
characterised by a mix of the highly progressive and efficient,
and the backward and inefficient.
What is surprising in postwar Japan, and especially after
the country had achieved its remarkable economic growth, is
the acceptance of the tremendous expectations of management.
Workers are usually organised in an almost military-like
manner, with small groups responsible for a specified work
load. Mutual responsibility is emphasised, so it is a rare person
who will use all of his or her allocated holidays, fail to work
overtime, or call in sick, when this means that colleagues will
have to compensate by working harder and longer (conversely,
when an assigned task is finished early, employees may sometimes simply waste time, since they are expected to put in long
hours). Added to this are the often extremely long commuting
times on overcrowded public transport necessitated by the high
cost of housing in central urban areas. Even then, housing is
poor by the standards of many developed countries. Indeed,
in 1979 the Japanese were rather shocked to learn of a
statement by Sir Roy Denman of the European Commission
to the effect that Japan was a nation of ‘workaholics living in
rabbit-hutches’. More than twenty years later people are still
smarting from this observation, suggesting that it was an astute
one. The lives of salarymen seemed to be characterised by
limited private time for themselves or their families, and severe
living conditions in many respects. Therefore, while there were
certainly benefits flowing from the rapid economic growth of
the time, one could also view the ‘miracle’ as being the result
of labour exploitation, of Japanese workers paying a very
heavy price for their country’s economic success.
Domestic politics through the 1970s and 1980s continued
to be an LDP game. The left, even united, could provide no
effective alternative, and by and large maintained visibility by
resorting to boycotts or noisy disruptions of the Diet to gain
attention. They did increase their following, however, in the
wake of the ‘Lockheed Scandal’. In 1976 it came to light that
the Lockheed Corporation had allegedly bribed officials at All
Nippon Airways (ANA) in order to win a contract for the
supply of aeroplanes, and the subsequent investigation highlighted the involvement of upper-level bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians. This led to the arrest of, among others,
Tanaka Kakeui (Prime Minister 1972–74). Such an event
highlights a number of aspects of the power structure in Japan.
One is the argument that in the ‘iron triangle’ of power there
exists a regulatory mechanism. When one element becomes too
strong there will be a reaction by the others to pull it back
into line. Unfortunately, because there is considerable elasticity
in the system, abuses often have to be substantial before this
occurs and scandal is often the result. A second point is that
the corporation involved in this case was American. The
problem may never have come to public attention if it had
been a Japanese company, since payoffs and pork-barrelling
are routine among the elites and widely accepted. American
companies often see things differently, especially if they are the
ones missing out on the contracts. Finally, the pressure that
the USA can bring to bear on Japan was then (and still is, to
some extent) considerable. In fact, Japanese power-brokers
often look to American reaction to (inadvertently) support
their own political agendas. It enables them to push through
policies which they could not otherwise do with their own
resources. The phenomenon is so common that it has been
given a name in Japan—gaiatsu, or ‘foreign pressure’.
The Lockheed scandal also highlighted the existence of
‘money politics’ (kinken-seiji) in Japan. Political success and
staying power is highly linked to the flow of money from
business or lobby groups through politicians to campaigns and
individual constituents. The first priority of a politician is to
ensure a sufficient inflow of money, in exchange for political
favours, and this is where corruption comes into play. On the
output side a politician must meet the expectations of those
in his (or occasionally her) electorate. It used to be said that
a politician needs three ban in order to do well in the Japanese
political system. The first is the kaban, which refers to the
briefcase used to carry the money doled out to constituents at
various functions such as weddings, funerals, anniversaries and
other special occasions. Those helping a politician to identify
community needs and organise the flow of funds (as well as
help with election campaigns) are the jiban, or ‘supporters’
networks’. If all goes well and the politician is able to provide
these financial favours (or semi-financial ones such as helping
someone find a job, secure a government contract, or provide
the community with additional infrastructure), he will obtain
a kanban, or ‘reputation’. There is also a vested interest among
constituents to keep returning the same person to the Diet,
since seniority in the political system (and hence the number
and magnitude of favours one can provide to an electorate) is
linked to the number of times a politician is elected.
Interest groups also play a significant role in this system.
One of the most prominent, because of trade frictions (primarily) with the USA, has been the Nokyo (a short form of
Nogyo Kyodo Kumiai, or ‘Agricultural Workers’ Cooperative’), a centralised federation of agricultural collectives.
Representing more than six million farmers, it is dependent on
the government for a continuation of protective tariffs and
subsidised inputs (such as seed and fertiliser) and for services
such as marketing, insurance and the like. The result is that
Japanese consumers pay extremely high costs for agricultural
produce. One can imagine how cheap rice imported from, say,
Vietnam or Thailand (even if it is of a different type) or even
Australia (the same type) would be, given Japan’s strong
currency over the past fifteen years, if there were no tariff
barriers. Political support of agriculture keeps this from hap-
pening, however. Rice is imported, and it is cheaper than that
produced domestically, but it is still subject to tariffs, making
it more expensive for consumers. The government buys the
domestic rice harvest at inflated prices, hands the money over
to the Norin Chukin (Central Bank of Agriculture and Forestry), which in turn channels funds back to the Nokyo and
thence to Japanese farmers for their lobbying activities. One
curious result is the widespread public acceptance of the
superior value of Japanese rice, an emotional attachment that
transcends rationality. Another, more practical one, is the flow
of money back into LDP coffers. The Nokyo supports the LDP
politically, and this is especially important given the relative
power of the rural vote (following the failure of seats to be
allocated to the cities in proportion to the population). Unfortunately, beyond the high prices for agricultural goods
domestically, it has also meant a progressive decrease in the
efficiency of Japan’s agricultural sector. In political terms,
however, the cycle of benefit/obligation is complete.
In the 1980s the Japanese economy continued to grow at
a reasonable rate for a developed country—generally around
3 to 4 per cent, though it strengthened steadily through the
decade (reaching 4.4 per cent by 1990). It was also able to
maintain its trade surpluses for a number of reasons. A
stronger yen meant that inputs from overseas became less
expensive. New energy sources further cut manufacturing
costs, as did a steady move into the higher-technology end of
manufacturing and the production of more value-added products. Added to this was the enthusiasm of Japanese industry
for ensuring high-quality and value-for-money products
(through fierce domestic competition), so that the reputation
of the country’s manufactured goods rose steadily. By the
1980s there was scarcely an area of consumer products that
was not either dominated by Japanese companies or being
challenged by them. In 1984, for example, Japanese companies
had 84 per cent of the world’s market share of both 35mm
cameras and VCRs, followed by electronic watches (82 per
cent), electronic calculators (77 per cent), microwave ovens
(71 per cent) and memory chips (67 per cent). By the end of
the decade Japan had massive overseas investments, huge trade
surpluses and a global manufacturing network.
Japan’s current account surplus stood at $5 billion in 1981
and rose steadily to $94 billion in 1987, before falling back
to $36 billion in 1990. The US current account started off
with a $6 billion surplus in 1981 but this fell to a $7 billion
deficit the next year. It bottomed at a massive $144 billion
deficit in 1987 before reaching a $92 billion deficit in 1990.
The two sets of figures are, of course, connected, especially
since by 1990 approximately 30 per cent of Japan’s exports
went to the USA and 23 per cent of its imports came from
there. Indeed, increasing exports brought Japan further into
conflict with its major trading partner. Although higher energy
costs and Nixon’s tariff increase wreaked a degree of havoc
in the economy, Japanese products continued to be in high
demand throughout the world. The total value of Japanese
exports in 1960 was just $4 billion; this had increased massively—to $150.5 billion—by 1981. Although energy problems
caused a negative balance of payments in 1979 and 1980, the
trade surplus with the USA remained. Through the late 1980s
Japan’s trade surplus with the USA hovered around the $40–
$50 billion range.
By the mid 1980s there was mounting pressure from
Japan’s trading partners, especially the USA, to deal with the
‘surplus problem’. The result was the Plaza Accord of 1985,
named after the meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York of
financial advisers from Japan, the USA, the UK, France and
Germany. They agreed to push the yen upward in value, and
some measures were taken to open Japan’s economy to foreign
competition. The expectation in terms of the currency was
straightforward—a stronger yen meant higher prices for Japanese exports, which meant that fewer people would buy them.
Through the early 1980s the yen to US dollar exchange rate
had fluctuated between 220 and 240 yen to the dollar. By
1988, however, it had strengthened to about 130, a period
that was justifiably called endaka, or ‘high yen’ (though this
high value has generally held ever since, and even strengthened
considerably in the mid 1990s). The resilience of Japanese
manufacturers, however, was underestimated. As in the early
1970s, the stronger yen again made industrial inputs much
cheaper. The continued move of Japanese products up the
technological ladder also helped compensate for higher costs.
Other products were simplified. Between 1985 and 1986, for
example, one could see items such as microwave ovens lose a
number of their functions. Japanese manufacturers estimated
(accurately, as it turned out) that few people care to bother
programming their ovens to start in mid-afternoon to have
roasts ready in time for dinner. By eliminating such esoteric
functions the cost of the ovens was reduced and the product
remained competitive. The result of such innovations was a
continued global trade surplus—nearly $107 billion in 1988.
An important consequence of the Plaza Accord was that
the Japanese government tried to compensate for the surplus
by encouraging domestic consumers to buy more. The situation
was such that in 1985 Prime Minister Nakasone went on
television to try to persuade Japanese to purchase more foreign
(especially American) goods. Unfortunately, few were so
inclined. In order to stimulate consumption, both to counter
the higher cost of Japanese products abroad and to lessen the
trade surplus with the USA, banks provided loans at very low
interest rates. As land and buildings were most commonly used
as collateral, this naturally led to a surge in land prices,
exacerbated by the activities of speculators in the market. By
the late 1980s land had become ridiculously expensive. The
Western press would run articles which showed a square
centimetre diagram and talked about the value of this much
land in different parts of Tokyo. Various statistics designed to
shock and impress were bandied about, not least by Japanese,
who were proud of their new wealth: the grounds of the
Imperial Palace were of the same value as the state of
California; parts of Tokyo were worth more than ten times
that of the business districts of Manhattan; the central Chiyoda
district of Tokyo was of the same value as all of the territory
in Canada; metropolitan Tokyo had the same worth as the
USA; the total value of Japan was equal to 60 per cent of the
world’s land surface. Other statistics reinforce this picture. For
example, between 1960 and 1990 the cost of urban land in
Japan increased about 145-fold (wages rose 25-fold over the
same period). Unfortunately, such values reflect blatant speculation as well as the involvement of the banks, which were
overvaluing land in order to justify overlending to companies
which had relatively poor collateral. Increases in the value of
real estate did not create new wealth—it merely relied on
changes in the perception of land value. A dangerous situation
began building up in the banking system. One study of more
than 800 companies on the Tokyo Stock Exchange showed
that 44 per cent of their assets were in land, as opposed to
the usual 4 per cent, and that they had borrowed massively
using this land as collateral.
While real estate values showed one side of the speculation
boom, the other was speculation in the stockmarket. Companies were being encouraged to grow by the Ministry of
Finance (among others) and new shares were being issued in
Japan and abroad. With low interest rates and easy terms,
private as well as corporate investors borrowed to invest in
the stockmarket as well as in real estate. With the rapid rise
in the value of the stockmarket ever more people got onto the
bandwagon. As in other countries in other times, a bubble was
building that would collapse with substantial repercussions for
both the domestic and international economies in the early
Perhaps the most visible result of the Plaza Accord at the
time, however, was the increased movement of Japanese indus-
try offshore. This was not a new development, since Japanese
companies had been moving to Europe and the USA since the
late 1960s. However, this new round of investment was of
much larger scale. It went in two broad directions—to developed countries to protect Japanese companies from increases
in tariffs and to access high technology, and to underdeveloped
countries to gain the advantage of low labour costs, access to
raw materials and dominance in regional markets. Both movements were to have far-reaching implications.
The European and American recipients of Japanese investment viewed it with mixed feelings. On the one hand it created
jobs and at least to some extent contributed to the tax
base—but there were criticisms, too. One of these concerned
the manner in which Japanese companies selected the location
of their industries. In the USA it was often the case that states
bid against each other to secure investments, which meant
substantial tax breaks and other subsidies from the ‘winning’
state for the Japanese companies. Once an industry was established, components often came directly from plants in Japan
and American workers simply assembled them. Thus there was
little in the way of technology transfer or spin-off employment
or revenue. Eventually this became a point of heated debate
with the American government, to the point where proportions
of domestically produced components were negotiated. The
Japanese complaint was that locally produced components
were sometimes of problematic quality. Americans were also
critical of the way Japanese companies replicated their industrial structures in the USA, with component suppliers following
the parent company. A case in point was Toyota, which set
up a factory in Kentucky in the 1980s. Numerous component
manufacturers followed, either purchasing local companies or
starting up their own production lines. Whichever form they
took, they tended to win the supply contracts from Toyota,
the result of which was not only local resentment, but profits
returned to Japan. The situation was similar in Australia,
where Japanese car manufacturers argued that they could only
maintain profitability behind high tariff barriers, so Australian
consumers wound up subsidising Japanese (and American)
companies through high vehicle prices—and again the profits
returned to foreigners. The major benefit was employment, a
questionable advantage given the high cost of protecting the
Japanese investment patterns also caused friction overseas.
Real estate was a particular favourite, especially in tourist
destinations that were popular with Japanese travellers. Japanese companies made massive purchases, for example, in Hawaii
(Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach) and on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
In the financial year 1987–88, 60 per cent of Japanese investment in Australia went into real estate. Though local realtors,
landowners and sellers benefited, the overall result was a
substantial increase in property values that hurt other potential
entrants to the market. Added to this was the tendency
towards vertical integration in the Japanese tourism industry,
where networks between or within companies meant that
spending by Japanese tourists was channelled through these
companies, from the airlines used, to hotels, tour operators,
visitors’ centres and gift shops. The lack of benefit to locally
owned companies inevitably produced a backlash. So too did
high-profile purchases. There was a certain irony in having
substantial Japanese investment in tourism so close to Pearl
Harbor. Other purchases, such as that of Columbia Pictures
by Sony Corporation or the Rockefeller Center in New York
by Mitsubishi Real Estate, both in the late 1980s, tended to
create shock and dismay over the obvious might of the Japanese economy, and a fear of economic imperialism (though, it
should be noted, these purchases were made at vastly inflated
prices and the buyers lost dearly when they later sold them).
There was some cause for concern at the time, however. In
1982 Americans owned more assets abroad than foreigners
owned in the USA (about $152 billion). By 1991 the situation
had been reversed, with the balance in favour of foreign
owners of American assets to the tune of about $757 billion.
At one point Japanese owned 4 per cent of the US economy,
and it is not surprising that this caused Americans to worry.
Of course, this could be said to be the fault of the Americans,
who had both borrowed money and sold assets in order to
enjoy an artificially high standard of living.
The other side of trade frictions with developed countries
lay with the access of foreign companies to Japanese markets.
In 1970 total Japanese overseas investment was $3.6 billion;
by 1980 it had jumped significantly, to $160 billion, and by
1991 was a whopping $2 trillion, while foreign investment in
Japan in 1989 amounted to only $16 billion. With the growth
of the US deficit it became imperative that Americans in
particular gain greater access to Japanese markets, otherwise
they would have to cut spending (and live within their means)
or erect higher trade barriers (both damaging trading relation-ships as well as supporting uncompetitive industries). As we
have seen, however, foreign access to the Japanese market is
a particularly difficult issue, given the close links between the
centres of power in Japan which have created a host of formal
and informal barriers to foreign goods. The self-interest within
the system meant that considerable pressure had to come from
outside the country before any action could be taken—gaiatsu
making itself felt again. At the same time, highly emotive
reactions to the Japanese presence in US markets, and to
American attempts to penetrate markets in Japan, made trade
negotiations between the two sides extremely difficult.
The Japanese side was particularly adept at presenting both
objective and subjective reasons for their reluctance to open
markets. Some issues, such as the unsuitability of American
goods for Japanese households, were valid. Criticisms included
relatively poor quality, appliances being too big or noisy for
Japanese homes and the lack of adequate service networks.
Other reasons (or stalling methods) were not so convincing,
such as the need to ‘study the situation’ or ‘process appli-
cations’, which might take years. In the area of agriculture one
argument presented was that Japan needed to be able to
sustain its food-production capacity—this was clearly spurious
since self-sufficiency had been lost long ago. Others pointed
to the culturally-based ‘special qualities’ of Japanese rice,
including its intimate connections with Shinto and the
emperor; even the mystical qualities of sake were cited.
Stranger was the claim that Japanese stomachs could not digest
foreign rice. Perhaps a more reasoned argument was that
imported rice did not suit Japanese dishes such as sushi, but
this did not account for restrictions on Japonica rice grown
in such countries as the USA and Australia. Some liberalisation
eventually did occur in areas such as oranges and beef, but
progress was very slow. The USA finally resorted to targeting
specific sectors, and invoking tough measures such as Article
301 (the so-called ‘super 301’) of the US Trade Act, which
allowed for harsh retaliation if specific markets remained closed.
Both Japan and the USA, however, were constrained in
how far they could go in terms of trade restrictions, for over
the years the two economies had become highly interdependent. The reality was that Japan by the late 1980s was the
largest creditor nation in the world while the USA, under
President Reagan, had become the largest debtor nation. This
occurred through a combination of high American interest
rates, substantial tax cuts and increased defence spending (the
US defence budget doubled in the first half of the 1980s). The
first factor attracted substantial foreign currency, which
strengthened the US dollar, while the latter two led to significant economic growth, though the cost was a rapid increase
in the American deficit. This in turn meant that the USA had
to borrow money from somewhere. Japan effectively became
America’s banker. The USA tended to depend on Japanese
banks to purchase such items as American treasury bonds in
order to finance the deficit so that interest rates could be held
down. If (already high) interest rates had to be increased to
attract other bond buyers, the American economy would slow
and government spending would have to be cut. This included
the defence budget, which had contributed substantially to the
deficit in the first place when America attempted to drive the
Soviet economy into the ground by forcing high levels of
military expenditure. A strong economy in the USA also meant
that Americans could continue to buy Japanese products, a
fact upon which Japanese manufacturers depended since the
USA was by far their largest market. A fundamental point here
is that Japanese products were popular with American consumers. In 1970, for example, the Japanese share of the
American automobile market was just 5 per cent; twenty years
later this share had increased to 28 per cent. Trade frictions
had the potential to severely damage both trading partners,
and managing this issue through the 1980s was a preoccupation of both governments. In 1987 things came to a head
when the Reagan Administration charged Japanese companies
with unfair trading practices and slapped a 100 per cent tariff
on selected products. The Japanese government responded by
delaying their purchase of treasury bonds the next time they
were offered for sale, making the point clearly that Japan’s
economic power had become formidable and the USA would
have to take this into account in future.
The steady integration of European countries over the
1970s and 1980s (into a single market by the end of 1992)
meant that Japanese investment there was also important if
companies were to avoid potential protectionist policies. For
reasons similar to its penetration of the American market,
therefore, Japanese investment also flowed to Europe. In the
period 1961–70 Japanese investment in Europe totalled only
$626 million, but by 1974–80 it had increased to $3.8 billion,
and it went up sharply again, to $10 billion, in 1981–86. In
high-profile projects Japanese financial institutions were also
active. The Eurotunnel, for example, connecting the UK and
France, was one-third funded by Japanese investors. In terms
of trade, by the late 1980s the countries of the (future) EU
were receiving about the same value of Japanese exports as
the USA.
With the combination of a strong currency, the need to
reduce labour costs in manufacturing and a desire to secure
sources of raw materials, investment in Asian countries was a
logical step, especially since many of the economies were
growing quickly and would provide lucrative opportunities for
Japanese companies as well as an increasing market for Japanese products (especially lower-technology ones that were less
suitable to Western markets).
Japan’s investment in all Asian countries between 1951 and
1990 totalled $47.5 billion. The largest slice went to Indonesia
($11.5 billion) followed by Hong Kong ($9.8 billion),
Singapore ($6.5 billion) and Thailand ($4.4 billion). Over the
ten-year period between 1980 and 1990, trade with Asia
doubled in value. By the end of the decade Japanese exports
to the region were worth $287 billion while imports totalled
$235 billion, a massive amount that was also, it should be
noted, substantially in Japan’s favour. The type of investment
varied according to the level of development and resource base
of the different countries. In Hong Kong and Singapore, for
example, commerce and services received most investment
whereas manufacturing dominated in Taiwan, Thailand,
Malaysia and the Philippines. Investment in resources was by
far the largest sector in Indonesia but was also significant in
the Philippines.
Manufacturing in Southeast Asia was predicated on low
wages. By 1989 wages in the manufacturing sector in Jakarta
and Bangkok were only 4 per cent and 10 per cent of those
in Japan, respectively. For labour-intensive industries this was
a tremendous advantage. Manufacturing in such countries had
other benefits for Japan. One was that Japan itself was the
destination for many of the products, particularly through
keiretsu networks. In 1990 about 60 per cent of exports to
Japan from Asia were manufactured products, and these partly
helped reduce the cost of inputs for Japan’s domestic industries. Another advantage was that it made Japan’s trade
surpluses look less formidable since exports from these
countries were counted in their trade figures rather than in
those of Japan. This was an important consideration in the
late 1980s, given trade frictions with the USA in particular.
Through this investment Japanese companies also gained
access to domestic Asian markets, and helped reduce Japan’s
dependence on the US market. Total trade with Asia between
1985 and 1990 was on a par with the USA, at 28.9 per cent
and 29.5 per cent, respectively. By 1990, however, Asia had
overtaken the USA as an export destination.
The analogy often used for Japanese investment in Asia
through the 1980s was that of ‘flying geese’, referring to an
economic development theory created by Japanese economist
Akamatsu Kaname in the 1930s. The proposition was that
Japan, as an advanced industrialised country, could provide
the developing countries of Asia with capital and technology
which would allow their economies to strengthen in both size
and technological sophistication. It was a tiered process, however. Japanese companies used selective investments. The
countries immediately below Japan in terms of wealth and
level of technology were the Newly Industrialising Countries
(NICs), also referred to as the Newly Industrialising Economies
(NIEs) or the ‘Mini-dragons’—Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan
and South Korea. They received investments appropriate to
their existing technological levels, educational systems and
broad economic sophistication—in other words, medium to
high levels of technological inputs. The next tier, the Associ-
ation of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or ‘wannabe NICs’
of Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia (as well
as, often, China) received low to medium technological inputs.
Investments in Asian countries were based on carefully
determined comparative advantage—wherever investment
would provide the greatest returns. The second part of the
‘flying geese’ theory argued that countries in each tier would
also invest in countries lower down the scale. Indeed, this
process has become highly complex, with capital and technol-
ogy flowing in multiple directions. Japanese firms, for example,
may invest in Taiwan, which also invests in Malaysia. Some
Malaysian businesses may establish themselves in China or
Indonesia, where wealthy companies or individuals may also
be investing in the more developed countries of the region.
Investment therefore moves up and down the technology
ladder. The leader, however, in terms of technological sophistication and wealth, is Japan, spurred on by a high-value yen
and the need to locate labour-intensive industries in lower-wage countries.
Given the structure of the Japanese keiretsu, it is not
surprising that different companies in a group, or even just
one such company, will set up shop in different countries,
again depending on comparative advantage. Thus components
of various electronics devices or automobiles, for example,
may be manufactured in many different places. Thailand may
make diesel engines, the Philippines transmissions, electronics
components may come from Malaysia, and pressed parts from
Indonesia. Assembly of the components may take place in part
or whole in one of those countries (such as the Proton cars
of Malaysia, an operation created by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation). Components or finished products may also be
exported back to Japan or to other developed countries. For
example, most of the television sets sold under Japanese names
in Australia are in fact manufactured partly or completely in
Southeast Asia. The result is a veritable web of investment,
trade and manufacturing leading to complex intra-regional
(indeed global) dependencies. Some observers argue that this
is the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ revisited,
which allows Japanese companies to shop the region for the
best value-for-money products. One disadvantage for Asian
countries is that the highest level technology is retained in
Japan so it can maintain its economic lead. Another is, of
course, that if Japan has economic problems the other countries will, too, and more so if investment is diverted back to
Japan. This was partly the problem in the ‘Asian meltdown’
of the late 1990s, which will be looked at in the next chapter.
Australia provides an interesting case of Japanese investment following the principles of ensuring an adequate supply
of raw materials and targeting those sectors which will provide
the highest returns. As Australia is a relatively high-wage
country, investment in manufacturing was either in areas which
relied on a high skill level in the workforce and/or where the
industry was protected. The presence of Mitsubishi Motors,
Toyota and (for a while) Nissan reflects these factors. We have
already referred to the massive investments in real estate on
the Gold Coast. Finance and insurance, and transport, were
areas also favoured by Japanese companies. The other major
area of investment in Australia was in natural resources.
Japanese companies made substantial purchases in existing
coal-extraction companies and in companies connected to
forestry products such as pulp and paper. As a result, nine
major Japanese trading companies in 1988 accounted for
20 per cent of Australia’s exports. In the area of woodchips,
the Japanese-dominated industry supplied 6.8 million cubic
metres to the world market (the total of which was 14 million
cubic metres), and Japan took a whopping 11.8 million cubic
metre share. This selective application of investment has caused
some scholars to refer to Australia’s role as a combination of
Japan’s playground and its quarry.
By the end of the 1980s Japan’s domestic economy and its
position in world markets was far more advanced than it had
been twenty years earlier. GNP had increased approximately
sixfold between 1970 and 1990. Economic growth was the
central focus of Japanese efforts for these two decades, which
explains the emphasis on the country’s commercial activities
in this chapter. The result was the dominance of many global
markets, from consumer electronics to automobiles, and
a massive presence in foreign economies. Japanese financial
institutions, too, became both successful and integral players
in the global economy. By 1988, 24 of the world’s 50 largest
banks were Japanese. When Emperor Hirohito died in 1989,
Japan was a very different place from the country in which
he began his reign in 1926.
Such growth had costs, however, particularly in terms of
the lives of Japanese workers. Many foreigners charged the
Japanese with being only ‘economic animals’ who had sacrificed quality of life for financial gain. Since these issues are
tied up with current social ills in Japan they are dealt with in
the next chapter. The 1990s also saw the end of the Japanese
economic juggernaut; by the end of the decade its weaknesses
were all too apparent.
presented a very different picture
to the world than it had only a few years earlier.
In the late 1980s many stood in awe of the country’s economic
might, with its tentacles seemingly probing into every corner
of the globe. Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Sony, Yamaha—these and
many more were household names around the world. The
country was awash with cash. Foreigners who journeyed to
Japan returned with stories of a country where cups of coffee
could cost more than $10, dining out required a small bank
loan, rents were astronomical, living conditions crowded and
often rudimentary and where people were willing to sacrifice
all for economic growth.
With the bursting of its ‘bubble economy’ the media tended
to react by describing Japan as suddenly hopeless. Books and
articles used words like ‘collapse’, ‘adrift’ and ‘crisis’. Perhaps
this is artistic licence, but it was confusing for those trying to
figure out what was actually happening to the economy. How
could it be unstoppable one minute and stone-dead the next?
In fact, as is often the case, the truth was somewhere in
between. Japanese society had characteristics such as close
personal business networks, government–business cooperation
and Confucianist principles which worked well when the
economy was growing but inhibited change when policy
adjustments became necessary. The result was a decade of
struggle for Japanese business, and many companies are not
yet out of the woods. Added to this are a number of social
problems that began to manifest themselves in the 1970s and
1980s and came into sharper focus in the 1990s as the media
turned the spotlight on ‘Japan’s problems’. One should avoid,
however, the media-like tendency to view Japan in extremes.
Substantial problems did arise in a number of areas, but the
difficulties should not be overstated.
The end of the bubble economy
Although hindsight is truly 20:20 vision, capitalism is characterised by boom-and-bust cycles, and Japan had had an
exceptional run of economic success by the end of the 1980s.
Perhaps the Japanese really believed what was being said about
them by the rest of the world. They had created an economic
miracle and a global industrial empire from almost a standing
start (or so it had seemed), so perhaps they thought that their
run of good fortune would never end. This belief was, as we
now know, misplaced.
The economy at the beginning of the decade had both
positive and negative aspects. The high yen following the Plaza
Accord pushed Japanese companies overseas where they were
usually able to generate good returns on their investments.
Manufactured goods from these countries, sold under Japanese
brand names but at lower prices because of the reduced wage
costs, found their way around the world. The Japanese economy (powered by both overseas investment and domestic
demand) grew steadily through the 1980s, hitting 5.3 per cent
(GNP) growth in 1990. Following the Ministry of Finance’s
lead of encouraging economic expansion, Japanese companies
engaged in both domestic and foreign share floats. The Bank
of Japan kept interest rates down and made borrowing relatively easy to stimulate the economy after the slowdown in
the 1970s. This money, easily accessible to both private and
corporate investors, tended to find its way into real estate
(often used as collateral for the purchase of stocks) and the
stockmarket, reinforcing the perception that the economy was
on an unstoppable roll. More and more people were caught
up in the borrow-buy-sell cycle. The value of the stockmarket
doubled between 1986 and 1989. Unfortunately, as we have
seen, it was substantially based on speculation. What tended
to mislead people caught up in the land and stockmarket
booms was that the part of the Japanese economy where they
made real products and sold them was doing very well. If
people looked around, the evidence of wealth was everywhere.
Although some invested their savings or profits from the
stockmarket, others engaged in conspicuous consumption—
BMWs, Bulgari watches and Louis Vuitton handbags, not to
mention first-class tickets to the countries that made these
products. The tourism industry boomed, with even the government trying to get people to spend more overseas (and thereby
help reduce Japan’s trade surpluses). Clearly, the good life had
At some point in 1990 investors started to look at their
portfolios and reflect on their real value. Rents were high but
it would take eons before they would pay off the cost of the
land upon which the buildings were situated. Stocks were often
simply not providing the returns relative to purchase price.
Some blamed the new head of the Bank of Japan, Yasushi
Mieno, who decided things were getting out of control and
raised interest rates to slow the growth rate, but the end was
inevitable. Typical of a capitalist economy, when the run
started it tended to move as quickly backward as it had
forward. The bubble had burst.
There was a tremendous amount of finger-pointing in the
months and years that followed, but many different people
had contributed to the problem. One could blame foreigners
for forcing a higher yen in the mid 1980s or for being so
welcoming of Japanese investment, Japanese politicians for
over-stimulating growth, bureaucrats for mismanaging the
economy, private and corporate speculators for their greed,
opportunistic (or dishonest) stockbrokers, securities companies
or yakuza for overwhelming self-interest.
The apportioning of blame did not alter the bleak facts.
The stockmarket lost nearly $2.6 trillion before the slide
stopped, dropping 60 per cent in value between December
1989 and August 1992. The people especially hurt were those
who had climbed on the bandwagon late in the day. Early
investors may have finished up with a modest profit since they
had invested when the value of stocks and real estate was
relatively low. All of this was exacerbated, however, by the
fact that money had often been borrowed by the speculators,
and since banks are usually substantially funded by the savings
of ordinary citizens, ordinary citizens ultimately suffered from
the bust even when they were not directly involved.
The problems were felt throughout the economy. Sales of
manufactured products fell with the drop in domestic demand,
and industrial production consequently declined. Retail businesses also felt the impact immediately, with consumers tending
to buy cheaper products provided by newly established ‘discount’ stores. Many other companies went bankrupt. Japanese
banks in particular were in bad shape. As early as 1993 the
21 biggest banks in Japan claimed $145 billion in ‘non-performing’ loans, and about one-third of that amount was
believed to be lost for good, though later it was discovered
that much more debt had been hidden through creative book-keeping.
As in other economies dealing with recession, unemployment rose. In earlier times, such as the oil shock of the early
1970s, Japanese companies had been reluctant to lay off
workers, but this time many felt compelled to do so. Rather
than just temporary staff (mostly women) or those in smaller
supplier companies being let go, mainstream workers were
targeted. Powerful corporations such as Nippon Telephone and
Telegraph (NTT), Hitachi and Fujitsu cut permanent staff. The
unemployment rate (fraught with problems of calculation and
hidden unemployment, and giving artificially low figures)
stood at 2.1 per cent in 1990 but had jumped to 5 per cent
by the end of the decade, by far the highest since 1960.
Especially hard hit were middle managers, who were usually
thought to be secure in the employment system. Tens of
thousands were retrenched and others forced to take lower-level positions. The vaunted system of lifetime employment no
longer appeared tenable, and this sent shock waves through
Japanese society. One immediate impact was to reinforce
people’s propensity to save. Although savings rates fell through
the 1970s and 1980s, they grew in the early 1990s (about
14 per cent in 1991, up to 17 per cent in 1993) and then
stabilised in the later part of the decade at about 13 per cent
of household income. This was still high compared to, for
example, the USA and Canada, both at just over 2 per cent.
Household savings grew steadily through the same period, with
an average total of $167 000 by 1998. Total Japanese savings
by that year amounted to $9.2 trillion. Convincing consumers
to spend their savings to rejuvenate the economy, however,
was exceedingly difficult in a time of high unemployment and recession.
The situation was made even worse by the widespread shift
in perceptions of the economy. Typical of a capitalist system,
much of an economy’s strength or weakness depends on
whether people believe it is strong or weak. Reaction is
therefore often over-reaction. Because so many people were
hurt by the economic downturn, faith in the economy quickly
disappeared. Furthermore, when inappropriate practices
among those controlling the economy came to light (including
corruption, cozy government–corporate relationships, pork-barrelling politics and sheer incompetence), faith in the system
as a whole was badly shaken, to the point that at the beginning
of the twenty-first century the system, along with the economy
has yet to fully recover. This is one of the disadvantages of
the interlocked Japanese system. After all, if bureaucrats at the
Ministry of Finance were not able to manage the economy,
this called into question the educational system that had
trained them, the selection process for their positions, the
dependence which politicians had on them and their networks
of personal relationships (including the notions of reciprocal
obligation and mutual dependence). Each of these problems
reverberated further through the system to the point where
many people threw up their hands in resignation or disgust.
How can we fix our problems when they are so immense,
widespread and complex?
Along with the economic problems, naturally enough,
came political ones. Some argue that with the passing of
Emperor Hirohito in early 1989 there was perhaps some
concern over cultural continuity, though this would have been
more prevalent among older Japanese. If one accepts the
argument that the emperor has long been the cultural core
of Japanese society, it follows that a younger, more outward-looking emperor might compound the difficulties of losing one
who had been a point of stability for such a long time (63
years) and had seen Japan through the worst period in its
history. It may be that this change contributed in some small
way to the instability of the time; on the other hand, though,
the pomp and circumstance of the November 1990 accession
ceremonies of the new emperor (Akihito) reinforced rather
than challenged the power of the country’s cultural traditions.
Certainly at the coalface of Japanese politics changes were
taking place. There had been widespread public concern over
money politics in Japan for some time, and this came to a
head in the late 1980s. The Recruit Scandal of 1989 involved
a company which offered stocks to Japanese elites (including
politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen) before they were
floated on the exchange. As with previous scandals it resulted
in the resignation of, among others, Prime Minister Takeshita
Noboru, and further undermined public confidence in funda-
mental Japanese institutions. The economic problems of the
early 1990s reinforced the image of an ineffective and corrupt
political system. A specific point of concern was the amount
spent on election campaigns, one that seems familiar today
given the current debate over the issue in the USA. The
problem was exacerbated in Japan because of multi-member
constituencies, where often the only difference between candidates (since there was often more than one from the LDP) was
how much money they could spread around. Eventually this
was resolved through the use of proportional representation
in these constituencies, but in the short term it contributed to
public distrust of the political process.
The government in the early 1990s also had to deal with
the pressing issue of tax reform. There were two issues driving
it: income tax cuts to stimulate the economy out of its
recession and the need for more money in government coffers
to fund public works projects and to support a rapidly ageing
population. The result had been the introduction of a 3 per
cent consumption tax as early as 1989, but there was substantial debate over whether or not it should be increased. It was,
to 5 per cent in 1997, but only in the face of substantial
popular resistance. There was also considerable debate about
the appropriateness of this measure at a time of economic recession.
The end of the bubble economy caused widespread damage
and loss of confidence in the economy and government, and
political upheaval in the 1990s was to be expected. Money
politics contributed to the general disillusionment, where established networks now seemed to interfere with repairing the
economy, and electoral reform was superficial at best. Many
older Japanese worried about security in old age. While they
tended to support the LDP (better the devil you know), there
was also substantial popular dissatisfaction. The result was a
split in the LDP. The Japan New Party, under the leadership
of (former LDP member) Hosokawa Morihiro, combined with
seven smaller parties to form a coalition government and for
the first time since 1955 the LDP lost power.
Not surprisingly, given the difficult issues faced by the new
government and the problems inherent in an eight-party coalition, the new government was short-lived. Hosokawa was
made Prime Minister in August 1993 but announced in February 1994 his intention to resign. His successor from April
1994 was Hata Tsutomu, but he lasted only two months. A
compromise was subsequently reached in an attempt to end
the confusion. In June 1994 a member of the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ—the renamed Socialist Party),
Murayama Tomiichi, became Prime Minister, but in a government where key portfolios were held by members of the LDP.
Then, in 1996 the LDP was returned to power (albeit as part
of a coalition), though public apathy showed itself in the
lowest-ever voter turnout. Perhaps it was also this apathy that,
the year before, had led to two former comedians being elected
as the governors of Tokyo and Osaka. Volatility remained a
central aspect of Japanese politics through the decade, with
eight different Prime Ministers between 1989 and 1999. The
situation was neatly summed up by former German Chancellor
Helmut Kohl, who allegedly remarked that he was getting tired
of meeting new Japanese prime ministers.
The Japanese government attempted to fix its economic
problems through the classic approach of public spending.
From 1992 onwards various stimulus packages were produced,
including massive injections of money ($84 billion in 1992,
$119 billion in 1993, $150 billion in 1994, $75 billion in
1995, $123 billion in 1998 and $137 billion in 1999) as well
as tax cuts, and financial aid to banks and smaller businesses.
Bank bailouts were a particular focus, and the extent of debt
and sloppy procedures led to the creation of a new supervisory
agency for the banks. The major development here was the
establishment by government of a ‘bridge bank’ in 1998 to
take over some $540 billion in bank debt, thereby isolating
the problem and eliminating widespread bankruptcies in this
sector. Bank mergers were also organised, including ones by
Sumitomo and Sakura Banks, and Asahi and Tokai Banks.
This may have strengthened the banking sector, but it also led
to substantial job losses. While these measures did shore up
the growth rate to some extent, they did not serve to restore
public confidence or revive the economy. Partly this was
because much of the money was spent on infrastructure projects ($183 billion since 1998 alone), and reinforced the cozy
relationship between the Japanese government (especially
the Ministry of Construction) and construction companies.
Fundamental political reform did not seem to be forthcoming.
On the international front the situation was also confusing.
The trade surplus grew substantially, from $36 billion in 1990
to $84 billion in 1992 and $109 billion in 1993, partly because
Japanese reduced their purchases of foreign luxury goods
(which had been a hallmark of the bubble economy) and partly
because Japanese companies made special efforts to sell their
merchandise abroad to compensate for lower domestic
demand. At the same time, many companies shed their overseas investments (especially real estate) in order to bring
needed capital home. This meant converting foreign currencies
to yen, resulting in a massive increase in the value of the yen.
In 1990 the average yearly yen to US dollar exchange rate
stood at about 145 but strengthened steadily, to 94 in 1995
(at one point going below 80) before falling to about the 130
mark. The recession in Japan through the first half of the
decade therefore had a decidedly odd flavour, with both the
balance of trade improving and the currency getting stronger
while massive public spending was creating substantial government debt.
The situation was complicated by American dissatisfaction
with a trade deficit that was once again growing, to more than
$60 billion in the mid 1990s, falling to just over $50 billion
by the end of the decade (though the shifting exchange rate
plays havoc with figures in US dollars). Given that the Japanese
government was having a great deal of difficulty in convincing
its citizens to spend more, persuading them to buy American
products was a major challenge. With US negotiators targeting
specific sectors, sometimes the Japanese government itself
brought pressure to bear on its citizens to buy the items.
In other parts of Asia circumstances were different. Goods
produced in developing countries in the region were relatively
inexpensive, and therefore sold better in a recession-plagued
Japan as well as on the world market. Japanese investment in
Asia soared, especially in the manufacturing sector. By the mid
1990s, three-quarters of new Japanese projects in this area
were either in China, the NICs or the ASEAN Four (Malaysia,
the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia). The total value of
Japanese investment in these countries nearly doubled between
1989 and 1994, and increased an additional 50 per cent
between 1994 and 1997. In spite of the amount of money
flowing offshore, however, the balance of trade remained
heavily in Japan’s favour.
This growing Japanese presence in Southeast Asia in particular was received, as before, with mixed feelings. The
perception in some countries was that Japanese companies
were too powerful and could not be trusted. It was certainly
the case that the benefits of investment were not evenly spread.
While semi-skilled employment was boosted, the benefits
flowed primarily to local elites, reinforcing socioeconomic
inequities. Where anti-pollution laws existed they were often
ignored—in the area of forestry, for example. Japan became
the world’s largest importer of tropical wood products. The
result in the logged areas was erosion, floods, decimation of
plant, animal and bird species, and the destruction of the
traditional livelihoods of those who lived in the forests. They
had little political power, however, compared to Japanese-supported governmental and local elites.
Japan’s unwillingness or inability to help its Asian neighbours was brought to light in the Asian meltdown of late 1997.
Japanese post-Plaza Accord investment in Asia was largely to
blame here, as it had boosted growth rates, especially in the
countries of Southeast Asia, to artificially high levels. When
Japan’s economy faltered, the problems of economic development in these countries were exacerbated, creating substantial
‘readjustments’. The important point, however, beyond showing the interconnectedness of the Asian economies, was that
Japan could not act as an ‘engine of growth’ to pull them out
of recession. Having had so much difficulty in getting its own
financial house in order, it has been unable to rescue others.
While most countries are now recovering from this blow, the
long-term implications for Japanese and regional trade and
investment have yet to be seen.
Another consequence of the degree of Japanese investment
offshore, especially in Asia, was its impact on small and
medium-sized companies in Japan which now found they had
to compete for contracts with low-wage firms in developing
countries. In the past, long-term personal associations with
larger companies had ameliorated the impact of this effect, but
with corporations dealing with recession, low-cost inputs
became a priority. Ultimately this led to a degree of ‘hollowing out’ of Japanese industry, where firms either went bankrupt
or had to move into producing more technologically complex
goods of high quality that were not easily manufactured overseas.
The challenge to smaller Japanese companies is likely
to become greater with the implementation of regional
trade agreements. With European countries consolidating
the European Union (EU) in 1992, the US–Canada Free Trade
Agreement (FTA) of 1989 and the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an extension to the FTA, of 1991,
and which included Mexico in 1994, it became apparent to a
number of Asian countries, and especially Australia, that some
form of new economic grouping was necessary to protect both
long-term access to markets and overall economic growth.
There had been a number of preliminary moves towards such
associations from the 1960s onwards, but the key development
was the creation of the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation
forum (APEC) in 1989, an initiative of Australia’s Hawke
(Labor) government. Original member nations included Japan,
the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, along with
China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and six members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Singapore, Indonesia,
Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei). The broad
plan was for a progressive reduction in trade barriers (more
quickly for developed countries, more slowly for developing
ones), facilitation of technology transfers and cooperation in
a number of sectors (including telecommunications, energy and transport).
From Japan’s point of view an economic grouping such as
this presents risks as well as rewards. As in other developed
countries, low-technology, high-wage sectors will come under
threat from industries in developing countries, but Japan’s
trade and investment in those countries will be made easier,
reinforcing the international production system already created
by the keiretsu. Access to important markets, such as the USA,
will be facilitated, and free trade should have widespread
benefits for consumers (and therefore regional economies in
general). For Japan the challenge will be to modify its domestic
system to allow for greater open competition as well as foreign
investment. This is taking place to some extent, with
$102 billion in foreign investment coming into Japan in 1998,
compared with just $28 billion in 1989. In the banking sector,
Merrill Lynch, for example, took over failed Yamaichi Securities, Swiss Bank Corporation tied up with the Long-Term
Credit Bank of Japan, and Nippon Bank allied itself with
Bankers Trust. Japanese were shocked in 1996, however, when
Henry Wallace became President of Mazda in Japan as part
of a takeover of the company by Ford. The long-term results
will be seen over the coming decades. Above all, Japanese
leaders want to avoid substantial trade frictions, which can do
a great deal of damage either directly, through protective
tariffs, or indirectly, through a global economic downturn.
Japan’s changing international role
While economic issues were dominant in Japan’s international
relations in the 1970s and 1980s, a major change (indeed for
much of the world) came about with the end of the Cold War
in the late 1980s (popularly dated by the fall of the Berlin
Wall in 1989). Suddenly the country’s strategic value was called
into question. Much of Japan’s economic success had had to
do with the stand-off between capitalism and communism, and
its part in the string of American bases down the western
Pacific, but the massive shift in geopolitics made its future
strategic role unclear.
For much of the 1980s many people watched Japan’s
successes with awe and not a little fear. Some speculated
whether the country would become a superpower in the
military as well as economic sense. Others wondered when it
would take a stronger leadership role and, if so, what form
this role would take. The decline of the Japanese economy in
the 1990s changed these perceptions, though the country still
has the second largest economy in the world and the earlier
questions are still mostly pertinent.
One of the fundamental characteristics of the Japanese
economy is that it is dependent on raw materials and therefore
on trade. Hence an interdependent global trading system is
generally to Japan’s advantage, and its political manoeuvring
tends to support the stability and extension of this system. On
the other hand it is, broadly speaking, a relatively inward-
looking country with a tightly knit social system, with
considerable domestic resistance to letting foreigners become
too well-established in their economy. This dynamic tension
continues to plague Japan’s international relations.
Can Japan be a world leader? Is this what Japan (or others)
wants? To date its foreign policies have been characterised by
pragmatism, shifting when necessary and tending to be reactive. Unlike the USA, Japan never seems to be out front,
leading the way on the basis of principle. While one can argue
that all nations are fundamentally governed by self-interest, it
appears that Japan is particularly so—the idea of Japan as a
‘fragile’ superpower reflects this perception. This leads to
substantial distrust of Japanese foreign policies among the
leaders of other countries, coupled with a sense that Japan has
substantial power but is perhaps without a clear purpose save
to help itself.
The bargain made with the USA in the early 1950s was
an acceptance of the US military presence in exchange for a
release from Japan’s own military expenditures and special
access to American markets. With some frictions and finetuning this deal held through the 1980s. Today there are new
pressures, and Japan will have to find its way using a more
independent foreign policy. With Russia a shadow of its former
self, China a key trading partner and even North Korea
beginning to show a degree of flexibility, the need for American
bases and military personnel in Japan may be dwindling. The
passage of time is also allowing Japan’s actions in the Pacific
War to fade into history, and the time may not be far off when
the country takes a more dominant role in global politics.
Indeed, for some years Japanese leaders have been lobbying
for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. On the other
hand, there is considerable resistance, both at home and
abroad, to changing a system that has worked reasonably well
for so long. Japan also needs the stability provided by the
USA, especially in terms of protecting energy supplies coming
from the Middle East, and to deal with regional issues such
as the growing power of China, the China–Taiwan conflict
and territorial conflicts over oil rights in the South China Sea
(involving the Spratley and Paracel island groups).
One of the techniques Japan has used to change its image,
especially in Asia, is the use of foreign aid. The Development
Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD (which Japan
joined in 1964) sets 0.7 per cent of GNP as the target for a
country’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). Japan has
never reached this proportion, providing 0.35 per cent in 1999.
Though much more than the 0.10 per cent of the USA, it is
far less than, for example, Denmark (0.99 per cent), Norway
(0.91 per cent) or the Netherlands (0.80 per cent). Because its
GNP is so large, however, since 1985 Japan has been the
world’s largest provider of ODA. In 1999 it gave more than
$15 billion in aid, substantially more than the USA ($9.1
billion), France ($5.5 billion) or the UK ($3.3 billion). Japan
is also the largest contributor to (and the most powerful
member of) the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
There is certainly a measure of altruism in this provision
of aid though, as with other countries, considerable self-interest is also apparent. For the past 30 years Japan’s aid has
effectively followed trade and investment (mostly in the developing countries of Asia), though at a declining rate. In 1970
more than 98 per cent of Japan’s ODA went to Asia but today
the proportion has dropped to about 60 per cent. The placement of ODA has also been designed to dovetail with the
needs of Japan’s economy, such as reafforestation projects to
replace trees cut down by Japanese companies or building
roads and bridges to facilitate the export of goods.
One of the most difficult issues is the role of Japan’s
Self-Defence Force, which was especially called into question
during the Gulf War of 1991. Because two-thirds of Japan’s oil
came from the Persian Gulf at the time, Japan dithered while
Saddam attacked, and the coalition forces counter-attacked.
Japan’s view was that when one is resource-dependent it is
better to wait to see who the victor will be before choosing
sides. The USA did not agree. American leaders felt that it was
bad enough that US soldiers were in harm’s way while Japanese troops were not, but the cost of the war, at $60 billion,
was also a major point of contention. Japan pointed once again
to its American-designed constitution as a rationale for keeping
its soldiers at home (a reason that had lost much of its
persuasive power since the 1950s), but agreed to contribute
substantially in financial terms (eventually $13 billion). More
recently Japan agreed to pay $100 million towards the cost of
sending troops from the developing countries of Asia to East
Timor. These events have called into question how much
longer Japan can continue to avoid military involvement by
using ‘chequebook diplomacy’, though the issue produces
mixed emotions in those who remember Japan’s role in the
Pacific War.
The presence of American bases in Japan is an ongoing
issue, though more of the debate is over the cost of running
them than whether or not the two countries should be tied in
defence terms. One problem here is the poor behaviour of
some US troops, recently brought to light by the rape of a
12-year-old school girl on Okinawa in 1996. Public outrage
was reflected in an anti-US demonstration which attracted
some 850 000 residents. A major base on the island will now
be moved to a more remote location, at a cost of about
$1 billion. Japan presently pays 61 per cent of the $5 billion
cost of the US military presence in Japan—including 47 000
US personnel, 140 aircraft, base operating costs and salaries
for Japanese working at the bases. Given the sluggish Japanese
economy, this, too, has recently been the subject of debate.
Because Japan’s military is not used overseas it tends to
receive little public attention (a recent exception being the
passage of the 1992 UN Peacekeeping Operations Cooperation Bill which subsequently allowed 600 Japanese troops
from an engineering battalion to go to Cambodia). The SDF
is formidable, however. Japan’s defence budget is nearly
$50 billion (including the $5 billion spent on the US military
presence), larger than that of China and the biggest in Asia.
Although still only at 0.991 per cent of GDP, partly because
Japan’s economy grew substantially in the 1980s the defence
budget more than doubled between 1980 and 1999. There are
today nearly 237 000 troops in the country’s military, along
with 147 major ships and nearly 1200 major aircraft. Given
this level of military strength, it remains to be seen how long
Japanese leaders can resist pressure from other major powers
to play a more significant defence role overseas.
Intimately associated with the role of the military is the
nature of Japanese nationalism. In the postwar decades nationalism was viewed by many, if not most, Japanese as something
almost evil that had led them into dire straits in the first half
of the century. While ultra-right groups are noisy and visible
in the major cities today, they are often viewed as dangerous
extremists (though they also have substantial links to big
business and conservative politicians). Over the past twenty
years, however, a more moderate form of nationalism has
begun to reassert itself, which has caused significant concern
both in Japan and abroad. One ongoing debate has been in
the area of school texts. In 1982, for example, the Ministry
of Education (formally entitled the Ministry of Education,
Science and Culture) tried to change the perception of the
activities of the Japanese military in Asia during the Pacific
War, with a replacement of the word ‘invasion’ by ‘advance’
and a general moderation of descriptions of atrocities such as
the massacre in Nanking. Three years later Prime Minister
Nakasone paid an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in
Tokyo, where Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific War
are enshrined, reinforcing a fear in some of the old link
between religion and the state. This was exacerbated by Prime
Minister Mori Yoshiro in 2000 when he referred to Japan,
during a meeting with a Shinto group, as the country of the
gods (kami no kuni). Domestic and international reaction to
this statement, with its pre-war flavour, was swift and vocal.
Finally, a long-standing thorny issue that has become more
heated in recent years is the displaying of the national flag
(Hinomaru) and singing the national song (Kimigayo), especially at educational institutions’ entrance and graduation
ceremonies. Most now use these symbols but there continues
to be resistance, especially from the left wing. All of these
events suggest a continued sensitivity within Japan, and a
wariness among its neighbours, over the nature of nationalism
in the country.
The question of national identity is also reflected in the
continuing debate argument over how, and how often, Japan
should apologise for its actions in the Pacific War. It is
frequently an arcane and tiresome debate—which expression
of regret is truly an apology? Linguists are heavily involved in
the fray. China and Korea are particularly strong on this point,
which resurfaced in the 1990s over the issue of the forced use
of women as prostitutes for the Japanese military during the
war. (The so-called ‘comfort women’ are estimated to number
some 80 000, mostly from Korea but also including Chinese,
Filipino, Indonesian, Burmese and Dutch women.) The problem of the ‘comfort women’ has become complicated by
compensation issues, and is a focus for manipulation of levels
of aid and trade among Japan’s neighbours. At the same time,
a reaction has set in among some Japanese who feel that
enough is enough and the Pacific War should be consigned to
history. The problem is that Japanese nationalism refuses to
die, and issues such as the use of national symbols or the
military (common enough in other countries) reignite the
This nascent nationalism is partly a result of Japan’s
economic success in the late 1980s. In 1989 Ishihara Shintaro
(now Governor of Tokyo) wrote a book in conjunction with
the late Morita Akio, a former chairman of Sony Corporation,
entitled The Japan That Can Say No. They argued that Japan
could flex its muscles now that it was economically powerful,
and no longer had to show deference to the USA. Though the
book is primarily based on rhetoric, and shot through with
flawed arguments, it struck a nationalistic chord with some
members of the domestic audience.
The 1980s and 1990s generally produced a more balanced
and positive view of Japan’s global role, referred to as
kokusaika (‘internationalisation’). In theory this was to provide
Japanese, especially students, with a broader world view and
cross-cultural skills to suit a world that was becoming steadily
more closely connected. In a general sense the term meant both
becoming more outward-looking as well as being accepted by
other countries. One of its main supporters was Prime Minister
Nakasone, whose 1983 ‘Seven Point Proposal for Education
Reform’ promoted the idea. Support came from a number of
different sources. It was clear to many in business that, with
a significant proportion of their trade and personnel overseas,
having employees with some understanding of the languages
and cultures of other countries would be advantageous.
Government bodies such as MITI also supported the idea.
Some writers, however, see this as making a virtue of a
necessity, since globalisation will mean greater economic
integration and therefore will encourage cooperation.
At least these initiatives were, on the face of it, reasonable.
On the other hand, while these forward thinkers were attempting to redefine Japan’s international role in the face of
economic confusion, nihonjinron writing continued to provide
its convoluted and misleading message, though not at the level
of the vocal 1980s. Although varied in focus and quality of
scholarship, compositions in this area are inherently nationalistic as they attempt to explain, mostly to the domestic, but
also to a foreign, audience why Japanese are unique, special
and different from other cultures. On the positive side such
publications may serve to bond people and thus have useful
social and economic implications. On the negative side they
are exclusionist, and preclude Japanese seeing themselves as
part of the global community, with much in common with
other human beings. Some of these writings also impart a
strong sense of Japanese superiority and, indeed, racism.
One cannot visit Japan today without being on the receiving end of various examples of nihonjinron pop psychology,
such as ‘Westerners are independent because they were originally hunters while Japanese, who were originally rice farmers,
are highly cooperative’. Others argue that the Japanese brain
is different, using the right cortex (feeling one’s way through
problems) while Westerners use the left cortex (logical
analysis). These are perhaps genuine attempts to explain
Japanese behaviour and culture, but the acceptance of such
superficial explanations is surprising. It is, however, perhaps
more satisfying than the common response—‘It’s the Japanese
way’—to questions posed by foreigners.
Social change
The 1980s and especially the 1990s were characterised by a
degree of social drift in Japan. The older generation called the
newer one shin-jinrui (‘new persons’). Another term was the
‘bean sprout’ generation—meaning they grew quickly but had
little strength. Although these terms are now generally passé,
the point is that once economic success had been achieved
young Japanese often found daily life unsatisfying. The economic problems of the 1990s produced both a lack of faith in
the existing system and difficulties in securing employment,
both of which were destabilising influences on youth.
Younger Japanese have not experienced the deprivations of
those who rebuilt Japan after the Pacific War, sacrificing themselves to create the economic miracle of the past 50 years. For
the most part they have known only domestic peace, stable
education, good health care and the availability of a vast range
of consumer goods. They have also faced the severe pressures
of competing in the educational system, conforming and succeeding in their employment and coping with highly urbanised
and crowded living conditions. Young Japanese are caught in
a relatively demanding and inflexible system where traditional
beliefs remain relatively strong, social expectations are clearly
defined, and they are generally expected to do their duty at
particular times, but at the same time they may increasingly see
little necessity for this pressure. Their parents or grandparents
had a much clearer idea of why they were working so hard,
given the exigencies of war and the need to rebuild a devastated
country. Young Japanese today are questioning their prescribed
roles, examining and investigating alternative types of work and
lifestyles in general. This naturally causes some disquiet among
older people.
Japan’s economic success has been, at least in part, underpinned by its educational system. Its goal has been to produce
reasonably well-educated and exceptionally focused, dedicated
workers. The system is also, in theory, based on merit, providing a broad-based opportunity for upward social mobility
while fulfilling its function of social stratification. Cost does
not necessarily play an inhibiting role, as the prestigious
national universities charge relatively low fees (private universities are much more expensive). In theory a bright but
relatively poor student can aim for a very high-level career,
but there is evidence to suggest that those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds generally perform better in the school
system, thus inhibiting social mobility for lower income
groups. In part this is because of the home environment and
in part because wealthier families are better able to afford the
costs of better schools and the extra preparatory classes (juku)
for entrance exams.
The educational system has come under pressure as social
conditions have changed. Criticisms have been made of the
emphasis on uniformity and standardisation, as well as the
strong control of the system by the Ministry of Education.
Concerns have also been expressed over the rising level of
school violence and the assorted behaviour problems of students. Indeed, the term futoko, or ‘school refusal’ (a newer
version of tokokyohi or ‘school allergy’), has been coined to
describe a recent, related problem which has become a serious
issue, with an estimated 100 000 high school students refusing
to go to school at present. The education system has been very
resistant to change, however, in part because of its political
structure, where the national Teachers’ Union tends to be at
loggerheads with the ministry, the result being that new initiatives are difficult to implement. It has also been relatively
static, however, partly because of Japan’s near-continuous rule
by conservative governments since the beginning of the twentieth century.
The university system is especially important in stratifying
Japanese society. Given the prestige that is attached to the top
universities, graduates are, if not guaranteed a favourable
career path, at least given the opportunity to pursue one. There
are often specific social functions attached to particular universities, with Tokyo University providing the majority of
upper-level bureaucrats, including the foreign service, Waseda
University being noted for journalism and Keio University
providing relatively large numbers of business executives. University education is thus closely related to economic function
in Japan. Given the economic success to which this system has
contributed, it is understandable that any change will take
place incrementally. Changing the system would mean making
fundamental alterations to the relatively democratic way in
which social mobility is determined and society in general is
Given that there is strong resistance to changing the education system, what are the points of stress which can so
alienate students? Problems relate to an entrenched Confucianist style of teaching, which includes the lack of emphasis on
creative thinking and a focus on rote learning, the undesirable
effects of harsh discipline and the pressures to conform, the
lack of flexibility in terms of changing educational choices,
difficulties with mature-aged entry to the tertiary system and
censorship of textbooks. There are criticisms of the structure
and quality of the university programs themselves. Perhaps the
most serious problem in terms of alienation is the highly
competitive nature of the educational system. Competition
begins very early, with 40 per cent of the three-year-old
population and 90 per cent of four-to five-year-olds enrolled
in preschool. The more prestigious preschools select students
through entrance examinations, and this has led to the development of an extensive network of juku even for these
examinations. This aspect has received widespread coverage in
the Western press as an example of the intense competition in
the Japanese school system.
The competitive entrance exam, an increasingly important
aspect of the school system through the higher grade levels,
has led to a number of problems. First, there is a strong
correlation between the university one attends (and therefore
the right junior high and high schools to be in a position to
compete effectively for entrance to the prestigious universities)
and one’s future career. So much hinges on performance in
these university entrance examinations that the term shiken
jigoku (‘examination hell’) seems particularly apt. With the
success rate for the most prestigious universities being as low
as one in fifteen or twenty applicants, the pressure is intense.
For students who cannot enter the ‘narrow gate’, there are few
choices other than moving down the prestige ladder (to
another of the approximately 500 universities, 600 junior
colleges or 2500 specialist training schools) or attempting the
examinations again. This may mean up to several years of
attending special classes in order to improve their marks, the
so-called ronin (or ‘masterless samurai’) period in their
educational careers. The significance of this group can be seen
in the proportion of ronin students sitting entrance examinations—it ranges from 30 to 40 per cent for some prestigious
universities. Given the importance of the age cohort in Japanese company structure, however, students cannot delay entry
for more than a few years without becoming severely disadvantaged in their search for employment after graduation.
Success in entrance examinations also reflects on a student’s family, in particular on the mother. Mothers remain
primarily responsible for their children’s education and thus
play a central role in preparing them for the various examinations they must face. The disparaging term kyoiku mama
(‘education mom’) refers to a mother who pushes her children
relentlessly to succeed. Failure in examinations means a degree
of shame for the family in general, and for the mother in
The entrance examination system, with the severe stress it
places on students, is coming under increasing criticism. It
skews the educational system, puts too much pressure on
young people (with aberrant behaviour sometimes the result)
and determines the direction of a person’s life at a very young
age. Some Japanese are now rejecting the examination system
and searching for alternative forms of education. While it
largely fulfils its function of controlling social mobility and
rewarding talent, the examination system also disadvantages
those students who may be very capable but are not adept at
written exams. This means that there is a group of talented
people who must meet their ambitions in alternative ways,
relatively difficult to do in a rigid social system.
The Japanese school system, especially higher education, is
focused on men, thus the well-documented problems of excessive competition, rigid uniformity and standardisation had
their greatest impact on males. While some changes are becoming evident, most young Japanese males remain locked in an
education system that is significantly out of date. The value
of a system which subjects them to such intense pressures must
be coming into question.
Substantial formal education was historically not thought
to be particularly important for Japanese women, although the
literacy rate for girls was an impressive 98 per cent by 1912.
Learning traditional arts such as the tea ceremony or flower
arranging was thought to add refinement to a girl’s education,
a part of the hanayome shugyo (‘bride trainee’ program),
which preceded marriage (eikyu shushoku or ‘eternal employment’). These educational expectations are still, to some extent,
in place. While in theory women have equal access to higher
levels of education, in practice the picture is different. In 1999,
for example, 29 per cent of females who completed high school
went on to university; the proportion for males was over
46 per cent. Only about 2 per cent of men went to a junior
college; for women the figure was about 20 per cent. Junior
colleges usually function as a sort of finishing school for
women before they enter the workforce at a relatively low
level. However, as with many aspects of Japanese society,
change is occurring here. One could argue that, although
women still have much less education than men on average,
the situation is improving. In 1960 the proportion of women
going on to university was under 3 per cent, to a junior college
exactly 3 per cent.
The education system for women functions differently
from that in the West. While some women go to university to
secure qualifications to compete with men in the workforce,
many more use their degrees to enhance their marriage potential. Additionally, even in the late 1980s female university
graduates had more trouble finding jobs than those men with
lower-level qualifications. Attending a tertiary institution was
often a chance for a woman to secure the so-called ‘three
highs’, or sanko, in a marriage partner—high income, high
intelligence and high level of education (this term is somewhat
dated). While there is a close relationship between education
and a woman’s status, the route to status still lies principally
through marriage rather than through success in a career,
though one could argue that the situation is changing to a
Attitudes to marriage are also changing. There is a great
flexibility among young people which allows them to explore
their interests without having to be as concerned about the
rigid social prescriptions for marrying and establishing families
as in the past. There has been an increase in the age of
marriage in Japan as well as a slight drop in the proportion
of people deciding to marry. In 1996 the average age of first
marriage for men was about 30 years, for women approximately 27 years, a substantial increase on the 1950 figures of
26 years for men and 23 years for women. Reasons often given
include the greater freedom and lesser responsibility of being
single. The trend is more pronounced among people in the
larger urban centres and among those with relatively high
educational levels. There has also been a marked decline in
arranged marriages, or miai.
Attitudes towards work are also shifting; it is now often
seen as a necessary evil rather than a source of personal
satisfaction. There is growing discussion of the phenomenon
of karoshi (‘death from overwork’), which some believe claims
approximately 10 000 lives every year in Japan, and whose
most recent high-profile victim was Prime Minister Obuchi
Keizo early in 2000. The marked increase in unemployment
in recent years has led to some rethinking of the value of work
and the extent of security a job can provide. While Japanese
workers over the past decades tended to remain dedicated to
one company, today movement between companies is becoming more common. This also calls into question the ideal of
group loyalty and the hierarchical work structure, both part
of the bedrock of the postwar employment system. It may be
that Japanese companies will have to create a new relationship
with their workers which is less rigidly defined.
The role of women in the workplace is also changing,
though the pattern of change is less than clear. In the postwar
period women were hired at a relatively low level, either as
‘window dressing’ (enquiries desks, elevator operators and so
on) or in a clerical capacity. They were over represented in
lower-level jobs in the manufacturing, retailing and services
sectors, and under represented in managerial and professional
areas. The typical working life profile was the M-curve, with
women working in their twenties, quitting in their 30s and
40s to raise children, then returning to work (usually in
low-level clerical or service jobs, and often part-time) in their
50s. This led to a female participation rate in the labour force
of about 41 per cent in 1997, as opposed to nearly 60 percent for males. Under the nenko employment system, which
ties wages to seniority, women are also disadvantaged. The
argument has been, and generally still is, that women usually
leave a company after several years to marry and raise children, so any investment in training them has a limited return.
With the projected decline in the labour force over the coming
decades (due to the falling birthrate), however, this will almost
certainly have to change.
In recent years a shift in Japanese employment practices
has allowed some women to break through the so-called ‘glass
ceiling’. Following the passing of the Equal Employment
Opportunity Law (EEOL) of 1986 a number of larger companies began to offer the choice of employment streams to
their female employees, those of sogo shoku (‘comprehensive
workers’/‘management’) or ippan shoku (‘ordinary workers’).
The former gave women the opportunity to fast-track their
careers in concert with male colleagues. This system did not
function as expected, however, one problem being that it was
generally not taken seriously by the companies concerned; it
was instituted predominantly as form rather than function.
The EEOL was consequently substantially amended in 1999,
addressing such issues as sexual harassment, hours of work
(including access to late shifts), promotion and the opportunity
to work in a wider range of jobs. While providing greater
equality for women, it has not lessened, but rather enhanced,
the problem of burn-out similar to that experienced by male
Women also continue to face difficulties fitting into Japan’s
corporate culture. These range from sexual harassment to
intense competition with male colleagues. For women with
families the significant time Japanese workers spend socialising
or working overtime can also be a problem. Although the
government has allowed for authorised day-care centres, their
numbers and hours of operation are at present limited.
One of the more unusual social developments among
young Japanese women is the phenomenon of enjo-kosai
(‘financially-assisted dating’, sometimes shortened to ‘enko’).
This ‘Lolita complex’ spin-off involves young girls who date
older men, often with sex involved, in exchange for money. It
is essentially a new form of prostitution (allowed by a loophole
in the 1956 Anti-Prostitution Law). It has created some concern in Japanese society because it has become so widespread—it is estimated that some 4 per cent of high school
and junior high school girls are involved in the practice. The
usual reason given by girls engaged in enjo-kosai is their desire
for more spending money with which to buy expensive brand-name goods, an indication of the rampant commercialism
among Japanese youth.
The practice of enjo-kosai highlights one of the ways in
which contemporary Japanese society has come adrift. Fundamentally, a gap has grown between the sexes. Men generally
remain in traditional roles, dominated by securing an education and then dedication to the workplace, while women
have new-found freedoms’, with high levels of disposable
income, independence and time to explore their own interests.
The result is that men are often insecure and socially underdeveloped, even feeling themselves emasculated, while women
are the opposite. One of the ways this gap is manifested is in
the (admittedly minor) phenomenon of older women marrying
younger men, known in Japan as maza-con, a Japanese–
English term for ‘mother complex’. Another is the search for
females with whom a man can feel powerful, or dominant,
generally very young women. Looking at the situation from
the perspective of the girls, some Japanese psychologists argue
that over the past decades men have become ever more
dominated by their work, so that fathers are seldom home.
Girls may therefore be seeking a father-type relationship in the
practice of enjo-kosai.
The sexual frustrations of men are also reflected in the boom
in manga (comic books). There is a tremendous range in these,
some of them relatively serious reading, but one branch is
characterised by sadomasochistic sex. It is argued in their favour
that men are able to live out their fantasies through reading
them without posing a danger to social order. While this may
be true, their existence points to a problem in the way in which
young men are socialised in contemporary Japan. Linked to this
are the various fetishes and fantasies involving young women,
exemplified by shops selling young women’s (used) underwear
to men, and businesses offering customers simulated sexual
fantasies such as molesting women on subways or secretaries
in the office. The latter are well-known social problems, but
such outlets perhaps reduce their incidence.
A more serious example of social drift in Japan has been
the growth in ‘new religions’. More than 180 000 religious
organisations are formally registered. Some of them, sadly,
have turned out to be dangerous cults. The most notorious of
these is Aum Shinrikyo, made infamous by its use in March
1995 of sarin gas in Tokyo’s subway system, killing twelve
people and injuring some 5000 others. The growth of such
cults calls into question the direction of Japanese society, and
especially the values of its youth. Increasing violence in schools
is another issue of concern, with more than 35 000 incidents
being reported in the school system in 1999. Suicide, too, is
on the increase, with a 35 per cent jump between 1997 and
1998, though the largest rise was not among youth but among
middle-aged people affected by the country’s economic problems. Recently a Japanese newspaper ran a story about a
karaoke bar in Asahigaoka where, for $40 an hour, a person
can relieve his stress by smashing dishes, vases and furniture.
There is clearly a high frustration level among many Japanese.
The treadmill may be a harsh, though apt, characterisation
of the lives of Japanese men, given their very clearly prescribed
roles and the sacrifices generally demanded of them by their
society. A young Japanese male is usually expected to at least
try to gain entrance to the right primary and secondary
schools, a process which may begin even before kindergarten,
pass the entrance examinations to a good university, join a
reputable company, cooperate with his colleagues, marry well
and at a reasonable age, and stay with the company until
retirement or death, whichever comes first. The competition
which exists is generally for the best schools, universities,
companies and partners. Hence, there is very little flexibility
in the lives of most Japanese men, particularly for those who
are especially capable. The drop-outs have much more choice,
but this is primarily with respect to which second-rate future
they want.
For women there are clear conflicts between tradition and
change. In the past there was generally a very rigid set of
expectations imposed on women, which prescribed certain
duties to be performed at particular times in their lives. Her
general role was clear—she was expected to be a ‘good wife
and wise mother’. While this model is still generally in place,
it is now being challenged. The changing role of Japanese
women means that the various institutions that have supported
such traditions are also being questioned. There is a current
debate about how women should be educated, what their
employment opportunities should be, when they should get
married and what their role should be after marriage. In short,
there is today a broad, albeit slow, shift in how Japanese
women function in their society.
Urban pressures
Contrary to popular impression, Japan is mostly uncrowded.
Its 7000 islands, strung out over some 3000 kilometres, make
up a land area of about 378 000 square kilometres. Of this
area, about 67 per cent is uninhabited mountains, fields and
forests, 13 per cent farmland and 7 per cent under rural
roads, rivers, canals and lakes. Only 4.7 per cent is urbanised.
Urban areas, especially in central Japan, are relatively high
density, with about 43 per cent of the population living within
50 kilometres of the three urban centres of Tokyo, Osaka and
Nagoya. If Okinawa is excluded, then almost 54 per cent of
the population lives on only 1.7 per cent of its land. Essentially,
Japan may not be crowded, but parts of it are, and this results
in a number of social pressures.
Although many Japanese now enjoy very high wages, a
reasonable social welfare system, and shopping centres in the
urban areas provide a seemingly endless display of consumer
goods, these gains have had a social cost. Dealing with the
pressures of living in crowded urban centres is now one of the
great challenges facing society. Such pressures may take a range
of forms, but two of the most noticeable, and increasingly
problematic, are the lack of adequate housing in the large
urban centres and, related to this, the long commuting times
required for travel between home and work.
Securing adequate housing is a problem for the person who
has decided, or more likely, through the concentration of
commercial and government activity in the urban centres, has
been forced, to live in the city. Because of the high land prices,
compromises must be made with respect to dwelling size and
location when selecting a home. Houses are relatively small in
comparison to those in Western countries. In terms of average
floor space per person, the figure for Japan is about 33 square
metres but for the USA it is 60. Housing in the urban centres
is also expensive. The cost of a home as a multiple of annual
income is about 13 for metropolitan Tokyo and 10 for Osaka,
compared to approximately 3 for New York and Paris, and 7
in London. Those who are fortunate enough to live in homes
which have been passed on from generation to generation are
greatly envied. The high cost of a house has forced many
Japanese into apartment living, and these complexes are a
highly visible feature of the urban landscape.
The lifestyle of the urban dweller is also characterised by
the difficulties of commuting between home and place of work,
more of a dire necessity than a choice for most of those living
in cities. High prices, coupled with the congestion of the city,
have compelled many people to find housing in outlying areas
and the resultant commuting scene is dramatic. The number
of passengers using any form of transportation more than
doubled between 1970 and 1997, with the figure for the latter
year being about 8.5 trillion trips. In 1997 there were 22.3 billion train trips alone, including Japan Railways (JR) and
private railways. This extreme congestion, especially in the
major cities and at particular times of the day, means that
commuting times tend to average about 90 minutes per day
for male company employees, adding up to a significant
amount of wasted time and money, for the individual as well
as for society as a whole. Unpleasant as this must be, public
transportation is quite efficient compared to travel in private
vehicles. Maintaining a vehicle and finding parking space is a
high-cost proposition in Japan’s cities, and in addition the toll
charges on highways in and out of the urban centres are
The Japanese economic miracle has been achieved at high
social cost, and many of these costs have not been seriously
questioned. The generation which rebuilt the country after the
Pacific War was initially interested merely in survival and then
with ensuring the nation became economically strong again. It
may be argued that this drive to increase wealth is now
outdated. Certainly there continue to be both domestic and
international economic pressures confronting Japan, as it seems
unable to substantially lift its growth rate, averaging about
1 per cent through the 1990s. While the Japanese enjoy
extremely high incomes and want for little in terms of material
possessions, in the 1990s questions were being more frequently
asked concerning both the cost of this achievement and the
direction ahead.
a tumultuous time
for Japan. It emerged as a world power in the
early decades, experimented with imperialism, experienced war
and its aftermath. Virtually every aspect of its society and
economy underwent change, and then further change. Indeed,
coping with change, and the rising and falling of fortunes, may
be the central theme of the century, while anxiety may have
been the predominant emotion. The twenty-first century promises to be no different. The challenges facing Japan are
enormous, not only in terms of new developments, but in
coping with trends already apparent. What role will Japan play
on the international stage? Will it become a true military-backed superpower? Will the Japan of the new century be a
country to be feared? Can it sustain its economic power in
the face of rapidly changing social and commercial currents?
These questions are on the minds of Japanese and, because of
the country’s importance in the global economy, on the minds
of many others as well.
What is particularly evident in Japanese society today are
the stresses between tradition and change. Two of the key
aspects of tradition are social cohesion and the capacity of
different people, and parts of the system, to work together.
While this gives Japan a great advantage over countries which
are socially or culturally divided, it also means that change is
difficult unless there is widespread support for new practices.
The interrelationships between the different parts of Japanese
society also mean that any significant change in one part of
the system will have an impact on the other parts.
Can Japan make these adjustments as the world changes?
There is, naturally, no little fear among policy-makers in
introducing new practices. The existing system has served the
country extremely well, especially in economic terms, for 50
years. Conservative values are also generally held by the people
in power, but the extent to which the Japanese government
can respond effectively to contemporary pressures will have a
major impact on the country’s domestic and international
prosperity well into this century.
The ageing population
One of the major challenges facing Japan over the coming
decades is its ageing population. By the middle of this century
Japan will have the most aged society in the world, with
approximately one in three citizens being 65 years of age or
older. The population by then will have shrunk to about
100 million. As early as 2010, 22 per cent of the population
will be aged 65 years or more (compared with, for example,
13 per cent in the USA), an increase of 6 per cent since 1998.
This is the result of several factors, the first being the rapid
rise in the birthrate following the Pacific War; the second the
currently falling birthrate, now less than 1.4 children per
woman of child-bearing age (the replacement figure is about
2.1). The birthrate is expected to fall still further, to about 1.1
by 2020. The third factor is longevity—the Japanese live longer
than any other nation in the world, at 77 years for men and
84 for women. Taken together these factors predicate a massive population problem which will affect virtually every aspect
of the country’s social, political and economic organisation.
Some have called it Japan’s ‘demographic time bomb’.
In the coming decades one of the major challenges will be
to deal with the costs of supporting the ageing population.
Funding of basic pensions is the most immediate problem, and
pressure will increase steadily here. At present Japan spends
only about 7 per cent of GDP on pensions; by 2020 the cost
of providing pensions will amount to 14 per cent of GDP,
about three times that of the USA. The government has
recently introduced legislation to force younger citizens to start
saving for their retirement from age 40. These funds can be
used in the short term to support this increasing group of
pensioners. The fundamental problem is that there will be
fewer and fewer younger people to support the elderly. At
present there are about five working people per retiree, but
this will reduce to about 2.5 workers by 2010, according to
government projections. Other costs will also rise. Outlays for
medical care will go up given that, with people living longer,
there will be a greater need for intensive medical care over a
longer period of time. As more funding goes into this sector
there will be less available for investment in the economy, and
with fewer people working there will also be less savings
available as a source of funding. Higher costs mean that the
tax base will have to be increased, at the same time that there
are fewer younger people entering the workforce. The labour
shortage will mean rising labour costs, and Japan will become
less competitive as the cost of production increases. Almost
certainly more and more industry will be forced to locate
offshore in lower-wage countries.
On the domestic front this leaves Japan’s policy-makers with
few options. One is to keep older people working longer, and
a number of companies are now allowing their workers to do
this. It may be that the retirement age will simply be steadily
increased, with people being asked to work to the age of, say,
70 years. Already the age of eligibility for public pensions is
going up, from 60 years to 65 by 2014. It is ironic that those
who sacrificed their youth to produce Japan’s economic miracle
are being asked for further sacrifices in old age.
A second option is to increase the number of immigrants,
a common policy option in the West, especially in North
America and Australia. The problem in Japan’s case is that it
is not an immigrant country; on the contrary, it has had a
tendency to be exclusionist. Only about 2 per cent of Japan’s
population are migrants. It deals poorly with its ethnic minorities (such as Koreans and small numbers of Vietnamese and
Chinese). So much of Japan’s culture has revolved around
being isolationist and resistant to having large numbers of
foreigners in the land, that its people often find it difficult to
interact with those from different cultural backgrounds. One
compromise has been to facilitate the entry of Brazilians of
Japanese descent, and there are now about 270 000 in the
country. Many more migrants are needed, however. UN estimates are that as many as 600 000 immigrants are needed per
year on a continuing basis to sustain Japan’s economic growth.
If such a recommendation were to be followed (and there is
overwhelming popular resistance to it), it would put pressure
on the government to treat immigrants more equitably. It was
only in 1999 that foreigners staying in Japan for more than a
year ceased to be fingerprinted as if they were criminals. The
government may compromise further on this issue, and allow
more foreigners into the country on temporary work permits.
However, ‘guest workers’ may eventually demand greater concessions from the government (as they have done in Germany),
and no doubt the Japanese leadership is considering this
problem carefully.
A third option in dealing with the ageing population is to
change the way in which Japanese women are treated in the
workplace. To date their labour is largely wasted. Many are
well-educated but not supported to the point where they can
rise to the level of their abilities. Others might have preferred
a higher level of education, but since the employment system
does not support them they have opted for relatively poor
qualifications. The ageing of the population will, however,
force changes in women’s employment. Circumstances will
provide them with a greater range of employment alternatives.
As their labour is needed more, there may be a continuation
of the move away from career interruptions and towards
higher-level employment as they remain longer in the labour
force. Indeed, to remain economically competitive Japan will
be forced to utilise female labour more effectively. One indication that this is already happening is the 1999 modification
of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law.
Changing women’s role in the workforce, however, will
reverberate through society as a whole. The socialisation of
females will have to change, along with the education system,
support services such as the availability of day-care for children, more comprehensive programs of maternity leave and
care for the elderly (a traditional function of Japanese women),
as well as men’s roles within the family. If men’s roles change,
so too must the employment system for men, which in turn
will cause a chain reaction throughout the economic system.
The present employment system in Japan is seriously out of
date, and the coming labour shortage will arguably create a
new system that looks more familiar to Westerners, with
a much higher degree of flexibility in the workplace for both
men and women.
International relations
What are the pressures in the international arena that are likely
to be brought to bear on Japan? As the ageing population
leads to an increasing proportion of its industry being located
offshore, this will in turn force Japan to be more interactive
with other countries, and especially the developing countries
of Asia. Effective diplomacy will be needed even more than
now, and this may mean a final resolution to the lingering
problems caused by the Pacific War. While the receiving
countries have thus far been relatively dependent on Japanese
investment, they may in future play a more powerful role in
these agreements. As throughout modern Japanese history, the
country remains dependent on others. While this has been
principally in the area of raw materials, it will increasingly be
extended to include labour.
Given the idea that force is another aspect of diplomacy,
with Japan’s increasing vulnerability in the economic sphere
its military may have a more substantial role to play, supported
by a stronger sense of national identity. The safety of shipping
routes and energy supplies, and the stability of countries where
there is substantial Japanese investment, will all become more
crucial to Japan’s economic health, and this may mean that
military power will be increased and be available for use off-shore. Pressure from other countries, notably the USA, to play
a more significant role in conflicts around the world will
almost certainly increase, and this will bring more pressure to
bear on the Japanese government to revise its constitution. If
Japan succeeds in gaining a seat on the UN Security Council
the pressure in this regard will also be raised. The fragile
superpower may need its military to give it strength.
Productive international relations, as well as economic
growth, can only be achieved if the country’s political system
can be overhauled. There is still considerable instability here,
with ten different prime ministers in the past twelve years.
There are continuing criticisms in a range of areas, from
backroom deals to lack of transparency in the policy-making
process, corruption and inflexible policies. Leadership is des-
perately needed to solve Japan’s problems, but at present it
does not appear to be forthcoming. Although the June 2000
elections showed a strong increase in support for the Democratic Party of Japan, the LDP remains in power, primarily
because of the backing of the rural conservative vote.
Economic development
In terms of trade with other countries, Japanese corporate
leaders have already been contemplating the idea that excessive
competition is destructive. With manufacturing being located
increasingly offshore, and the greater integration of Japanese
companies in regional economies, there is likely to be more
emphasis on cooperation. Reductions in trade barriers may
also contribute to a move in this direction, where unfair trade
practices will not be tolerated, and the capacity for retaliation
by a number of countries over a specific issue will be increased.
Japan will have to become a more responsible regional player.
Japan remains the driving force behind regional economies,
with the IMF estimating that about 70 per cent of the GDP
of Asia comes from Japan. The decisions taken in this country
therefore have significant regional, indeed global, implications.
While some observers have tended to downplay Japan’s role
while focusing on that of China, this is shortsighted. Existing
production systems and investment alone will make Japan’s
economy extremely important in the future, regardless of
whether or not it recovers in the short term.
This is not to say that the decision-makers in government
and business can be complacent. There remains substantial
corporate, as well as public, debt, and reforms are badly
needed if Japan’s economy is to pull itself out of the doldrums.
At present the country’s economic malaise, particularly noticeable in the banking sector and the widespread bankruptcies of
small businesses, is having a powerful, adverse effect on the
social system. High levels of unemployment and increasing
numbers of homeless people are two visible examples. Temporary government measures must be replaced by long-term,
effective policies if the economy is to substantially recover.
The ageing population, while posing several long-term
economic hurdles, is also presenting short-term ones. With
older people saving money for their retirement, there is insufficient domestic stimulation of the economy. They are not
buying foreign products either, and this will mean an increasing
trade surplus for at least the next decade, an ongoing issue
that the Japanese leadership will have to deal with.
Along with growing international connections, there is
already a greater demand for more, and more effective, English
language instruction. To date English is learned as an exami-
nation subject, which gives Japanese an outstanding command
of the more obscure points of English grammar, but is not
effective in teaching them useful communication skills. Already
there are plans to begin teaching children English in the lower
school years, but it remains to be seen if this will mean more
applied ability. The growth of the Internet is also driving this
change, as approximately 80 per cent of global users communicate in English. Japan lags significantly in Internet usage, partly
because of this dominance of English. The country has about
1700 net users per 10 000 people, where the figure for
Australia is 3600 and for the USA 4500. The proportion of
GDP due to the Information Technology sector is only 5 per
cent in Japan compared to 7.3 per cent in the USA, but
Japanese adaptation to the New Economy is beginning to make
itself felt.
On the domestic front business cooperation will have to
be enhanced if the economy is going to deal effectively with
the challenges posed by competitor countries as well as by its
declining workforce. To date such cooperation has generally
been enhanced by government, as strong competition has been
the norm between Japanese companies. While this has resulted
in very high-quality products, in future it may become more
worthwhile to cooperate, sharing research and development as
well as production costs. A recent example has been the
seconding of 160 employees to Toyota from Toshiba, Fujitsu
and Ishikawajimaharima Heavy Industries for the creation of
a new motor vehicle. This trend will almost certainly increase,
reinforced by the mutual obligations which such transfers of
employees or technologies will entail. At the same time, many
of the best graduates (including women) are opting for employment in the increasing number of foreign corporations in
Japan, which will force some reassessment of traditional
employment practices.
Social issues
Japan’s social system is a virtual cauldron of bubbling issues.
There are many different cross-currents, some undermining
social cohesion, others reinforcing it. One of the overriding
issues is that of quality of life. In 1996 Gavan McCormack
wrote The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence, which effectively
raised the question of whether or not the Japanese are poor
people in a rich country. Will Japanese, especially young ones,
be content with the lives their parents had? There are different
pressures now. On the one hand, the present high levels of
unemployment seem to be generating a return to an earlier
work ethic. One can only speculate as to whether or not this
will last when, in a few years, the current labour surplus
becomes a shortage. There will certainly be more significant
social pressures on the young to support the elderly and keep
the economy going while paying higher taxes. Will they rise
to this challenge or demand more concessions from their
employers? It may be that more concessions will be in everyone’s interests.
The concentration of economic activity and population
in a few massive urban centres is an outdated practice.
The decentralisation of economic functions, facilitated by
contemporary changes in communications technology, would
mean better housing, a less congested and polluted urban
environment and shorter commuting times (and therefore
much less wasted time and energy). Lower costs associated
with locating in less concentrated urban areas would also allow
for higher wages for workers and much better working conditions. Decentralisation has been a topic of serious discussion
for three decades, but the political will to activate existing
plans has been lacking. Younger workers, however, may
demand a change in future.
The aimlessness of many young people may be reduced in
the Japan of the future as they find a role where they are
needed—but this depends on changes taking place in the
education and employment systems. Refusal to attend school
and school-related violence are symptoms of a system that is
arguably becoming dysfunctional. The pressures of the examination system are questionable given that some of those who
have performed best have not necessarily done particularly well
in their subsequent jobs—many key decision-makers made poor
choices in the late 1980s, letting the economic system get out
of control. University education in the non-technical areas is
also often a wasteful exercise, with students working hard to
enter an eminent educational institution and then coasting for
four years. Japanese society may have to demand more of the
education system as labour becomes more valuable. Education
may also have more of a role to play for mature-aged workers,
as part of a lifelong learning system. Linked to this is the issue
of creativity. While Japanese have shown themselves to be
remarkable adaptors of technology, can the education system
shift to enhancing the creativity of its students while retaining
the advantages of focus and discipline?
There is a good argument to be made that Japanese are
indeed creative, and that their history shows a tremendous
ability to take ideas or technologies and improve upon them.
Japanese successes in consumer electronics are evident everywhere. In recent years we have also seen the emergence of
Japanese writers and film-makers who have been successful
both at home and abroad—Mishima Yukio, Murakami Haruki
and Kurosawa Akira spring to mind. Japanese popular music
is making vast inroads throughout Asia. Japanese designers are
beginning to achieve high status in the fashion field, and
architects such as Ando Takao and Kurosawa Kishio are well
known in their field. The name of Nintendo is famous in the
computer games industry. Japanese food is becoming popular
throughout Asia and the West. Karaoke bars seem to be
everywhere. Clearly, Japanese culture is making significant
inroads in many countries.
With exposure to the rest of the world through overseas
travel (nearly 17 million Japanese travelled abroad in 2000
alone), and through the Internet, Japanese are coming to see
that there are many different ways of organising social systems.
Some of these models offer better alternatives, others worse
ones. In the past Japanese leaders have been adept at selectively
choosing outstanding practices from around the world and
adapting them to a domestic context. If historical experience
holds true, the Japanese people will rise to the challenge of
improving out-of-date social practices. At the same time they
may begin to view themselves less and less as unusual, with
more in common with the rest of the world than they might
have thought. Already there is evidence that Japanese are
becoming increasingly global citizens, with the young in particular demonstrating significant knowledge of other countries and
Japan in the early twenty-first century presents a remarkable
mixture of attributes. Although its economy is growing only
slowly, it remains an incredibly powerful global force, and
Japanese products continue to be in demand around the world.
The employment and education systems are showing some
wear and tear, but remain largely intact and, indeed, are
shifting (albeit slowly) to meet the new demands being placed
upon them. There is a degree of social dislocation, but this is
natural enough when a new direction is being sought. Indeed,
because Japan has a relatively controlled society (kanri shakai),
changes are perhaps more noticeable than they are in other
countries, and are frequently overstated. Much of the strength
of Japanese society still exists, and the hard work of earlier
generations will carry the country forward as its social and
economic problems are resolved.
Japan is a very special country. It has few natural resources,
but its people have shown themselves to be capable of producing an exceptionally vibrant culture in spite of (or because
of) its natural poverty and isolation. When required, Japanese
have shown that they can adapt quickly, while holding on to
their core values. There is a strength and determination in
Japanese society that has often been underestimated by out-siders. Although Japan has many hurdles ahead, especially in
reorganising its economic structures (and it is sometimes said
that ‘optimism is usually the product of intellectual error’), a
dynamic future could await it. If we consider Japan’s historical
response to challenges, the country can look forward to the
coming years with confidence.

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