Social and economic reforms in post-World War II Japan
A discussion of how assumptions that social reforms and equality would flourish in post-war Japan have or have not been realized. Who was assumed to benefit in Japan from the worldwide trend of 'social empowerment'? Who or what has benefited thus far?
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A discussion of the expectations for social and economic reforms in post-World War II Japan. An overview of the kinds of social and economic reforms that were expected and whether these have or have not occured as expected. This discussion contains over 1400 words of original text, two outside sources are attached as word documents
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The Cultural Career of the Japanese Economy: Developmental and Cultural Nationalisms
in Historical Perspective
This essay explores the connection between the economy and cultural identity in Japanese
nationalism. After World War II Japan was a pacesetter in the global trend toward
developmental nationalism, including a transformation of its economy into both a wealthy and a
highly egalitarian one. In the 1970s and 1980s, ethnic nationalism re-emerged, with the claim
that economic success was the product of Japanese cultural uniqueness rather than of the
developmental nationalist policies of the previous quarter-century. The economic downturn of
the 1990s thus challenged Japan both economically and culturally, At first, this crisis prompted
a critical re-evaluation of national culture, manifested as serious attempts to both resolve
tensions with Asia dating from World War II and dismantle domestic social hierarchies. By the
mid-1990s, however, this moment had passed and government and business leaders adopted full-
fledged neo-liberal policies, reversing the long post-war trend toward income equality, while
adopting a more strident and militarist cultural nationalism.
This is the second in a two-article series on developmental and cultural nationalisms. See the
accompanying essay by Radhika Desai, Developmental and Cultural Nationalisms in Historical
Japan’s modern history is unusual in Asia because it was the only Asian country to achieve
advanced industrial status in the first half of the twentieth century. Before World War II, it did so
through intensive exploitation of the countryside and imperial conquest. After the war, the
Japanese re-built their economy along far more egalitarian lines. Nonetheless, while nationalists
in Asia faced many of the same conditions and incorporated many of the same elements into
their ideas and practices as did their European counterparts, they jointly struggled with the
proposition – energetically exported from Europe – that modern national power was somehow
uniquely the birthright of Europeans. After defeat in World War II, Japan developed a distinctive
and powerful version of developmental nationalism, although this gave way in later decades to
cultural nationalism. Like cultural nationalisms elsewhere, not just in Asia, Japanese cultural
nationalism, in both its optimistic and pessimistic forms, has provided justifications for social
hierarchy and economic inequality, both at home and internationally. Cultural nationalism
typically has operated in a way that undercuts commitment to equality of individuals, both at
home and internationally. By contrast, arguments for Japan’s normality in the modern world
have not been as susceptible to this use historically. 
Modern Japanese nationalism, as elsewhere, emerged within the eighteenth and nineteenth
century contexts of globalizing capitalism and imperialism. After establishing a modern state in
1868, and successfully warding off the danger of being colonized, the Japanese began a
particularly intensive period of inventing national traditions, drawing on their rich and lengthy
indigenous culture. As in most places, the Japanese national project involved homogenizing and
subordinating peripheral regions and people. While this pattern was nearly universal, Japan’s
particular circumstances were unusual, meaning that in some ways, Japan resembled the
colonized world, in other ways early ‘late developers,’ such as Germany, and in yet others,
imperial metropoles. Japanese nationalists shared with other non-Westerners the need to confront
the fact that Europeans justified and explained their dominance by overt racism. Most late
nineteenth and early twentieth-century Japanese were dismayed by Western power and thought
of themselves as disadvantaged in the race for development by being Asian. Japanese leaders
also shared with other late developers the challenge of coping with a technologically superior
capitalist core, which they responded to by emphasizing very state-centred strategies of modern
economic development. Indeed, scholars of Japanese nationalism have generally agreed that
state-centred nationalism dominated over nationalism imagined around an ethnic community.
Japanese modernity was also imperialist and, as in other imperial countries, imperialism and
nationalism were mutually constitutive.
Wartime US image of the Japanese
Rather than the experience of being colonized, pre-war Japanese shared with other Asians the
fear that the process of modernization might destroy what they defensively came to think of as
the national cultural soul. Anxiety may be at the heart of all nationalisms, but outside the West,
its characteristic form is a fear that the price of modernity is Westernization and consequent loss
of cultural authenticity. As Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued for India, modern economic
thought, like all scientific systems, was a double-edged sword because it offered Asians
‘simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy’: its universal laws imply a common destiny
while also suggesting that Asian societies were fundamentally inadequate because they were not
More precisely, the great fear among pre-war Japanese intellectuals was that Japan was losing its
cultural identity without fully attaining modernity, creating a deformed hybrid, one that meant
continued privation and hampered all chances of normal development. Anxiety over this
possibility rose to the level of a cultural panic in the early 1930s in both popular and scholarly
thought in Japan, influencing the futures of both developmental and cultural nationalisms.
Pre-surrender Japan thus occupied an unusual middle ground. Although, unlike the colonized
world, the Japanese had consistently prevailed on the field of battle and had established a viable
industrial economy by 1918, they were still denied entry on equal terms to the salons and
scientific laboratories of Europe or citizenship as immigrants to North America. Nor were they
ever able to fully control their Asian conquests. That historical experience of sustained military
victories and racial exclusion explains much of the specific nature of interwar Japanese anxiety
over national identity.
Manchuria Train--Japan's most advanced locomotive at the time, it represented hopes that
industrial development in Manchuria would modernize the Japanese economy
The question of whether capitalism was suitable for Japan lay at the heart of much interwar
debate and most proponents of Japanese exceptionalism claimed that it did not. Some celebrated
Japanese rural social relations as ‘beautiful customs’ that were being destroyed by the inroads of
capitalism and selfish individualism. They hoped that rebuilding Japanese agriculture, devastated
by rapid changes in global commodity markets in the 1920s and 1930s, would also revitalise
national culture. Their cultural analysis much resembled that of romantic fascists everywhere in
the 1920s and 1930s, but theorists who emphasised the uniquely Japanese bond between the
Emperor and his subjects and the equally unique traditions of the Japanese rural folk rarely
acknowledged the resemblance. 
1930s Income inequality was particularly pronounced between urban and rural areas. Here
two rural women prepare silkworm cocoons
Other wartime economic policymakers explicitly sought to build on utopian and technocratic
fascist ideas to invent a distinctive Japanese modernity, one that celebrated an authoritarian
imperial state and rationalised and centralised the economy. The planners at the South
Manchurian Railroad Research Department, for example, called for an ultra-modern economy in
the colonies in order to transcend what they saw as the deeply flawed economy of the
Early Post-war Analyses
In 1945 many people recognised that belief in Japanese uniqueness had not only provided a
justification for going to war but also had propelled some of the most disastrous military
decisions. For example, key strategists within both the Army and Navy had planned victory on
the basis of ‘Yamato spirit,’ undervaluing the importance of re-supplying ships or providing air
support for troops. The delusional nature of wartime thought rather than poverty now became the
new central exhibit in the case for Japanese deformed modernity. The experience of living under
a regime that had rejected reality meant that most Japanese were ready for significant change and
so provided the opportunity to transform economic institutions, such as farmland ownership
patterns and industrial relations practices, that had given small numbers of Japanese so much
power over all the others. In other words, the immediate post-war era was the high point both for
developmental nationalist policies and for optimism that Japan could move toward normal
Toward the end of the Asia Pacific War, civilians were told to protect the home islands
with sharpened bamboo stakes, epitomizing the insistence that national spirit could
overcome a dearth of resources
Japan developed a distinctive and powerful version of developmental nationalism in the first
decade after World War II. During this time, the sense of Japanese uniqueness that had
undergirded pre-surrender nationalism was muted in favour of an emphasis on what Japan had in
common with the rest of the advanced industrial world. Early postwar governments committed to
an economic strategy based on high wages, high labour productivity, and a peace-based
economy, none of which had characterised pre-war Japan. They laid the foundations for the
developmental nationalist approach that characterised Japan for the next quarter-century, leading
to both high-speed economic growth and to the extraordinary reduction of poverty over the next
three decades. These priorities reflected a global postwar trend toward policies that Peter
Katzenstein has called ‘tamed capitalism,’ or policies that harnessed the market. Typically
these modernizing developmental nationalists criticized older national traditions for enshrining
social and cultural hierarchies and also pursued policies that promoted social equality.
By the 1960s, Japanese views of the nature of Japanese capitalism were profoundly affected both
by this new international context epitomised by the Cold War and by the experience of high-
speed economic growth. By 1970, even the economic thinkers who focused on the ‘dual
economy’ [niju kozo], ‘distortions of growth’ [keizai seicho no hizumi], and uneven
development, such as Arisawa Hiromi, treated these conditions as normal problems to be
managed rather than evidence of unique cultural impediments to modernity. Rising standards of
living and diminishing poverty levels fuelled optimism that such impediments could be
overcome. Economic equality seemed to be evolving from a tamed form of capitalism to a
welfare-state system. Most economic criticism now came from individuals such as Tsuru
Shigeto, Miyamoto Ken’ichi, and Uzawa Hirofumi, who offered an environmental critique of the
‘production-first’ bias of Japan’s developmental nationalism while still remaining sympathetic to
its other dimensions. Most of them also combined criticisms of Japan with criticisms of the
United States, demonstrating that capitalism itself rather than deviant Japanese culture was the
chief problem as they saw it. In other words, post-war economic theorists remained highly
critical of the rural past, as did other developmental nationalists around the world, but, since the
countryside was rapidly being integrated into urban prosperity, the question of why it had been
so poor no longer engaged people as intensely. Moreover, both celebrants and critics of Japan’s
economy in the 1960s and early 1970s treated the contemporary Japanese economy as normal
rather than deviant, regardless of their views of the pre-surrender years.
The Tokyo Labor College was one of the many institutions created after the war in order to
promote more equitable economic development than had existed before
The Return of Unique Japan
Theories of Japanese uniqueness never completely disappeared, however. While they were
muted in the 1950s and 1960s when developmental nationalist strategies were in the ascendant
and exceptionalism was most strongly associated with wartime disaster, the international climate
changed again in the mid-1970s, sparking a combustible mix of nationalist anxiety and pride.
The two ‘oil shocks’ and U.S. President Richard Nixon’s resumption of diplomatic relations with
China, which he pursued without informing Japan, reminded the Japanese that the international
economic and political environment could still deliver nasty surprises.
Japan’s phenomenal rise in the global economic arena meant that these issues seemed
surmountable, but they did send many people in search of new ways to explain Japan to
themselves and the world. The popular press in particular responded with a profusion of
Nihonjinron analyses of Japanese uniqueness in the 1970s and 1980s. Nihonjinron literature
reverted back to the pre-war argument that Japan was blessed by being fundamentally different
from elsewhere, although now the focus was on the economy and resolutely not on the state,
which would have brought attention back to the disaster of the war. Significantly, cultural
nationalism in Japan of the 1970s and 1980s, like postwar developmental nationalism before it,
still operated by sublimating military aspirations rather than by representing them.
Why did these arguments flourish? Nihonjinron discussion was rarely rigorously comparative
(primarily because analytic rigor would have shredded the argument beyond repair). But it could
tap anxiety about Japan’s historical deviance, which had remained dormant during the 1950s and
1960s, but flared up in response to new challenges in Japan’s international environment. The
alacrity with which foreign judgments about Japan have been translated, discussed, accepted, and
refuted within the domestic Japanese public sphere suggests that the spark for this anxiety is
transnational. Japanese nationalism has always developed in dialogue with the outer world. Fear
that Japanese would never be fully welcome was an abiding source of anxiety, and a recurrent
trigger for assertions of difference. Moreover, the turn to cultural nationalisms was part of a
global historical movement.
Cultural nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s celebrated the unique nature of such traditions
as sumo wrestling, including the hierarchical "stable" system and such rituals as
participants' special diet
In Japan the connection between economic inequality and the rise of cultural nationalism was far
less pronounced because incomes had converged so much in the early post-war decades. Indeed,
postwar Japanese cultural nationalism developed before the onset of any crisis in Japan’s
developmental strategy and before neoliberal economic policies were adopted. Post-war social
homogeneity was built on Japan’s high level of income equality, something that is neither
traditional nor acknowledged in the Nihonjinron literature. Like other cultural nationalists in the
1970s Japanese Nihonjinron advocates did strip away some of the justifications for
developmental nationalist policies, although the policies continued unchecked. For example,
many of these authors argued that cultural homogeneity, rather than rises in real incomes among
the working class, explained minimal levels of strife between workers and managers within
Japanese firms, ignoring the extremely high levels of such strife until incomes really rose in the
1960s. In other words, in the 1970s and 1980s, when an important spur to cultural nationalism
elsewhere in Asia was the compensatory need to explain poverty and also growing inequality,
Japanese of those decades could boast of economic success as the great validating feature of
Postwar Japanese industrial development was based on stable, well-paid manufacturing
The 1990s: Economic Downturn and Its Consequences
By the 1990s, however, the nationalist celebration of Japanese difference had attracted so many
adherents that when the economy plummeted in 1990, weighed down by bad loans and
overvalued real-estate and stock markets, it took many Japanese by surprise, and instantly
revived fears both of congenital deformity and of international isolation. Cultural analyses could
no longer rest on the automatic validation that economic success had provided. Moreover, the
recession deeply affected people’s lives. The unemployment rate, which had been very low since
the 1960s, shot up, and for the first time in decades many Japanese felt anxious about their
personal circumstances as well as about the nation. This new state of affairs eventually polarized
public opinion as Japanese debated whether to embrace cultural transformation or limit it, how to
approach the international world, and whether to shore up the now-faltering developmental state
or to adopt neo-liberal reforms.
For a time domestic Japanese debate seemed to be leading toward a critical re-evaluation of the
economy, national culture, and the relationship between them. Miyazaki Yoshikazu’s 1992 book,
Compound Recession [Fukugo fukyo], set out to refute both Nihonjinron and other analyses that
focused on the domestic economy in isolation from the global one. His call for a return to
developmental nationalist principles at home and recognition of the many complex ways in
which Japanese economic institutions were fully integrated into the global economy sold over
three million copies in the first year. Miyazaki, an eminent economist until his death in 1998,
argued that recent higher levels of international integration of the major developed economies,
together with financial deregulation, had led to asset bubbles in the United States, Europe, and
Japan, which all burst in the 1980s and early 1990s. Using the analogy of ‘combined pollution,’
which creates a far greater problem than the sum of the various pollutants alone, Miyazaki
argued that these global developments caused a ‘compound recession’ unlike any seen before.
He also stressed the fact that Japan had fully participated in creating that environment rather than
being its passive victim.
Like Paul Krugman, whose ideas are also well-known in Japan, Miyazaki held that the glut of
bad loans in Japan depressed demand globally and thwarted investment in Japan and elsewhere.
Moreover, he argued, not only did the various sectors of national economies now operate in
relation to each other differently than they had in the past, but also global production had
‘uncoupled’ the nationality of firms from employment. Along with the growing importance of
capital movements, these were permanent unwelcome changes not just in Japan but also in
Europe and the United States. Returning to one of the central premises of developmental
nationalists, Miyazaki believed that governments have an obligation to balance market efficiency
with the social welfare needs of their citizens. Indeed, he argued that, like pollution, this
‘economic externality’ could not be addressed by market means alone, which is why the growing
independence of large firms from national governments is a problem.
Meanwhile, at first it seemed as though cultural nationalism was on the wane in areas other than
the economy. Stellar economic performance had become so closely associated with Japanese
cultural uniqueness that the economic setback also reopened debate about Japan’s national
identity. The early 1990s saw major efforts among both government officials and the general
population to reshape Japan’s relations with the world, especially Asia, in a far more respectful
and equal way. Japan’s bookstores and airwaves overflowed with discussion about Japan’s
wartime and imperial past, and the first Socialist Prime Minister since 1947, Murayama
Tomiichi, issued a statement in 1995 apologizing for Japan’s conduct in World War II. All
the major language schools were deluged with students learning Asian languages, and the
government seriously considered liberalizing immigration rules. Domestically, resident Koreans
gained new rights and public opinion shifted markedly toward embracing the desirability of a
distinctive Okinawan-Japanese identity and the obligation of firms to control sexual harassment
of their female employees. Young people began exploring new directions, some striking out on
their own when the standard “lifetime-employment” path suddenly appeared uncertain at best. In
other words, the early 1990s were economically stagnant, but also represented an unusually open
and dynamic moment culturally. The Japanese seemed to be moving toward a more
cosmopolitan and heterodox notion of national identity.
However, other Japanese drew a different lesson from the economic crisis. They saw the post-
war institutions of economic success that had been celebrated as uniquely functional expressions
of traditional culture in the 1970s and 1980s as the source of Japan’s problems because they
hindered neo-liberal economic reforms. Economist Noguchi Yukio was the most energetic voice
calling for neo-liberal reform in the 1990s. Revising his earlier views that Japan had a normal
capitalist economy, Noguchi argued that the Japanese ‘developmental state’ was an obstacle to
healthy economic development. He reserved his harshest criticism for the government, calling
for greater freedom for the market. Noguchi held that Japan was locked in ‘the 1940 system’ and
that it desperately needed to break free of its wartime institutional constraints by dismantling a
variety of public regulatory systems. These included subsidies to banks, industry, and
agriculture, government barriers to competition among firms and between economic sectors, and
such practices as lifetime employment and seniority wages. Some of these systems were
established during the war and some in the Occupation years, which Noguchi treated as a single
‘1940s’ unit. While highly respected among his peers as a scholar, Noguchi is also a gifted
populariser and his essays and books are widely read by the general public, including at least one
national business-list best-seller.
By the mid 1990s, government and business leaders finally adopted neo-liberal policies on a
massive scale, ending Japan’s exceptionally long commitment to developmentalist economic
institutions. When they stepped away from practices such as lifetime employment and seniority-
based wages, Japanese leaders did so on the grounds that they were too traditional, even though
they were in fact modern—indeed, largely post-war – innovations. Since these were the very
mechanisms that had equalised incomes in the early post-war decades, by 1997 the reforms had
definitively reversed the long post-war trend toward income equality for the first time since
In the mid-1990s, just as social inequality mounted, a relatively small number of influential
figures built a classically compensatory cultural nationalist movement, asserting the right to
national pride, including an offensive military force, and blaming foreigners for all of Japan’s
troubles. Ishihara Shintaro, the novelist-turned-politician, epitomised this trend in his 1998 book,
The Japanese Economy That Can Say NO! which catapulted to top-ten business-list status. No
longer using economic strength as the marker of cultural superiority, Ishihara instead celebrated
the belligerency of the wartime state. His call for greater reliance on the market economy is also
similar to that of Noguchi Yukio, although Noguchi saw such measures as the path to normalcy
and Ishihara believed they would liberate Japanese exceptionalism. 
Ishihara Shintaro in 1956 with fellow novelist Mishima Yukio (foreground)
Ishihara’s personal theme since his debut as a prize-winning novelist in the 1950s has been a
celebration of self-confidence and defiant assertion of power. Since entering politics, first as a
member of the Diet and then as governor of Tokyo since 1999, he has nationalised this theme.
According to Ishihara, Japan’s economic problems in the 1990s were caused by American
manipulation of the international financial system specifically in order to subordinate Japan. The
echoes with pre-war rightwing analysis are disturbingly loud, as is the underlying anxiety about
national decline. (His views also mirror 1980s American rhetoric about Japanese economic
warfare in that he echoes the argument that Japanese economic success was based on unfair state
intervention, making it clear that this is his primary target.) Ishihara is well-known for his
insistence that the Nanjing Massacre never took place, his approving use of the war-time
conception of Japan as the leader of a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,’ and his
deliberately insulting comments as governor that ‘third-country nationals,’ meaning resident
Koreans and Chinese, pose a danger to other Tokyoites. (This Occupation-era term refers to
former colonial subjects who were stripped of citizenship, leaving many stateless.) Yet after the
Japanese economy turned sour, he has also staked out the position that Japan must cooperate
with other Asian countries against the imperialist, arrogant Western powers. Like other Japanese
cultural nationalists who adopt this position, he assumes that Japan will be the leader of Asia
rather than a partner in more equitable arrangements. 
Ishihara glories in deliberately provocative language, often choosing images that combine his
longstanding interest in masculine sexual domination with his newer concern for Japan’s
international standing. He opened his 1998 book with the argument that ‘the Japanese economy
is America’s concubine with bound feet’. This image of poor Japan tottering on mangled ‘lotus
feet’ is a bizarre twist: it claims cultural continuity for a practice that was never adopted in Japan
nor in most other Asian nations, indirectly associates foot-binding with Western imperialism, and
highlights his contemptuous-yet-fascinated stance toward China. The image does work to
emphasise his central themes: that Japan has handicapped itself by failing to aggressively
demand power, and, as a result, is now suffering from feminized, Orientalized, and old-fashioned
dependence on others for even the most basic needs. For those familiar with Ishihara’s work, it is
unnecessary to add that in his case feminised means emasculated.
Prime Minister Koizumi and his successor Abe Shinzo essentially followed Ishihara’s lead on
both cultural and economic matters, and since 2001 the trend toward both neo-liberalism and
compensatory cultural nationalism has become far more pronounced. Rather than focusing, as
they had in the 1970s and 1980s, on domestic cultural arrangements that supposedly benefited all
Japanese materially and emotionally, such as consensus-decision making or lifetime
employment, cultural nationalists in the government punished school teachers who failed to sing
the new national anthem and municipal governments that did not display the new national flag,
both established as official practices in 1999. Koizumi championed neo-liberal economic
reforms, particularly the privatization of the vast banking service that had operated through the
postal system. As Gregory Noble, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo, noted:
One of the most striking aspects of policy debates in Japan today is the complete absence of an
articulate and coherent alternative to neo-liberalism, even though surveys of both the public and
Diet members reveal a deep-seated preference for a significant or even extensive governmental
role in upholding social stability….The neo-liberal movement energetically spearheaded by
Prime Minister Koizumi has succeeded in presenting itself as the only solution to the stagnation
and corruption of vested interests, even though it is itself a minority opinion supported by a
relatively narrow range of interests from the internationally exposed sectors of the economy.
Koizumi combined this economic program with an insistence on making official visits to
Yasukuni shrine, even though his actions damaged Japan’s diplomatic relations with China. His
successor in 2006, Abe Shinzo, while declining to publicly visit Yasukuni, was even more
hawkish on issues of war remembrance and essentially rescinded Japan’s acknowledgment both
at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and by Prime Minister Murayama that the wartime government
had enslaved an estimated 80,000-200,000 foreign women to provide sex to the military.
The strident nationalism of contemporary Japanese leaders not only reeks of bullying and sullen
resentment directed at foreigners, domestic minorities, and women, it also seems to bear no
useful relationship to Japanese national economic or strategic interests. Ironically, cultural
nationalisms in contemporary India and China, with their red-hot economies, may soon look as
sunnily boastful as did Japanese cultural nationalism in the 1970s and especially the 1980s –
without Japan’s lingering commitment to developmental nationalism or its pacifism – while the
Japanese trajectory seems to be toward the kind of cultural justification of economic inequality
that characterized India in the same decades. In this sense, Japan at the dawn of the twenty-first
century is more like the United States, where nationalist rhetoric also sounds far less self-
confident and more sullenly resentful than in the early post-war decades, and is similarly
accompanied by foreign policies that alienate people elsewhere without advancing American
Laura Hein is a professor in the Department of History, Northwestern University and a Japan
Focus coordinator. Her most recent book is Reasonable Men, Powerful Words: Political Culture
and Expertise in 20th Century Japan. The Japanese edition was brought out by Iwanami Press in
This article was prepared for Japan Focus and posted on June 26, 2008.
1. One can of course imagine scenarios in which such arguments perform exactly the same
‘cultural work’ as have arguments for Japanese uniqueness.
2 S. Vlastos, Mirror of modernity: invented traditions of modern Japan, Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1998. T. Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. C. Gluck, Japan’s Modern Myths, Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1985. H. D. Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture,
and Community in Interwar Japan. Princeton University Press: 2000. E. Oguma, A Genealogy of
‘Japanese’ self-images. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2002, Japanese ed. 1995. D. Stegewerns,
Nationalism and Internationalism in Imperial Japan: Autonomy, Asian Brotherhood, or World
Citizenship?, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.
3 T. Nairn, The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism, London: NLB, 1977 an P. van
der Veer, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain, Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2001, show how the two developed together in Britain.
4. Loss of cultural authenticity per se has always accompanied modernity as the market,
urbanization, and rationalization erode older cultural patterns. The difference is that Americans,
Germans, and other Westerners were less likely to see these problems as imported wholesale
from elsewhere. See R. Desai, ‘Nation against Democracy: The Rise of Cultural Nationalism in
Asia,’ in F. Quadir and J. Lele, eds., Democracy and Civil Society in Asia, vol. 1 Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 81-110. T. Najita and H. D. Harootunian, ‘Japanese Revolt
against the West: Political and Cultural Criticism in the Twentieth Century’. The Twentieth
Century, vol 6. P. Duus, Ed. The Cambridge History of Japan Cambridge: Cambridge University
5. D. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.
Princeton University Press, 2000. p. 6. T. Winichakul has developed the point about attention to
imperialism even in non-colonized areas in, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a
Nation, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994.
6. Harootunian and Najita, ‘Japanese Revolt against the West’.
7. L. Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, Japanese edition, 2001. Y. Yamanouchi, J. V.
Koschmann, and R. Narita, eds., Total War and ‘Modernization’. Ithaca, NY: Cornell East Asia
8. See The Special Survey Committee, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ed. Reconstruction of the
Japanese Economy. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1992. Also see Hein, Reasonable Men,
9. P J Katzenstein, Tamed Power: Germany in Europe, Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press,
10. For representative examples, see Sekai, which published 102 articles by Tsuru, 19 by Uzawa,
and 41 by Miyamoto between 1946 and 1995. Sekai Somokuji: 1946-1995, Tokyo: Iwanami,
11. H. Befu, Hegemony of Homogeneity, p. 14 dates the explosion of Nihonjinron literature to
the 1960s but the cumulative effect of this argument really gained far greater momentum in the
following decade. See Chapter 5 for argument about national flag. T. Fujitani, ‘Inventing,
forgetting, remembering: toward a historical ethnography of the nation-state’, in Befu, ed.
Cultural Nationalism in East Asia emphasises the disappearance of the empire.
12. Befu, Hegemony of Homogeneity and H. Befu, ed. Cultural Nationalism in East Asia:
Representation and Identity, Research papers and policy studies; 39; Berkeley, CA: Institute of
East Asian Studies, University of California, 1993
13. Y. Miyazaki, Fukugo Fukyo: posuto baburu no shohosen o motomete (Compound recession:
toward a prescription for the post-bubble economy). Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1992 (22cd printing
by 1998). Also see K. Miyamoto, Nihon Shakai no Kannosei: Iji Kanno na Shakai e, (The
Possibility of Japanese society: toward a self-sustaining society), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2000.
14. The official translation is available here.
15. C Moriguchi and E Saez, ‘The Evolution of Income Concentration in Japan, 1886-2005:
Evidence from Income Tax Statistics,’ Review of Economics and Statistics, Forthcoming.
16. S. Ishihara and Hitotsubashi Sogo Kenkyujo. ‘No’ to ieru nihon keizai; sensen fukoku:
America no kinyu dorei kara no kaiho. (The Japanese economy that can say ‘no’; liberation from
American financial slavery’.) Tokyo: Kobunsha, 1998. For a discussion of Ishihara’s economic
policy, see A. DeWit and M. Kaneko, ‘Ishihara and the Politics of his Bank Tax,’ JPRI Critique,
IX.4 May 2002.
17. S. Ishihara, ‘Tawara Soichiro no kakuto taiwa: ima koso jitsugen dekiru ‘Dai Toa Kyoeiken
(No-holds-barred debate with Tawara Soichiro: Now is the time to realise the ‘Greater East Asia
Co-Prosperity Sphere,’ Sansara. July 1991: 44-59. J. Nathan, Japan Unbound: A Volatile
Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, pp. 191-2. S. Ishihara
and M. Mahathir, ’No’ to ieru Ajia: Tai-obei e no hosaku. Tokyo: Kobunsha 1994 was also a
18. Nathan, Japan Unbound, Chapter 7.
19. G. W. Noble, ‘Koizumi and Neo-liberal Economic Reform,’ Social Science Japan, March
2006, pp. 6-9, esp. p. 9.
20. When the Japanese government accepted the judgment of the Tokyo Trials, it acknowledged
the enslavement of Dutch women in the Netherlands East Indies but not the Asian women who
suffered the same fate.
21. T. Franks, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,
NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004 makes the argument for the domestic basis of this stance, one
that sounds very much like the compensatory cultural nationalism discussed in this collection.
- Although Japan is sometimes compared in size to a state such as California.docx
Although Japan is sometimes compared in size to a state such as California, it is probably better
to think of it in national terms. In that case, Japan is two-thirds the size of France, one-quarter
bigger than Italy or Great Britain, and three-quarters larger than the Korean peninsula.
Geographically, the United States, Russia, and China are very big countries, while Japan is
something more like "normal size." (see note 1)
But geographic size does not itself determine world power, and "small countries" such as
England and the Netherlands once wielded enormous economic and military might. Today, as
the second largest national economy after the United States, Japan is a "big country" in terms of
Why, then, do Japanese people almost always describe Japan
as a "small island country"? Because it is small in
comparison to the countries that dominated its history: China,
the historical great power in East Asia, and the United States,
the global superpower in the twentieth century. Japan also
seems small to Japanese because it is mostly mountainous,
with nearly 80 percent of its 126 million population now
crammed into some sixty cities.
And because Japan is a country of four main and many outlying islands, it is indeed surrounded
by the sea, which in past times often seemed to protect and isolate Japan from the rest of the
But no longer, for there are no island countries in the global economy. So while one understands
why Japanese feel their land to be small (and vulnerable), Japan’s size must be measured in
relative terms. In natural resources, Japan is tiny compared to Brazil or Canada; in national
product, Japan is large compared to Italy or France, though not to the European Union as a
whole; militarily, Japan may be big in relation to most of the world’s countries, but it shrinks
mightily when the referent is China or the United States; in foreign aid given to other countries,
Japan is at present bigger than the United States; and so on. Take a look at The State of the World
Atlas to see how the size of countries varies in relation to what is being measured. Size, it turns
out, is always relative (see note 2).
Contemporary Japan is a modern society, an instance of the
multiple patterns of modernity that characterize the late twentieth-
century world. Images of samurai and sumo wrestlers, of geisha
and cherry blossoms, should not mislead: Japan is no exotic
Lotusland, no topsy-turvy Asian version of Western-style
modernity. If modernity, broadly defined, implies industrialization,
the nation-state, expanded political participation, forms of middle
class or mass society, and growing integration in the world, then
there is no single way to be modern, no Western way, no Asian
way. Indeed, as any glance at the globe will show, modernity is
notoriously uneven in its contemporary appearances.
Yet there are patterns held in common, and modern Japan is a
variant of a pattern of modernity, which, though it is by no means
the only pattern, is one that Americans know quite well. It includes
a capitalistic economy, a democratic politics based on
representative parliamentary government, a large middle class as
the social basis for both capitalism and democracy, and active
engagement in global relations of power (see note 3).
To know Japan today, think first of modernity held in common, first of commonality, and only
then of difference.
France and Germany, Canada and Korea are different, too. This is because the common patterns
of modernity take various local forms. Capitalism operates differently in different places, shaped
by the historical ecology of its surroundings. Compared to the United States, Japan’s "moderated
capitalism" has what Americans consider an unacceptably high degree of government
involvement in the private sector. Compared to France, the penetration of the political economy
by the state seems, in the French context, quite normal. Here one might argue that it is not Japan
but the United States that is unusual. In fact, since the United States and Japan are apt to
represent the extremes of any particular pattern, it is often better to spread such national
comparisons around, looking at Germany, Taiwan, and elsewhere in order to situate better the
places of difference.
Democracy, too, is differently construed in different contexts. In Japan democracy tends to be
defined socially as coequal access to material and social goods. This social sharing of benefits
among the people is considered fundamental, more basic perhaps than political criteria like
voting or elections. Democracy in the late twentieth-century world takes many shapes, some
emphasizing popular politics, others socioeconomic well-being, but all combining some mixture
of both, in different combinations.
The middle classes in Japan reflect the social definition of democracy. Polls report that nearly 98
percent of Japanese consider themselves to be middle-class. Of course, this is a statistical
impossibility, since the "middle" disappears if all of society claims to be in it. This all-Japanese-
as-middle class is also a social fairy tale, which denies the realities of socioeconomic difference.
But it does convey the collectively imagined sense of being coequally well off in livelihood and
lifestyle. Rather than striving ever upward in mobility and wealth, this self-declared middle class
suggests a social leveling effect that concentrates in the sphere of everyday life, and many people
in far less well-off societies envisage democracy in just these terms. Again, Japan is different but
As suggested by the social definition of democracy, human relations and the social order
comprise the primary foundational and operational values in Japan. Overlapping social
relationships in the family, community, and the workplace guide the course of individual actions;
intersecting social networks determine alignments in business, politics, and the arts. While this is
true everywhere, the social web is stronger and more determining in societies like Japan, China,
Iran, and many others. (Here again, the Euro-American preference for abstract laws and
principles may be considered the world’s exception rather than its rule.)
Preservation of the social order, which supports the web of human relationships, is of primary
importance. Actions or persons that disrupt the social order are resisted, while those that support
it are encouraged. The result is a strongly coherent and cohesive society capable of considerable
feats of change and continuity. But the strength is also a weakness, because its effectiveness
depends on social closeness, which excludes people who are not part of the historically created
web of connections. For insiders, Japanese society may seem like a warm bath; for outsiders, it is
often a cold shower.
To understand and explain phenomena in Japan, whether in politics, economics, culture, or
international relations, the guiding principle remains: always seek the social.
Japanese culture is at once hybrid and extremely open to foreign influence—for centuries, from
China; in modern times, from the West—and at the same time, extremely tenacious in the
preservation of its own cultural forms. The rapid changes that followed intensive cultural
borrowing in the eighth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries were soon Japanized into a
seemingly seamless appearance of cultural continuity (see note 4).
The two traits are related: from earliest times, Japan looked
into the mirror of the foreign and defined itself by its
reflection. "Japanese" identity emerged out of close
interactions with China. Had cultural relations been more
distant, the assertions of "Japanese" identity might not have
been so insistent. Long before the challenge of Western
imperialism sparked the defensive formation of a modern
nation-state and a new reflection of itself in the mirror of the
West, Japan had become accustomed to defining itself as
"Japanese" against the image of a cultural Other.
If, as some say, the great theme of Chinese history is
unity, that of Indian history, continuity, then the
corresponding theme of Japanese history would be
identity. To understand the ways in which Japan’s
strong identity-consciousness was historically
produced is not, however, to accept it at face value.
Such concern with identity often takes the ideological forms of nationalism and exclusivism, the
more so in uncertain international times when the mirror of the foreign is shaken or in shards, as
it seems to be in the 1990s, when we have all to guard against the excesses of our own
nationalisms and those of others.
Even when change is extremely rapid, as it was after the Meiji Restoration and after the defeat in
World War II, it tends to occur—or to disguise itself as occurring—in incremental fashion. This
disguise helps to preserve institutional stability and, even more important, the social order that
underlies it. The foreign media stereotype that depicts Japan either as engulfed by headlong
change or resistant to any change at all, overlooks this inching incrementalism.
According to my modestly titled "Grand Unified Theory of Japanese History" (the Gluck
theorem), the enunciation of crisis in Japan is often dramatic, as it is in the current case of the
falling birth rate ("women refuse to marry and bear children") or the economic crisis ("Warning
from 2020: When Japan Disappears"). But the actual tempo of change leans toward measured
calibration of existing practices and institutions rather than radical measures or frontal attack.
Nonetheless, change occurs—or accumulates—sometimes with profound effect (see note 5).
No wonder that the pace of such changes as market-opening and deregulation appears
maddeningly glacial to outside (especially American) observers at the same time that it seems
faster than quicksilver to Japanese. The rule of measurement is to look to the incremental
changes, not to the announced crisis, but to the historical adjustments occurring on or just below
the social surface.
Despite my warning against believing the rhetoric of dire change, it does seem as if the present
Japanese sense of confronting a new age is not altogether misplaced. First, there is the point
about "no more models," often expressed in the slogan that Japan has now "caught up with and
overtaken" the West. If China provided cultural sustenance for centuries and the West appeared
as the civilizational model since the late 1800s, then it may be that for the first time in its history
Japan has no specific external mirror in which to seek its future and define its identity, but must
find the future in and for itself.
Second, and similarly, Japan’s place in the world has changed. Long a part of an East Asian
regional order centered on China, Japan sought from the nineteenth century to enter a world
order dominated by Euro-American nations. In both instances Japan followed the lead of other,
greater powers. Now a world power itself, Japan is called upon not only to follow but to lead—to
make an "international contribution," as Japanese say. This new challenge is further compounded
by the fact that Japan’s earlier twentieth-century international relations ended badly, in
imperialism, war, and defeat. Without long historical experience in setting international agendas
and without successful recent precedent in following the agendas of others, Japan does indeed
face a new and uncertain world.
Many countries in the 1990s confront similar uncertainties in a post Cold War world that has yet
to find a new order of international being. But considering that Japan’s historical strength has
been its internal social order with its capacity for adaptive change, dealing with the late-
twentieth-century world presents a particularly difficult and seemingly "unprecedented"
challenge. As before, domestic social, political, and economic rearrangements are likely to come
more easily than the international realignments required to re-place "Japan in the world."
As part of its international realignment, Japan is turning toward Asia
for the first time since World War II. Japanese imperialism and
aggressive war meant that Japan began the postwar era with a
particularly bad past in Asia, and because of its postwar alliance with
the United States during the Cold War, Japan spent the next half
century facing the Pacific, with its geopolitical back turned toward the
Asian mainland. After the end of the Cold War in 1989, Japanese
commentators began to talk of "Asianization," often implying a turn
away from Euro-America toward Asia.
This Asia-talk in Japan coincided with new Asian initiatives to define Asia on its own terms. The
emergence of organizations like APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) began to forge a
geo-economic regional identity, and the ideological rhetoric of "Asian values" posited a geo-
cultural identity set against that of the West.
For Japan (unlike Malaysia, say) this move toward Asia is fraught with ambivalence. This is
because Japanese have yet openly to confront their wartime past to the satisfaction of other
Asians, and also because many Japanese do not feel themselves particularly close to Asia after so
long an identification with other, Western parts of the geopolitical world.
One of the international challenges for Japan is simultaneously to "re-orient" without turning its
back on the West; it has now to face in all directions at once.
Japan must face in all directions precisely because it is a global power. For two decades the sole
Asian member of the G-7 group (now, with Russia, G-8), Japan participated in this exclusive
club of "advanced industrial economies" that gather in annual summit meetings. Allied with the
United States by a security treaty, Japan figures in the American-dominated security structures in
the region, and the operations of the Japanese economy have profound impact, not only in Asia,
but around the world. While particularly active in Asia, Japan also contributes a great deal to
international organizations, and its government would like to have a seat on the United Nations
Security Council. These are signs of global power.
Although Japanese frequently speak of a "borderless world" and the proverbial global village,
most of Japan’s postwar international activity has been economic. Long dependent on the outside
world for trade and natural resources, Japan’s economy is global in its reach. More difficult are
the global demands of geopolitics and, in particular, issues of armament and security. Sending
uniformed troops abroad, for example, even as part of a UN action, contravenes the popular
pacifism that the Japanese public has held since the Second World War.
Nor does Japanese society globalize easily, whether in accepting foreign workers in Japan, or of
Japanese "fitting in" in foreign contexts where their accustomed social networks do not operate.
But because there is, finally, no retreat from global engagement, incremental changes are
occurring even in these most resistant corners of the island country.
And we need to know not just about Japan but about Japan in its regional setting. And we need to
know not about Asia alone but about Japan and Asia in a global context. And we need to know
about the globe not merely as a collection of separate regions, but about the interconnections,
commonalities, and cross-relations among people (not only among nations). And we need to see
the globe not as if it were something "out there" where the rest of the world lives, but to see it as
the world we must know about because we depend on it just as it depends on us.
1. Henry Smith, "Five Myths about Early Modern Japan," in Ainslie Embree and Carol Gluck, eds., Asia in Western
and World History (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), p. 515.
2. Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal, The State of the World Atlas, Fifth edition (London: Penguin Books, 1995).
3. See Carol Gluck, "Japan’s Modernities: 1850s–1990s," in Embree and Gluck, Asia in Western and World History.
4. For this and other points mentioned here, see Carol Gluck, "Patterns of the Past: Themes in Japanese History," in
Embree and Gluck, Asia in Western and World History.
5. Carol Gluck, "Patterns of Change: A ‘Grand Unified Theory’ of Japanese History," Bulletin of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, XLVIII, no. 6 (March 1995).
Carol Gluck is the George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University. Currently Past President of the
Association for Asian Studies, her most recent book, which she draws on for this "Top Ten List," is Asia in Western
and World History, coedited with Ainslie Embree (M.E. Sharpe, 1997).