When the Showa emperor opened the Tokyo Olympics on October 10, 1964, few missed the significance. Here was Japan’s wartime sovereign, presiding over a gathering of 75,000 spectators and 5,000 athletes from ninety-four nations. The torch-lighter was a Waseda University runner born in Hiroshima the day the atomic bomb was dropped. When the games closed two weeks later, Japan had won a record sixteen gold medals, and journalists had rhapsodized about the country’s reentry into the community of nations. Olympics president Avery Brundage declared Japan the “Olympic nation No. 1 in all the world.”
This triumph hinted in several ways at the contours of Japan’s entire postwar era. On the surface, it dramatized the nation’s success in restoring not just peace but economic vitality, and in doing so rapidly. At less obvious levels, it demonstrated the complexities underlying growth. Bureaucratic infighting over spending on the games’ infrastructure, particularly over the cost of the world’s first bullet train, called attention to domestic political struggles that would mark the whole era. The fact that the Americans won the most gold medals highlighted Japan’s ongoing subordination to that enemy-turned-ally. The use of sports to woo the world exemplified an indirect approach to diplomacy that would evoke both admiration and criticism.
The Olympic triumph did not come easily. When the war ended, Japan was in ashes, with more than sixty-five cities bombed into what residents called yaki nohara (burned-out plains), nearly three million people dead, 60 percent of the country’s factories out of operation, and a quarter of the nation’s wealth eradicated. One teacher recalled looking in the washroom mirror that summer: “I gave a start. My own face had aged so much I didn’t recognize it, and a sort of shadow of death appeared. . . . In those days malnutrition caused changes in appearance, and lots of people looked ghastly.” He recalled, too, how his emotionally exhausted relatives had “snarled at each other, clamored fiercely, seemed virtually to have gone mad.” For many, the hard times would continue for years, as obstacle followed obstacle. The year after the war ended, thirteen million—a full sixth of the population—remained unemployed. As late as 1949, homeless people were starving to death, and families were searching for hundreds of thousands of still unaccounted-for loved ones who had gone abroad during the expansionist decades.
These trials notwithstanding, Japan’s return to health began almost as soon as the formal surrender documents were signed on September 2. The recovery process was overseen by the Occupation government, which operated formally under the supervision of the Allies but was run by the Americans, who came to Japan in great numbers in the fall of 1945. Known as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) and dominated by the towering, aloof Douglas MacArthur, the Occupation bureaucracy took charge with the audacity of a conqueror, aiming to restore Japan to economic health as a demilitarized, thoroughgoing democracy. In the words of one Japanese cartoonist who had seen American bombs fall from the wartime skies: “From the very same sky, the gift of peace began to descend. So-called democratic revolution!”
A key feature of the Occupation was SCAP’s decision to work through Japan’s existing government. In contrast to Germany, where the Allies simply replaced the old government with their own, SCAP officials set up a two-pronged structure, with MacArthur’s administration setting policies and providing oversight while the Japanese government ran day-to-day affairs. This approach led to bitter and frequent disputes, but the arrangement worked, because both sides harbored similar goals. SCAP officials had decided early on to create a strong, democratic ally rather than merely to punish Japan. The Japanese, exhausted by war, were determined to cooperate. Both wanted a strong, peaceful country. The one exception came in Okinawa, where the Americans set out, in contravention of Japanese desires, to create a tightly authoritarian occupation government, which they intended to maintain permanently.
In the early postwar months, progressive officials in both SCAP and the Japanese bureaucracy used the wide disillusionment with militarism to win support for many democratic initiatives. Reformers removed nationalistic materials from school textbooks; MacArthur encouraged labor unions and collective bargaining; writers and publishers won new freedoms; and massive land reforms transferred farm acreage from the landlords to the tillers. Most influential of all was a new constitution, which took effect in 1947. After rejecting a conservative Japanese revision of the Meiji constitution, MacArthur created his own committee of SCAP officials early in 1946, charged with drafting a document that would outlaw war, maintain the imperial institution, and foster equality. The committee worked feverishly, nights as well as days, and within a week had prepared an English-language draft that turned governance on its head, providing for a bicameral legislature, assuring equal rights for women (a point insisted on by committee member Bette Sirota, who had grown up in Japan), spelling out a broad range of civil liberties, and declaring that “all people have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living” (article 25). The most controversial stipulation was article 9, which stated that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
While these provisions gave Japan one of the world’s most liberal constitutions, MacArthur’s reason for supporting them was conservative: he wanted to preserve the emperor’s status. Having concluded that the imperial institution was needed to assure stability, he had an aide tell a group of Japanese hard-liners: “The only possibility of retaining the Emperor and the remnants of their own power is by their acceptance and approval of a Constitution that will force a decisive swing to the left.” Thus, he supported a more progressive constitution than he was personally comfortable with. He also had the emperor in mind in structuring the other major antimilitary initiative, the Tokyo war crimes trials, which, like their counterpart trials in Nuremberg, were intended to bring to justice those most responsible for the war. When the tribunal convened in May 1946, Hirohito was not among the twenty-five men charged with “crimes against humanity” and “crimes against peace.” Standing against a chorus of demands that the emperor be tried, Mac-Arthur argued that his indictment would “cause a tremendous convulsion among the Japanese people. . . . Destroy him and the nation will disintegrate.” The result was a trial in which references to the imperial family and to Japan’s war crimes in China were largely omitted. By November 1948, when all twenty-five were found guilty (seven received death sentences), the trials’ goal of teaching the Japanese lessons about militarism had been undermined by a weary public’s conclusion that the verdicts were little more than “victor’s justice.”
Japanese schools continued to hold classes following World War II, even when they had to meet outdoors, as did this Okinawan music class in the fall of 1945. National Archives, SC 210185.
Before eighteen months had passed, SCAP officials were thinking less about democratizing Japan than about restoring stability. Worried by rising communism in Europe and China, as well as by Japan’s continuing economic woes, MacArthur decided that America and Europe needed a strong Asian ally more than a democratic model. He exhibited this new attitude at the end of January 1947, when he prohibited a general strike that had been planned to protest low wages. Union leaders and leftists felt betrayed, and the head of the strike’s organizing committee shouted at Occupation officials, “Japanese workers are not American slaves!” before backing down. Conservatives rejoiced, however. The next years would see similar shifts in many spheres, including the SCAP-supported creation of a 75,000-man National Police Reserve, supposedly intended to augment local police forces but equipped with army-style machine guns and tanks. The new policies also resulted in a government-led purge, early in the 1950s, of 13,000 alleged communists from jobs in the press, radio, labor, and the film industry, and the closure of nearly 1,500 leftist papers and journals.
This reverse course had a particularly strong impact on economic policies. Occupation officials began having second thoughts about their determination to crush the engines of the wartime economy when it became clear that ordinary measures were not solving the massive problems. In the third year after the war, the annual inflation percentage still soared above 200, and production stood at 37 percent of prewar levels. For individual citizens, this meant endless scavenging for food, homeless people dying of exposure in the winter months, and black markets still charging five times the official price rates in 1948. Almost everyone had to skirt the law in one way or another to secure food for the table, prompting one editorialist to quip, “In today’s Japan, the only people who are not living illegally are those in jail.”
One result of the continuing difficulties was that SCAP officials began to reconsider their plans for demolishing the prewar cartels known as zaibatsu (economic cliques), on the grounds that a healthy nation needed large business organizations. In the end, they broke up just eleven large companies instead of the 300 originally intended. Another was the decision in 1949 to bring in banker Joseph Dodge as an economic czar to set things right. Unfortunately, his stern policies initially did more damage than good. When he cut government assistance to the private sector and insisted that already hard-pressed ministries cut their budgets, the economy went into a further tailspin; industry found itself increasingly desperate for capital, and the stock market fell, while unemployment and bankruptcies rose. Whether his policies would have led to eventual recovery is uncertain. What is clear is that it took an unanticipated development—the coming of the Korean War in June 1950—to finally turn the economy around. As that war progressed, Japan became a huge supply center, and the economy began to take off. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru referred to the conflict as a divine gift.
The Occupation came to an end on April 28, 1952, as a result of a forty-eight-nation peace treaty signed in San Francisco the previous September. Once again, Japan was a sovereign country, free to pursue its own course. The man who presided over the transition into self-rule was the autocratic Yoshida, who as prime minister had been MacArthur’s counterpoint for all but seventeen months of the Occupation after May 1946. A part of the old conservative establishment, Yoshida preferred results over ideology—a fact made particularly clear in his approach to armaments. Despite American pressure late in the Occupation for Japan to rearm (article 9 notwithstanding), he had insisted forcefully that Japan should take a “go-slow” approach to arms, maintaining only a small force. Similarly, in the field of foreign affairs, he argued that his country’s postwar future lay with the United States, even though he would have preferred close ties to Great Britain. “This is not essentially a question of either dogma or philosophy,” he said. “It is merely the quickest and most effective way—indeed the only way—to promote the prosperity of the Japanese people.” The three pillars of his national policy—disarmament, trade, Japanese-American cooperation—came over time to be labeled the Yoshida Doctrine.
The foundation of the bilateral relationship was the 1951 Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which allowed the Americans to maintain military bases in Japan (nearly 3,000 of them at the time) in return for assisting Japan with security. In practice, the treaty had two primary effects. It meant that Japan would be able to remain lightly armed, in keeping with Yoshida’s policies, spending a mere 1 percent of its GNP on the military. And it assured a uniquely close relationship between the two Pacific powers. The treaty touched off endless debates, as well as frequent demonstrations by those who resented the fact that in signing it Japan had given up diplomatic and military autonomy. Protests occurred regularly at military bases, and more than thirty million citizens signed antinuclear petitions after the United States’ 1954 hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini atoll killed a crewman on the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon. In 1960, when the security treaty was revised, nationwide anti-treaty protests toppled the government, even though the new treaty made the relationship more nearly equal, providing, among other things, that the United States would pay a larger share of the bases’ cost and would give notice before bringing nuclear weapons onto Japanese soil. Nonetheless, the relationship was to provide a long-term linchpin for Japan’s foreign policy, freeing the economy from the burdens of heavy military spending.
Yoshida’s other major political achievement was to solidify conservative control of the government. The 1947 constitution may have created a progressive framework, but the conservative parties had taken charge once the Occupation’s reverse course was in effect, and after 1952, they won a succession of elections with strong majorities. The post-Occupation Diets also passed several bills designed to strengthen the established parties’ hold on power: one of them nationalized the police system, another banned activities likely to lead to violence (a throwback, many feared, to prewar authoritarianism). These bills made One-Man Yoshida, as he was called, unpopular, but he rammed them through. Although he lost a no-confidence vote in 1954 after calling a Diet member a “damned fool,” he gave the conservatives an unassailable grip on power. Once the Liberal Democratic Party was formed in 1955 from the merger of the two leading conservative parties, it held office for thirty-eight straight years.
The happiest story of the 1950s surely was the resurgence of the economy. Fueled by favorable international trade policies and the ready availability of the latest Western technologies, as well as the daring and vision of entrepreneurs like Sony’s Morita Akio and National Panasonic’s Matsushita Konosuke, Japan’s electronic and automotive industries mushroomed. Its exports soared. The economy grew at an annual rate of nearly 10 percent in the decade after the Occupation. As a result, people began accumulating money again—and using it to fuel a consumer explosion. Journalists drew on an ancient symbol, the “three imperial treasures,” to talk about the country’s “three electronic treasures”: the washing machine, refrigerator, and television. Baseball regained its prewar popularity; fads included everything from hula hoops to embraceable little dolls called dakkochan; new cabarets and bars dotted old neighborhoods; and a fresh medium, the weekly general-interest magazine, attracted millions of subscribers with gossip and glossy photographs. Life improved even in the countryside, where rising rice prices, mechanization, and new insecticides allowed farmers to begin narrowing the income gap between themselves and their urban cousins.
This new consumerism was symbolized by the contrasting experiences of two women named Michiko. The first was Shoda Michiko, the wealthy businessman’s daughter who met Crown Prince Akihito on a tennis court and then married him, becoming the first commoner ever to marry an emperor-to-be. Three million people bought TV sets to watch the couple’s April 1959 wedding, and many more millions bought popular magazines to follow their story. “The Cinderella story of someone climbing upward has become a popular tale,” one commentator wrote, “but the fact that in this case the imperial family moved downward, this is the true secret of this couple’s popularity, and that is something I do not want to see forgotten.” The second, who drew nearly as much attention, was Kamba Michiko, a middle-class participant in the antisecurity treaty movement. When she was killed in a 1960 demonstration, the new magazines produced an array of shamelessly sentimental articles, weeping over her death and playing on old gender types with articles about “the innocent eyes of . . . a sweet girl in a sailor-collared high school uniform” who should have had “a bright and beautiful future of romance, marriage, and childrearing.” Both episodes tied consumerism and politics together in a way that that would have been unthinkable in the Taisho years, when Japan had experienced its last consumer boom.
Consumerism also had a darker side, in the spread of what many described as an inner malaise. As money became available and memories of the war faded, some people pursued material possessions—and pleasures—with an abandon that recalled the 1920s, while others felt spiritually adrift in a culture without transcendent goals. Commentators wrote juicily, sometimes angrily, in the late 1950s about hedonists who wallowed in money-making and dissipation, greed-mongers typified by a University of Tokyo law student who founded a usurious lending club and wrote in his diary “To do business by making cunning use of others is a clear principle of economics.” Novelists deplored the emptiness of urban life: Niki Jumpei in Abe Kobo’s Woman in the Dunes sighs, after reading a set of dark newspaper headlines, “Everyday life was exactly like the headlines. . . . Everybody, knowing the meaninglessness of existence, sets the center of his compass at his own home.” Scholars probed the motives of millions of spiritual seekers who joined the “rush hour of the gods,” attaching themselves to new religions that promised prosperity along with emotional succor. The largest of these, the lay organization of Nichiren Buddhism, called Soka Gakkai, would use its ten million members to form a major political party, Komeito, in the 1960s.
Neither malaise nor protests could slow down Japan’s economic momentum, however, and the 1960s saw the country prosper as never before. Ikeda Hayato, prime minister from 1960 to 1964, was dubbed the “income-doubling” politician for his promise to increase Japan’s GNP by 100 percent within a decade. Hardly a populist, he was a member of the Liberal Democratic Party economic elite, known for the quip “Let the poor eat barley.” But the economy kept growing, and by middecade his promise had proved conservative. A combination of factors— a healthy climate for small businesses, Japanese workers’ propensity for industriousness and high savings, the government’s use of foreign exchange reserves to assist promising companies, low worldwide tariffs that encouraged trade—produced annual growth rates of more than 12 percent across the decade. By 1968, Japan had passed Germany to become the world’s third largest economy, after the United States and the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1960s, it was dominating the world in sales of steel, aluminum, radios, television sets, pianos, automobiles, motorcycles, large ships, and cameras, among other products. Meanwhile, white-collar workers, called sarariman (salarymen), were leading a full-blown consumer revolution. In the countryside, where household income increased by nearly 60 percent across the decade, once-poor farmers were purchasing the same cars and TV sets as their city relatives. One farmer told a visiting scholar: “When we were children it was just straw sandals. . . . Children are expensive nowadays. The boys all want bicycles to go to school, and nothing less than one of those five-gear models will do.”
Prosperity was not enough, however, to make the feel-good quality of the early 1960s last; as the decade passed, it became increasingly clear that wealth carried its own problems. For one thing, high growth drew the critics’ attention to Japan’s timidity on the international stage, where the U.S. alliance kept the country from developing a strong profile of its own. More serious was a series of growth-related domestic difficulties. Urbanization, for example, was taking place too rapidly for the infrastructure to keep up. When the urban corridor from Tokyo to Osaka grew by nearly a third—to almost 50 million people—in the decade before 1965, housing construction lagged and land prices soared to almost thirty times what they were in the United States. The result was exorbitant rents for tiny apartments in huge complexes without adequate plumbing or efficient heating. The transportation system was overused, too: millions jammed onto rush-hour trains every morning, where pushers shoved as many bodies as possible into each car. “I try to count the number of passengers between us and the door,” said a rider on the morning of a labor slowdown. “There are too many. . . . It’s difficult to step without treading on someone.”
High growth also damaged the environment, as mushrooming industries spewed out pollution. By the late 1960s, people were suffering an array of related afflictions, from stinging eyes and asthma to cadmium and mercury poisoning. In the most publicized case, refuse discharged by the Chisso chemical company into the poster-beautiful waters of Kyushu’s Minamata Bay afflicted more than 10,000 residents with mercury poisoning, producing a wide range of crippling and disfiguring disabilities. One victim, the fisherman Hamamoto Sohachi, insisted on going to work one morning despite being unable to speak clearly or walk steadily. When his boat rocked, he fell out, and stammered to his neighbor, “I’ve . . . got . . . that . . . strange . . . disease . . . that’s going . . . around. ” He began shaking with convulsions— and died seven weeks later. Such cases prompted a wave of lawsuits. They also gave rise to thousands of “citizens movements,” in which town or neighborhood residents organized to fight local polluters—or nuclear weapons, or price gouging, or whatever the key local issue was. Led as often by newly politicized women as by men, these groups energized Japan’s political scene in the early 1970s, pushing major antipollution legislation through the Diet and helping to elect progressive mayors in several cities.
Another wave of protests came from university students, stirred up by a melange of issues, ranging from hostility toward U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam to anger over poor teaching and rising university fees. They took to the streets and campus squares in great numbers in the late 1960s with attention-grabbing snake-dances, demonstrations, and strikes violent enough to shut down more than seventy universities. The most dramatic episode occurred at the University of Tokyo’s Yasuda Hall in January 1969, when police and students fought violently for ten hours. The police won, and left Yasuda a charred hull. Smaller groups of students joined the protests of the right-wing novelist Mishima Yukio, who created his own Shield Society to arouse the public against the loss of Japan’s martial vigor, a spiritual malady that was exemplified, he said, in the pacifist constitution and the security treaty. When an American agreement late in 1969 to return Okinawa to Japan sapped energy from the anti-treaty movement, Mishima concluded that his chances of inspiring mass actions were gone. Despondent, he went to the Army Self Defense Force headquarters in November 1970 and, after a bitter speech about Japan’s spiritual emptiness, disemboweled himself in the ancient samurai ritual of seppuku—an act that riveted the media-immersed public but won few sympathizers.
Whereas the cheering winds of prosperity spawned a storm of growth-related problems in the 1960s, the next two decades reversed the pattern, as difficulties that preoccupied the public early on gave way to what many considered a golden age, at least economically. Citizen activism continued for a time over issues such as pollution and the location of Tokyo’s new international airport. The fact that American military bases continued to occupy a full fifth of Okinawa’s land space, even after the prefecture was returned to Japanese control, drew continuing opposition too. But the biggest issues of the early 1970s sprang from several episodes abroad that raised questions about Japan’s role in the world and threatened its economic health. First came U.S. president Richard Nixon’s announcement in July 1971 that he would go to China, thereby ending two decades of Sino-American estrangement. Most Japanese approved, but they were stunned that Nixon had not consulted them, given Japan’s age-old closeness to China. Nixon also took two other steps that hurt Japan. He ended the long-term policy of holding the yen-to-dollar exchange rate at 360 to 1, causing the yen to rise against the dollar and making it harder to sell Japanese products in the United States. Then, in an effort to control food prices, he announced an embargo on the export of one of the products Japan needed most from the United States, soybeans. The embargo did not last long, but it enraged the Japanese people, who spoke derisively about the “Nixon shocks.” An even more serious blow came from the Middle East in the fall of 1973, when the major oil-producing countries tripled prices and cut supplies by 30 percent. Lacking oil of its own, Japan was rocked by this move. Within a year, annual inflation had reached 25 percent and the GNP had declined by 1.4 percent. “This is the beginning of the New Price Revolution, a fundamental change in the price structure of commodities,” one economist commented. The path ahead, he said, “is circumscribed by difficulties unknown—indeed never even imagined—in the 1960s.”
These difficulties produced Great Depression-style discussions of whether reliance on the international economy was in Japan’s best interest, but the prevailing analysis was different this time. Rather than turning inward, the Japanese confronted the problems head on. They maintained their close ties to the United States but nurtured friendlier relationships with Arab countries to assure the flow of oil. Officials also cajoled labor into taking smaller wage increases and launched a raft of energy-related policies: encouraging conservation, developing nonoil energy sources, and promoting the energy-efficient automobiles that eventually would dominate Western markets.
As a result, the economy regained a solid footing relatively quickly, and annual growth rates of about 5 percent resumed. While the political sphere experienced tumult in the 1970s, with one prime minister driven from office by financial scandals and his four successors limited to short terms, Japan’s economy had recovered sufficiently by 1978 to move through a second world oil shortage quite smoothly. At the decade’s end, Japan had a $10 billion annual balance-of-payments surplus with the United States, and its per capita GNP had passed that of the Americans. The Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel noted in a 1979 bestseller titled Japan As Number One that “Japanese institutions are coping with the same problems we confront, more successfully than we are.”
The 1980s seemed to confirm Vogel’s appraisal. The country was awash in capital, and people were full of confidence. Already in the 1970s, essayists had begun churning out analyses of what made the Japanese special: their rice-growing roots, their language, their work ethic. Now their analyses took on a name—Nihonjinron (“on being Japanese”)—and filled the bestseller lists. If many of these discussions appear ethnocentric or superficial today, Japan’s economic dominance gave them credibility at the time. Organized around giant companies such as Toyota and Honda, and guided by general trading firms like Mitsubishi and Mitsui, Japan’s economic energy seemed unstoppable.
By l983, two of the world’s four largest automakers were Japanese; by 1987, Japan’s annual trade surplus exceeded $60 billion; in 1988, it had the world’s ten largest banks, and at the decade’s end, firms like Sony and National Panasonic were purchasing such American icons as CBS Records and Pebble Beach Golf Course. All the while, domestic land prices soared, and so did Tokyo’s stock exchange.
This wealth produced a massive middle class in the 1980s, rooted in a competitive education system and bound together by the world’s most advanced transportation network. The hardworking, company-oriented salaryman was still the urban norm, the one who held up Japan’s economy and secured its values. He had studied hard in school (and in cram-school classes during evenings and weekends), negotiated his way through a hellish exam system to get into a good university, and then enjoyed his friends and ignored his studies at college. As an adult, he gave his life to a company, which provided him with lifetime employment, good wages, and steady promotions in return for his loyalty. He worked long hours, spent evenings drinking with colleagues, and paid outlandish fees to play golf on the weekend. All the while, his wife reared the children, readied them for those demanding entrance exams, and managed the family finances—including the husband’s salary, which he turned over to her in exchange for a personal allowance. Like him, she socialized primarily with friends of her own gender. Together, they filled their home with all of the latest appliances. The solid, affluent nature of this life was captured by the businessman Arai Shinya in his 1986 novel Shoshaman (Company-man), which depicted his fellow workers’ lives as secure but stifling. “Rare is the salaryman who has never agonized over his own impulse to quit the company,” he said. “But in the end they beat their usual path to the drinking holes, where they mourn the death of their short-lived dreams and pour out their hearts in criticism of their immediate superiors.”
That this description approximated reality for millions of urbanites is beyond question. It was not, however, the whole reality. Millions of others lived less secure, less stereotypical lives: as poorly paid employees in the small firms that made up the lower tiers of Japan’s business world; as grocery store clerks in family-owned shops; as hostesses and entertainers in the cities’ ubiquitous bars and cabarets. There were also more than a few rebels, who refused to follow society’s prescribed rules, regardless of their incomes or social backgrounds. By the early 1980s, social commentators had coined the word shinjinrui (new species) to depict a postwar social group that was unapologetic about pursuing personal satisfaction, even if that meant refusing to marry, for women, or quitting the company, for men. One of the shinjinrui, a hostess in a Sapporo bar, criticized the salaryman’s preoccupation with creating social networks. “That is what old people do. I suppose it is very Japanese—I do it too, for business,” she told an interviewer. “I do not think it is bad, it just takes a lot of time and effort, and . . . I would rather do other things.” She said she had no friends in the neighborhood where she lived. The cities also served as home to hundreds of thousands of true outsiders: the motorcycle gang members, unemployed rock musicians, drug users, and idlers who provoked establishment angst even as their self-indulgent lifestyles dramatized the country’s affluence.
Affluence greatly influenced Japan’s international standing in the 1980s. While domestic politics still took a backseat to economics, Japan’s world presence grew rapidly. Its businessmen, of course, became a common sight in the world’s major cities, and entrepreneurs like Sony’s Morita and Honda Motor Company’s Honda Soichiro were known across the business world. But their presence was political, too. One reason was that Nakasone Yasuhiro, prime minister from 1982 to 1987, took an active approach to world affairs, boasting a first-name relationship with U.S. president Ronald Reagan and promoting “internationalization.” He also pushed, though unsuccessfully, for a sharp increase in Japan’s defense spending. Particularly noteworthy was Japan’s increased engagement with Asia through participation in organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Peace Corps-like Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, which sent Japanese to do benevolent work in more than fifty countries. Japan also became the world’s largest foreign aid donor in the late 1980s, giving out more than $10 billion a year.
This new international prominence, unfortunately, had a downside, subjecting Japan to increasing levels of criticism. Success itself prompted some of the attacks. In the United States, for example, where Japanese industries threatened everything from textiles to automobiles, public figures bashed Japan over allegedly unfair trade practices. One Midwestern auto dealer ran a full-page ad in his local newspaper declaring ominously that after “Japanese Zero’s & Mitsubishi Bombers” threatened the Allies in World War II, “American planes blew them from the sky!” In 1987, a congressman smashed a Toshiba radio in front of the Capitol. Other criticism was self-inflicted, instigated by Japan’s insensitivity toward its neighbors. In 1985, when Nakasone made an official visit to Yasukuni, the shrine to Japan’s war dead (including those convicted of war crimes), Asian governments protested vigorously. Similar protests arose when the education ministry revised history textbooks to soften descriptions of Japanese colonialism and wartime atrocities. Several politicians’ expressions of racist opinions, including Nakasone’s 1983 declaration that “the Japanese have been doing well for as long as 2,000 years because there are no foreign races,” also drew fire. Economic might had made Japan visible, in ways once unimagined, and the results were often uncomfortable.
The Showa emperor’s death early in 1989 after sixty-two years on the throne highlighted many of the contradictions of the decade— indeed, of the whole postwar era. Public discussion during his months-long death watch illustrated the continuing divide between a conservative establishment and progressives, who were still fighting for individual freedoms and human rights. While the former insisted on public displays of sympathy for the ailing emperor, the latter used the time to highlight continuing social injustices—even to raise questions about the emperor’s wartime role. After Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi told the Nagasaki city assembly in December that the emperor should be held partially responsible for the war, a fierce controversy ensued, and a year later a right-wing extremist tried to assassinate him. When the emperor actually died on January 7, the middle class showed where its heart really lay by turning off the endless TV programs about the emperor and flocking to video stores, where they emptied the shelves of popular movies. The era’s contradictions were on display at the funeral, too, when 163 nations sent representatives to mourn the man in whose name the Pacific War had been fought. The name chosen for his successor Akihito’s reign was Heisei: “Establishing Peace.”
One thing the emperor’s death did not suggest, except to an insightful few, was how sharply Japan was about to change. If Hirohito’s last decade had been filled with economic success, Heisei’s first ten years proved the prescience of those Buddhist ancestors who pronounced all things fleeting. By 1990, the economy-that-could-do-no-wrong was in obvious trouble. The opening blow came when the stock market began to drop after the government tightened credit to curb speculative borrowing, and the Nikkei index plummeted from its December 1989 peak of nearly 39,000 to just over 14,000 in August 1992. That plunge highlighted a series of other economic problems, including the binge of earlier speculation that had led to inflated property values and a massive number of poorly secured loans. Consumer confidence went into a tail-spin, and the country fell into a decade of economic woes, with rising unemployment, a drop in industrial production, weak consumer spending, and the collapse of numerous banks and stores. The GDP grew at an average annual rate of less than 1 percent between 1992 and 1997, and in 1998 it actually declined. The economist Nariai Osamu captured the depth of the pessimism at the decade’s end with his observation that “unless Japan can break through the present economic ceiling, it will find it difficult to achieve an industrial renaissance in the coming century.”
The economic typhoon betokened political difficulties, too. Domestically, prime ministers went through a revolving door; nine men served between 1989 and 1999, and several of them were driven from office by scandals. The most noteworthy was Murayama Tomiichi, who in 1994 became the first socialist prime minister since the Occupation. To survive, however, he had to cobble together a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, and when he left office two years later, his party was in shambles. The strongest prime minister was a Liberal Democratic Party old-timer, Hashimoto Ryutaro, who ruled without coalition partners from 1996 to 1998, but was forced to resign by a voter rebellion over a sales tax increase. The travails of the political sphere were symbolized by the government’s bumbling response to the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which took more than 6,000 lives in the Kobe region early in 1995. “The Kobe earthquake not only destroyed a major city,” a commentator wrote in the journal Chuo Koron. “It also wrecked the nation’s confidence in the central government’s ability to cope with crises.” Two of the few bright spots in the quake’s aftermath were the massive outpouring of citizen relief efforts and the first widespread use of electronic bulletin boards to spread information and coordinate operations.
Internationally, the situation was not much better, as economic woes bred disaffection. Japan remained actively engaged in the world, contributing $13 billion to America’s effort in the Gulf War and sending the political scientist Ogata Sadako to the United Nations as the first female High Commissioner for Refugees. Japan also dispatched its Self Defense Forces to both hemispheres, as part of United Nations peacekeeping operations. But many of Japan’s activities stirred controversy. In Okinawa, for example, the American bases—both the land they consumed and crimes committed by servicemen—created new tensions with the United States and fueled domestic protests. Japan was widely attacked for refusing to deal directly with the demands of the World War II “comfort women,” even after the government admitted, early in the 1990s, that tens of thousands had been coerced into sex work. And critics across Asia hammered at Japan’s failure to apologize officially for World War II, despite expressions of regret by several prime ministers and the emperor’s personal apology to the Koreans in 1990. When the Diet’s Lower House offered “sincere condolences” in June 1995 “to those who fell in action and victims of wars and similar actions all over the world,” the statement’s vague tone triggered even sharper criticism.
The most complex, even baffling, feature of the 1990s was probably the impact the hard times had on the lives of average citizens. Press reports hewed to a standard line: Japan was going through another dark valley. A 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by the fringe religious group Aum Shinrykyo (Supreme Truth), which took twelve lives, was interpreted as evidence of widespread spiritual disaffection. The media wrote with relish about rootless youth—both students who bullied peers and graduates who lived off their parents rather than marrying or taking work—and about rising consumer debts and homelessness. They discussed the aging of Japan’s population, as couples decided not to have children, old folks lived longer, and economists predicted that the economy could not support a nation in which the elderly might make up 40 percent of the population by the mid-2000s. Editorialists also discussed the 600 percent increase in government spending on the elderly during the 1990s, fretfully describing the Tokyo father who lamented, “When we were young, it seemed as if there were kids all over. Now it seems as if there are only elderly people like me.”
The problem with those accounts is not that they were inaccurate but that they were incomplete. For all the hand-wringing, daily life never lost its vitality for most Japanese. As an investment broker said of his countrymen: “They watch the Nikkei average every day as it drops, but it’s like—you know the Japanese expression ‘observing a fire on the other side of the river.’ ” Consumers still spent their yen; world-renowned architects built stunning structures; savings and education levels remained high; popular culture was vibrant. In 1993, well after the recession had hit, foreign travel was ten times what it had been a decade earlier, and the American retailer L. L. Bean saw its Japanese sales soar. Something of the confidence and pride that remained in these years showed up in the forty million Japanese baseball fans who watched their compatriot Nomo Hideo pitch in America’s 1995 All-Star Game. After watching that game, the historian Ikei Masaru wrote: “Americans . . . have many positive images of Japan and the Japanese. The Japanese are thought to be highly responsible and hard-working and to live in a relatively crime-free society, where a woman can walk home alone late at night. Educational standards are high, public hygiene is sound, and life expectancies are among the world’s longest.” So much for the nation’s pervasive gloom.
The 1990s’ social energy may have been most apparent in family life, where people increasingly embraced the right to pursue personal satisfaction. By 2000, nuclear families were universal, love marriages nearly so. More and more husbands were coming home for dinner and helping with child rearing. On weekends, shopping centers overflowed with families and with couples walking hand in hand. Nonmarital options increased, too; many women put off marriage (or rejected it altogether), and divorce rates rose to about half what they were in England and America. More women were pursuing careers outside the home. Indeed, by the decade’s end, more women worked full-time out of than in the home. The middle-class affirmation of the “good life” surely is one reason that A Healing Family, the 1995 memoir by Nobel prize-winning novelist Oe Kenzaburo, became a bestseller. Writing with stark frankness about family life with his autistic, epileptic son Hikari, he describes family meals, bouts of anger, sibling quarrels, hospital visits, the soothing power of music, and panic when Hikari gets lost. He envisions “how we . . . would have turned out if we hadn’t made Hikari an indispensable part of our family”: “I imagine a cheerless house where cold drafts blow through the gaps left by his absence.”
The residence of Kyushu architect Hamura Shoei Yoh overlooks the beach where Mongols invaded Japan in the late 1200s. His work is known for blending man-made structures with natural settings. In this home, says Hamura, “we have been learning the extreme beauty and awful phenomena" of nature. He has named the residence “Another Glass House between Sea and Sky." Courtesy of Hamura Shoei Yoh.
Signs of restored national health abounded in many spheres as the new millennium began. On the political front, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s five-year term (2001-2006) restored some stability and considerable energy to the government. Despite a confrontational approach that included six visits to Yasukuni and deployment of the Self Defense Forces to a conflict zone—Iraq—for the first time, his popularity remained high, particularly after he privatized the powerful postal system in 2005. His open-collared shirts and much-trumpeted admiration for Elvis Presley brought color to a drab world. And the economy began to recover. Even in the depression years, Japan had maintained solid fundamentals, with high savings rates, a relatively equitable distribution of wealth among classes, a strong yen, heavy government spending on public works, and large foreign reserves. Expanded exports (especially to China) and heavy investment now combined with consumer confidence to produce an economic expansion that, by 2006, would be the longest in postwar history. The rise of Internet firms was particularly impressive. Nearly 1,000 start-up companies went public in the decade before 2002, many of them reflecting the entrepreneurial spirit of Namba Tomoko, a young woman who founded the Internet auction company DeNA in 1999 and had a staff of seventy by 2003. “I was tired of designing businesses at a desk for someone else,” she said. “There is nothing stopping a woman in striking out on her own in Japan anymore except her upbringing.”
Japan of the early twenty-first century was a technological paradise. Nowhere on earth was cell phone technology more advanced; nowhere did text messaging tie citizens together more fully. By 2008, Japan had more than eighty million cell phone Internet subscribers. Transportation systems were among the world’s most advanced, too, with people tracking routes on GPS systems and watching the news overhead on commuter train monitors, even as they read novels on their cell phones. By the end of the decade, the Japanese were selling robotic suits that enabled disabled people to move more easily and reading food labels that gave environmental footprints. They had Asia’s second highest per capita GDP, after Singapore, and the lowest inflation rate of any developed nation. And popular culture had absorbed the information revolution seamlessly, as sales of digital musical downloads rivaled those of CDs and DVDs.
Indeed, the sphere that integrated East and West most impressively in the early twenty-first century may have been popular culture. Western visitors typically commented on the prominence of Western things in Japan: Hollywood films, French fashions, British rock and soccer stars. But that was only half the story. By the early 2000s, Japan’s cultural industry was truly international. It was dominated by home-grown groups and fads, and its influence abroad was immense. The cooking shows and reality programs on Japanese television were replicated on American TV screens. Karaoke and instant ramen had become so common in the West that they were hardly thought of as Japanese, as had Power Rangers, Sudoku, and Transformers. Sushi was sold in smalltown American supermarkets; Issey Miyake’s fashion designs charmed Parisians; translations of manga (comic books) lined the shelves of bookstores around the globe; and Japanese baseball players starred in the U.S. major leagues. Most influential of all, surely, was anime, which made Miyazaki Hayao’s Tottoro a world figure and inspired animation-viewing clubs across Europe and America. If Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon had drawn millions of moviegoers, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away attracted tens of millions.
The challenges facing Japan early in the twenty-first century remained daunting. China’s rising economic might, combined with resentments over World War II, made the threat of conflict serious. Interactions with North Korea, with its expanding missile program, were chilly—and potentially dangerous. Territorial disputes over fishing waters and resource-rich islands bedeviled relations with South Korea and China. At home, the 2008-2009 world financial crisis sent Japan’s economy into a new downturn, and political scandals seemed endemic. There were also endless debates about Japan’s role in the world, particularly whether it should reduce ties with the United States and amend the constitution to allow Japan to become a “normal” nation in its defense policies. Planners continued to worry about global warming and population decline too. Few questioned, however, the underlying dynamism, or fundamental stability, of Japanese society. Indeed, when voters turned the LDP out of power and sent a record fifty-four women to the Diet’s Lower House in the fall of 2009, just as the economy had begun to recover from the financial crisis, many saw fresh evidence of the country’s deep-seated, democratic vitality. When the sun goddess was troubled by pernicious behaviors in prehistoric times, she shut herself up in a cave to avoid seeing evil. No one envisioned a similar withdrawal by today’s leaders. A more likely model lay in the seventh century’s Suiko and Shotoku Taishi, who, when faced by challenges, sought wisdom abroad and wrote a constitution urging officials to “attend the court early in the morning, and retire late” because “the whole day is hardly enough.”