JAPAN: THE NEW WORLD POWER 1970-90

Japan had been indispensable to the building of this prosperity. The rapidity with which she, like China, recovered her former status as a power (and economically surpassed it) had obvious implications for her place both in the Asian and the world balance. By 1970 the Japanese enjoyed the second highest GDP in the non-communist world. They had renewed their industrial base and had moved with great success into new areas of manufacture. Only in 1951 had a Japanese yard launched the first Japanese ship built for export, yet within twenty years Japan had the largest shipbuilding industry in the world. At the same time she had won a commanding position in consumer industries such as electronics and motor-cars, of which the Japanese came to make more than any country except the United States (to the resentment of American manufacturers who sought protection from their government, a sincere compliment). In 1979 it was agreed that Japanese cars should be made in England, a step taken with an eye to penetration of the EC market. The debit side of such advances was provided by the ample evidence of the cost of economic growth in the destruction of the Japanese environment and the wear and tear of Japanese urban life.

Japan had been specially favoured by circumstances in her advance to the status of a world economic power since the disaster of 1945. An American enforcement of a bias towards investment rather than consumption during the occupation years had helped. The war in Vietnam, like that in Korea, had been a stroke of luck for her, another boost to an already thriving economy. Yet human beings have to seize opportunities and to take advantage of favourable circumstances, and unusually positive social attitudes appear to have been crucial in Japan. Even in the immediate aftermath of defeat, her people were able to deploy their intense national pride and showed an unrivalled capacity for collective effort. In the next decades of recovery and growth, they continued to display the deep cohesiveness and readiness to subordinate the individual to collective purposes that had always marked Japanese society. Strangely, such pre-modern attitudes seemed to survive the coming of political democracy, just as old hierarchical forms and assumptions of obligation and dependence survived acceptance of market economics.

Other survivals of the past were visible in the successful careers of many politicians whose earlier successes had been won under the wartime regime (sometimes in circumstances by no means always wholly savoury). In 1955 the Liberal Democratic Party was formed, a union of conservative and bureaucratic forces which was to monopolize power for nearly forty years. In 1958 there took office as prime minister a man who had been serving a sentence of imprisonment as a war criminal ten years earlier, and who had only been officially ‘purged’ in 1952 of his undertakings during the war. It may be too early to judge how deeply democratic institutions are rooted in Japanese society; after 1951, though there soon appeared something like a consensus for one-party rule, there were also strong opposition campaigns over particular issues. More alarmingly, there were also disquieting signs in the emergence of more extreme groupings, some of which were anti-liberal, even quasi-fascist. Mounting uneasiness was felt, too, over what was happening to traditional values and institutions. The costs of economic growth loomed up not only in huge conurbations and pollution, but also in social problems straining even Japanese custom. Great firms still operated with success on the basis of group loyalties buttressed by traditional attitudes and institutions. At a different level, even the deeply conservative Japanese family sometimes seemed to be under strain.

Yet the material recovery was remarkable. Japan’s exports reached pre-war levels again in 1959, GNP having doubled in the previous five years. In 1960 the prime minister announced a plan to double national income by 1970; the period of economic growth which followed was so successful that by 1973 straight line growth since 1960 had been at a rate of 10 per cent per year. This had been achieved by major political interventions. A deliberate policy of running down dependence on coal as a source of primary energy had been by no means unquestioningly received but in ten years it reduced the country’s dependence on this relatively expensive fuel as an energy source from 31.3 per cent to 6.1 per cent of its needs. National plans in the 1960s for the rationalization of the steel industry, the development of electricity supply and the petrochemical industry were all based on the assumption that cheap oil imports would continue to be available. From such interventions flowed substantial real wage increases and benefits to Japanese consumers, which underpinned social support for them.

Economic progress helped to change the context of Japanese foreign policy, which moved more clearly away in the 1960s from the somewhat stark Cold War simplicities of the preceding decade. Economic strength had made the yen internationally important and had drawn Japan into the world’s monetary diplomacy. Prosperity involved her in the affairs of almost every part of the globe. In the Pacific basin, she became a major consumer of other countries’ primary produce, in the Middle East a large buyer of oil. Japan’s investment in Europe was soon thought alarming by some Europeans (even though her aggregate share was not large), while imports of her manufactured goods threatened European producers. Even the eating habits of the Japanese raised international questions. In the 1960s 90 per cent of their protein requirements were met by fishing and this led to alarm lest they be over-fishing some areas.

Japan had entered the United Nations in 1956. By then, she was already evidently on the road to resuming her great power status. The heart of the conduct of her foreign relations was the maintenance of Japan as a key factor in the United States security system. The rearmament of the former enemy, which had begun with MacArthur’s innocent-looking authorization of a ‘national police reserve’ (which enabled four American divisions to be withdrawn from garrison duties in Japan and to be sent to serve in Korea), proceeded even more rapidly after his dismissal in 1951. Ironically, he had begun the process of undermining his own dream of a neutralized, non-nationalist, democratic Japan. By 1958 Japan had a ‘Land Self-defence Force’ of 180,000 men, and 1,300 aircraft.

As these and other matters changed the atmosphere and content of foreign relations, so did the behaviour of other powers, especially in the Pacific area. As Japan became the world’s largest importer of primary resources, she increasingly assumed in the 1960s an economic position in relation to other Pacific countries not unlike that of Germany in central and eastern Europe before 1914. New Zealand and Australia found their economies increasingly and profitably tied to Japan rather than to the old British market; their embassies in Japan began to matter to them as much as their High Commissions in London. Both of them supplied Japan with farm produce (particularly meat) and Australia minerals, notably coal and iron ore. The Russians and the South Koreans meanwhile complained about Japanese fishing, thus adding new complications to the old story of involvement with Korea which helped to keep alive that country’s distrust of Japanese motives. South Korea was Japan’s second biggest market (after the United States) and Japanese investment had begun again there soon after 1951. South Korean nationalism always had a strongly anti-Japanese tone, and in 1959 the president of South Korea could be heard urging his countrymen to unite ‘as one man’ not against their northern communist neighbour, but against Japan. Within twenty years, too, Japanese car manufacturers were looking askance at the vigorous rival they had helped create. As in Taiwan, so in South Korea industrial growth was built on technology diffused by Japan.

Japan’s dependence on imported energy meant a nasty shock when oil prices shot up in the 1970s. There was a sharp decline in manufacturing output 1973 – 5 and a similar, though less violent, fall in 1979 when the suspension of Iranian production during the revolutionary crisis sent up prices again.4 Yet this was not to be the end of the Japanese success story. Growth continued overall and such valid grounds for concern as higher inflation and speculative booms in land investment for a long time seemed hardly to affect overall progress. Japanese exports to the United States grew tenfold between 1971 and 1984. In the 1980s GDP was less only than those of the USA and USSR. As her industrialists turned to advanced information technology and biotechnology, and talked of running down car manufacturing, there was no sign that she had lost her power of disciplined self-adaptation. Altogether, the Japanese economy had the potential to develop in various directions; in 1978, when the Chinese vice-president visited Tokyo, trade between China and Japan was already worth as much as China’s trade with the United States and West Germany combined.

Growing strength brought greater responsibilities. The withdrawal of American direction was acknowledged openly when it was agreed in 1971 that Okinawa should be handed back to Japanese administration. Though the Americans retained control of their military bases there, this was the first of Japan’s former overseas possessions to be reacquired since the war ended. There remained question marks over the main three islands of the Kuriles, still in Russian hands. Taiwan, in the possession of the Chinese nationalists and claimed by the Chinese communists, posed diplomatic problems, too, but Japanese attitudes on all these matters remained – no doubt prudently – reserved and there was at least no question of the resumption of old imperial conquests there. There was also the possibility that the question of Sakhalin, the whole of which had been consigned to the USSR at Yalta, might be reopened.

All such issues began of course to look much more susceptible to revisions or at least reconsideration in the wake of other changes in the Asian scene, not all of which stemmed from Chinese and Japanese resurgence. Sino-Soviet bickering gave Japan much greater freedom for manoeuvre towards the United States, her erstwhile patron, as well as towards China and the USSR. The embarrassment that too close a tie with the Americans might bring became clearer as the Vietnam war unrolled and political opposition to it grew in Japan. Her freedom of action was ultimately limited, in the sense that the three greatest powers in the region were by 1970 equipped with nuclear weapons and Japan was not, though she of all nations had most reason to know their effect, but there was little doubt that her industry could produce them within a relatively brief time if needed. Indisputably, Japan was once more by 1990 a world power.

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