Tomorrow, December 7th, marks the seventy fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. As an American writing about Japan, I didn't really feel like I could let the date pass without comment. Instead of focusing on the negative events of the war, I decided to talk about what happened after 1945 and how a nation devastated by war and two atomic bombs could recover, become friends and allies with their victorious enemy, and grow into the worlds next economic superstar.
During and after a war of this magnitude, it is easy to paint the enemy as an evil force with no mercy or humanity. Especially when Wold War Two was fought against the nazis, who couldn't be a more perfect example of evil on earth. America had become used to the idea of a national conspiracy, with a dictator at the head, injecting his country with the venomous ideology. This was what they expected to find when they arrived in Japan after the surrender.
However, the Japanese Empire was not a dictatorship, there was no party comparable to the nazis, and there seemed to have not even been a master plan for the war. As the scholar Masao Maruyama later wrote, Japan had "slithered into a war" with a combination of ultra nationalism and a series of false assumptions and bad decisions. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal were so fixated on the idea of the supposed nazi like party that they made being a member of it a Grade A crime. They then down graded serious warcrimes like killing and torturing POWs to grade B or C. But of course there was no Japanese nazi party to punish. This meant that people who were responsible for the actual war crimes, such as the atrocities in China, were not as heavily punished as they otherwise might have been.
After the war Japan was devastated. The population was starving after food shortages that had been present since the beginning of the war. Two cities had been obliterated and almost all the others had considerable damage from allied bombing. The government was in complete disrepair and was now under the control of foreign powers for the first time since the unification of Japan. If the movie Grave of the Firflies (the worlds most depressing film) is anything to go by, it was a horrible time to live through.
Allied occupation of Japan (no longer an empire, though Emperor Showa was still on the thrown) carried on from 1945 to 1952. But after the American's pulled out of Japan, this was not the end of their influence. If there is one thing that could make America look kindly on its former enemies, it would be the fact that they were not communists. With China communist, India a neutral state, and Korea divided and at war, America desperately wanted an Asian capitalist nation to hold up as an example. When you're trying to build up your economy, what could be better than having the worlds economic superpower on your side.
The US encouraged the import of Japanese goods, which were so small in number that they could easily be absorbed without harming American companies. By setting the exchange rate of the yen low against the dollar, they were able to make Japanese products seem cheeper to American consumers. This was undoubtably a big help in getting Japan back on its feet.
However, having the helping hands of America was not the only way that Japan was able to produce its miracle. Starting from nothing, most of the infrastructure of the country having been destroyed in the war, meant that Japan could take advantage of new technologies. For example, the new process for steel manufacturing, which had been developed in the west, was quick to be adopted in Japan. America and Britain would have had to spend lots of money to restructure their steel productions, but this was not a problem for Japan, since they were starting from scratch.
This did not mean that their workers were new to industrial life though. The process of urbanization had already happened in the teens and twenties, so the large and cheep workforce was already experienced in the ways of factory life. Companies were quick to encourage loyalty in their workers by giving them security and making sure that when the company did well, so did the employees. This, coupled with the fact that managers only made around fifteen percent more than regular workers, meant that even the lower employees still felt like a part of the family.
I have often observed that it is far easier to be a good worker and produce better products when you actually feel good about where you work. The loyalty of the Japanese work force can only have helped in the embracing of quality standards. Inspired by the words of American consultant William Edwards Demming, employers taught their workers that quality was everything. As Demming's said, every stage of production should be geared towards making a perfect product, instead of simply taking away the imperfections at the end. Companies encouraged workers to point out inefficiencies and flaws. In the 1950s Made in Japan meant cheep and unreliable, by the seventies it meant inexpensive and well made.
Japan is a country with a long history of mastering your productions. There are many restaurants in Japan that have been run by the same family for many generations, each perfecting the same dish over the decades. Craftsmen have been making quality goods for thousands of years, starting with the jomon pottery of prehistoric times right down to the modern era. The idea of quality workmanship was already ingrained in their culture and was therefore probably easy to adopt into the industrial boom.
Between 1955 and 1975 the Japanese economy grew by 435%, which is staggering. By the eighties western economists were looking at Japan's rapid economic growth, high literacy, free and open elections, long life expectancy, income equality, low street crime and free labor unions and wondering if Japan might not be number one. The boom of a countries economy has since been accomplished by Taiwan, Korea and China, but one of the incredible things about Japan was that it accomplished this in a period of free and open election in a multiparty democracy. It is easy, or easier, for a country of one party rule to make the adjustments necessary to achieve economic growth on this scale, it's quite another for a democratic and changing government to do so.
There was more to the "Japanese Miracle" than I have written here including price fixing, cartels, government loan guarantees, and lots of hard work. When America finally started to get nervous about the popularity of the inexpensive Japanese imports, which were putting American companies out of business, they stopped supporting the yen and imposed trade tariffs. This didn't stop Japan, who had effectively cornered many markets, and sometimes even moved production to the US to avoid the import taxes. This is why Toyota is one of the only foreign car makers who sell trucks in America, they're made here to avoid the dreaded "Chicken Tax" that makes importing trucks to America far too expensive.
Today, though Japan's economy jump has seemingly come to an end, they have joined the modern industrialized world. America and Japan have been on good political terms since the end of the war and to this day most Japanese citizens support the line in the post war constitution that renounces war and the maintenance of armed forces. This was a mandatory clause put in by the allied governments, but it has contributed to the pacifism of the country today. Though some Japanese politicians want to change the constitution, seeing this clause as an infringement on Japanese sovereignty, almost two thirds of the general public disagree.
How do people move past things like Pearl Harbor, the casualties of war, the mistreatment of POWs, the internment of Japanese-American and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And then turn around and actually become friends and allies? I have read that US soldiers who arrived in Japan after the surrender, and were expecting to be fighting in the streets, instead found Japanese soldiers asking "how can I help you?". My own grandfather, who had been too young to fight in the war, enlisted in 1946 at the age of eighteen and was stationed in Kokura for a year. While there he worked on the restoration of the postal service. It just goes to show human beings have an incredible capacity for understanding and forgiveness.
Today America and Japan share more than trade agreements. People often ask me how I ever got interested in Japan. The truth is that my generation has grown up watching anime and collecting pokemon cards. The influence of Japanese pop culture has spread wide and been whole heartedly embraced. Every city has a sushi restaurant (or many), every millennial knows who pacman, the transformers, and pikachu are. Cosplay, ninjas, teriyaki and Hayao Miyazaki have lodged themselves firmly in our vocabulary. In my own home growing up we had big glossy books full of Japanese architecture, block prints, and fine craft. The far east doesn't feel so far anymore.
I won't go so far as to say that we've forgotten the war. We haven't, nor should we, since it's always good to know where we came from so we can learn from our mistakes. What I find particularly uplifting and inspiring is that we don't feel like we have to hate each other for the past. We can look beyond it and be friends. And thank goodness, because I don't want to live in a world where I can't eat sushi and watch My Neighbor Totoro.