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An ancient kingdom off the coast of Asia, Japan may be the oldest continuous state existing at present. The first emperor, Jimmu, is said to have begun his reign in 660 BC. The origins of the Japanese may be from the peoples of Eastern Siberia with which their language has some affinities. The Ainu may be the descendants of people who lived in the islands before the Japanese arrived.

Their island situation has given the Japanese a cohesion and freedom from invasion which has allowed them to develop in isolation. In the time of Kubilai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China, there were two attempted invasions in 1274 and 1281. Both failed. Traditionally the failure is attributed to a "Divine Wind" (Kamikaze) that sank or scattered the second invasion fleet. A new book on the archaeology of the sunken fleet, recently discovered, suggests the fleet was badly organised - a sign of the waning of the Mongol efficiency in China. The Mongols' Chinese invasions failed to conquer the country. Those who did land were killed.

See this Feudal Japan page.

The result was a strong cultural desire to avoid further invasions and influence from outside. However, they had already had strong cultural influences by imitation from China and Central Asia. From China came linguistic influences: the Japanese writing systems include a large number of Chinese characters (this though the spoken language belongs to a different family). From Central Asia came Buddhism, especially the mystical version called Zen believed to be from the area of Afghanistan (before the Muslims arrived). Thus the Japanese have two main religions: Shinto from the Shamanism of Siberia, and Buddhism from China and Afghanistan.

Before the contacts with the outside world there was what looked like a Feudal system in which the Samurai class had many similarities with the European Knights of the early second millennium.

Contacts with Europe
The first western contact was with the Portuguese who tried to trade and sent missionaries who made some converts in Nagasaki, the only city where foreigners were allowed to stay. However, government policy turned against foreign influence and Christianity was forbidden with many being killed. (But it survived in secret in some areas).

From the 16th until early 19th century Japan maintained a policy of isolation from the outside world. During this period Japan's culture and economy remained static at a feudal level. Trading was restricted to one town - Nagasaki - and to the Dutch and Chinese, who were not allowed to leave the port.

The Black Ships
The most important recent event in Japan's history was the arrival of an American expedition led by Admiral Perry in 1853 sent by the American government to compel the Japanese to trade with the outside world. They brought with them examples of western technology including the latest steamships, which convinced the Japanese that they were threatened by overwhelming superior force. A treaty was signed in 1854. This expedition produced a revolution in Japan known as the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The hereditary ruler, the Shogun - who was in theory the Emperor's first minister - was overthrown and an imitation of the western system was brought in - with a Parliament, a Peerage and western clothes. The constitution was modeled on Bismarck's German Empire. It was represented as the restoration of the power of the Emperor - though, probably the Japanese "Emperor" had never been a political figure.

The feudal warrior and noble class, the Samurai, became bankers and industrialists and evolved rapidly into the leaders of an industrial culture. The aim was formulated from about 1880 to emulate and overtake the European industrialized countries.

One aspect of this policy was to acquire a colonial empire. Japanese armies occupied Korea and the island named by the Portuguese as Formosa (Taiwan).

The results of this were shown when the modernized Japanese navy (modelled on the British Royal Navy) defeated the Russian navy during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. The island of Sakhalin became Japanese (lost in 1945). The conquest of Korea followed in 1909. This was the beginning of an attempt to have a colonial empire like the British and other European powers. Taiwan had been occupied in 1895. The aim was probably to gain access to raw materials for industrial development, as Japan itself has few sources of energy or other raw materials.

During the 1930s Japan continued to imitate the Europeans, especially the dictatorship and militarism of the Germans and Italians. A militaristic party seized power and suppressed all semblance of democracy. The regime could be described as fascism, though in a Japanese way: emphasis of the divinity of the emperor, of the purity of the Japanese genetic inheritance, of the need to obey the government because it was appointed by the emperor. There were obvious similarities to Nazism in Germany, though of course there were few Jews in Japan. Racist behavior was directed at Koreans and Chinese, and during the second world war at Europeans and Americans.

In 1931 the Japanese army invaded Manchuria in northern China and the last deposed Chinese Emperor Pu Yi was installed as a figurehead ruler. Manchuria was developed as an industrial base to supply raw materials for Japan, using slave Chinese labor. Manchuria was then used as the base for the invasion of the rest of China in 1937. This involved exceptional brutality as the Japanese treated the Chinese as inferior.

The Japanese were allied with Nazi Germany and Italy and acted to assist the Germans by attacking and occupying the European Asian colonies. By 1943 Japan had occupied all of French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), as well as British Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Dutch Indonesia, American Philippines and most of the islands of the western Pacific and could bomb the north coast of Australia from part of Papua New Guinea. The main war aim was to acquire raw materials (especially rubber and oil) from the countries of China and South East Asia, but it was also a reaction to being treated with racist discrimination by the other leading industrial and colonial powers. Prisoners and local people were treated badly in a similar way to the Nazis' treatment of Jews and Slavs: medical experiments, starving to death, slave labor, forced prostitution.

The occupied area was known to the Japanese as the "Co-prosperity Sphere", which is roughly the area where Japanese commercial activities are predominant now.

In December 1941 Japanese forces attacked the US navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and thus made the United States an active enemy, though many prominent Japanese politicians believed that this was a catastrophic error (however, the US had ordered sanctions against the Japanese and the armed forces might have run out of oil shortly after). (Some historians argue that the US government had foreknowledge of the attack and needed it to overcome isolationist - neutralist - sentiment in Congress.) The overwhelming industrial strength of the United States made the result of the war inevitable. The Japanese were defeated. They had to surrender or withdraw from the occupied countries and accept an American Occupation government until 1952. This attempted to remove the aggressive politicians but few were tried for war crimes.

Japan was the first country on which nuclear weapons were used in war (so far, the only one).

It has been suggested that Japan's policy remains the same as before the war but is now achieved by commercial means rather than military. For the rest of the world this is an improvement.

There is now some question about whether Japan should have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, alongside, perhaps, the European Community and Russia. Japan's economic power has not been accompanied by world political power. Probably they cannot join the Security Council without first having a military force to be used by the UN. Japanese forces have served under UN command, though in non-combat conditions. Popular hostility to the military makes this difficult. But there are in fact large military forces. No-one knows if they are effective. The rise of China reduces Japanese relative importance.








There is some doubt about whether the person known in English as the Emperor (Japanese: Tenno, Mikado) was really a political ruler. In some respects he seems to be more of a religious figure and may be derived from the Shamans found in Siberia, from where the Japanese may once have migrated. The present status of the Emperor as constitutional monarch may be similar to his status during the Shogun period when the government was conducted by a hereditary Prime Minister (Shogun) while the emperor performed the rituals necessary in the Shinto religion. Portuguese visitors to Japan in the 16th century regarded the "emperor" as being the equivalent of the Pope in the Holy Roman Empire. This shows a similarity with Bhutan where there were also two rulers, one for ritual purposes, the other for power. (Or indeed, modern Britain.)

Japan now has a multi-party parliamentary system. However, from 1949 when it was set up under the American occupation regime until 1993 the ruling party had never been defeated by the opposition. If the test of a democracy is whether a change of party can occur, Japan may have passed this test only with the June 1993 elections. As in Italy the dominance by one party leads to political corruption. Moreover, unlike in Germany, many of the early leaders of the democratic system had held office during the war. There was no significant resistance to fascism as there had been in Germany. The American occupiers put very few of the war leaders on trial.

The workings of the system suggest the original feudal system is still working beneath the trappings of a western state structure. The usually ruling Liberal-Democrat party is a big business party with some resemblances to western European conservative parties. However, closer inspection reveals it to be a party of bosses and clients organized in factions. These resemble the Samurai politics of earlier times. The main preoccupation is with money to bribe the electorate (or give them presents for weddings and funerals). The leaders of factions can raise money and distribute it to their client MPs within the faction. The money comes from big business, the various corporations. It is hard to classify this type of political system, but it is clearly not a European model.

The Prime Minister is chosen by the factions but is not usually the leader of the strongest faction. The strongest leader more often acts as a "kingmaker" than as king.

The role of the electorate is to moderate this system to some extent. In recent years a voters' revolt over the introduction of a Value Added Tax caused the downfall of a prime minister. Sex and financial scandals have also caused prime ministers to resign. The opposition is fragmented into a moderate socialist party until recently headed by a woman (unusual in Japan), a democratic socialist party, a communist party and a cultist Clean Government party - Sokkai Gakkai - (but tainted by bribery like the others). It is rumored that at least some of the opposition is in fact paid by the Liberal Democrats.

It seems to be a convention that a Prime Minister serves only about five years (but sometimes less) before making way for another. This is reminiscent of the Mexican system.

Japanese culture emphasizes the value of consensus rather than the individual. This may diminish the role of the Prime Minister and leave him as the moderator of the cabinet, or referee between the different factions of the party.

The death of the Emperor Hirohito in 1990 allowed the accession of Akihito who has been educated in western countries. No-one knows what his political role is. There are extreme right factions who would like to restore the pre-1945 regime of militarism and worship of the emperor as a god. However, these appear to be outside the mainstream and not part of the consensus. Could the current threat to Japan's economic well-being bring them to power even though they may be no more numerous at present than extreme left groups?

Changes to the electoral system proposed in July 1991 by the then Prime Minister, Toshiki Kaifu, might have changed the whole political system. At present there are multi-member constituencies. The new system would consist of single member constituencies. There would be an element of proportional representation similar to the German system. Some observers believe it would make it even more difficult for opposition members to be elected. However, they would also diminish the power of the different factions and reduce the cost of elections. Toshiki Kaifu appeared to be popular with the electorate but the heads of factions caused him to resign, indicating that the "Samurai" are more important than the voters.

There is a similarity with pre-1832 Britain in that the numbers of voters in rural voting districts can be as low as one sixth of the maximum in urban voting districts. This makes it easier to bribe rural voters and gives them disproportionate influence. It is notable that Japanese farmers are more highly subsidized than any others in industrial countries. Japan is not an open market for agricultural produce.

There were no proposals for a directly elected head of government.

The political system seems likely to continue on its corrupt way, but perhaps what keeps Japan going is not the political system so much as the civil service and big companies. That is, it may not matter much what the politicians do. One commentator quotes a leading politician as saying: Japan has a first rate economy, a second rate standard of living and a third rate political system. The danger might occur if a situation arises which requires real choices of policy. The current domestic economic situation may be one of these. Japan's economy is in serious recession. The spread of post Cold War wars may be another. However, Japan's neighbors may prefer Japan to have no strong politicians in power.

Following the June 1993 elections the ruling Liberal Democratic party had lost its majority. However, the majority was split among a number of small parties, the most influential of which were in fact dissident factions of the LDP. That is, the election may not represent a change as radical as the current Italian changes. What may be happening is that the factions are still operating, but outside the LDP. It is not clear that even a change in the electoral system would produce important change. The result was a series of shortlived and unstable governments. The most ludicrous of these is a coalition of a Socialist PM, who dropped all his party's policies, with the LDP.

In 2001 a new prime minister came to office. Junichiro Koizumi seems different from his predecessors who were figureheads for a committee of party elders, leaders of their factions. He is promising economic change, which will include bankruptcies in order to free the economy. Large scale unemployment is predicted. His model is Margaret Thatcher. Will he succeed? Time will tell.
No, he didnŐt.

By 2008 Japan still had the same problems.

In 2009 a new party took power, for only the second time since 1945. It does not seem more effective than the LDP.






Throughout the 20th century Japan developed rapidly with a dense network of railways and other modern communication aids.

The economic development accelerated following the destruction of the second world war.

As with Germany, Japan was restricted to a low level of military spending so that investment was directed into civilian industry. Japan's rate of saving (16% of income) and investment is very high, unlike that of the declining industrial countries, Britain and America. Since the war ended the high rate of growth was directed by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry which transformed it from a poor country to the world's richest (in GNP per head).

Until 1990 Japan showed a consistent high rate of economic growth. Has that growth now ceased? The years of trade surplus have driven the currency to high levels which has now caused manufacturers to locate in cheaper wage areas (including Britain, and other Asian countries). A domestic depression with increasing unemployment - hitherto almost unknown - is causing great strains on society. Debts which cannot be repaid as prices fall in a deflation prevent borrowing and investment - and reveal the power of the Yakuza, a local Mafia.

Does this mean the days of being the world's leading economic superpower are over? Although Japan has few natural resources it has been an important manufacturing nation, importing raw materials and exporting products.

There has been government co-ordination of industry and trade policies. The Japanese "Miracle" was planned by the Ministry for International Trade and Industry (MITI) which initially, from soon after defeat in 1945, directed investment into heavy industry - steel making and shipbuilding, then into electronics. It is not the result of the kind of Free Market policies advocated in the United States and Britain. Japan gained a boost from US spending in the Korean War (1949-53).

Japan's industrial success appeared to follow from the traditional culture of consensus rather than confrontation and from a willingness to delay consumption in favor of investment.

Large companies traditionally employ most of their workers for life, and the company is seen as a clan. That is, it seems to be an outgrowth of Japan's feudal period so that workers are to some extent dependents of the company much as peasants were once dependents of a Samurai Lord. The worker is expected to behave as a loyal "soldier" . When business is slack the company is not expected to lay off workers. This gives the companies an incentive to innovate in order to provide profitable employment. (But there are many smaller companies, component suppliers, which operate in a much more precarious fashion, with unemployment possible.) Unemployment and flight to cheaper wages is undermining this pattern.

Japanese industry learned from techniques devised in Britain and the United States of quality control and worker-management consultation. (But the techniques were generally not used in the US and UK). Japan's economy is not subject to frequent takeover bids which many economists believe hamper industry in Anglo-Saxon countries. Companies are organized with lots of cross holdings of shares which makes it difficult for any financier either from within Japan or from outside to buy into a company. This allows companies to make very long term plans, whereas American and British companies are accused of making only short term plans which is detrimental to investment and innovation. Investors are more interested in capital gains than in current dividend. So far the Japanese system does not seem to have produced the slackness the lack of takeovers is predicted to have, in Anglo-Saxon countries. Perhaps the custom of suicide for failure keeps the executives active.

The consequences of Japan's success in making goods which people want to buy at a price they are willing to pay is a large trade surplus. The trade surplus has resulted in capital inflow to the United States and Europe and the buying by Japanese companies and individuals of property in these countries. Japanese banks are now the largest in the world. It was Japanese lending which made possible the United States's government deficit and the US trade deficit (until the rise of China). If the Japanese were to recall their funds the US would suffer a serious problem. (In 1992 there were signs that this was occurring.) But the Yen value of dollar property is falling.

This economic dominance is not inevitable and need not last for ever. For example, Japanese may adopt western spending habits and cease to save. Other countries, such as Korea and Taiwan, have adopted Japanese methods and shown the same results. Western countries may improve their own economic performance, perhaps by adopting Japanese financial structures instead of the dogmatic reliance on 18th century stock markets. Japan has an aging population which may lead to a fall in population in the 21st century. On general ecological grounds this would be useful. But an aging population is less likely to innovate, and will have a higher ratio of dependents to workers so that there will be less saving for investment. Japan may then become more like the older industrialized countries. They may even adopt the western free market system as they are continually advised to do by western leaders. For cultural reasons they probably will not.

The most "western" aspect of the economy is the financial system, which suffered a bubble boom and a bust which may be have had the effect on Japan of the 1929 US stock market crash - intensified depression and deflation. The financial system is considered very corrupt.

Since the bubble burst in 1989 the economy went into a period of stagnation from which it has not yet emerged. Many of the banks have large loans that will never be repaid, originally secured against property whose value is now a fraction of the value of the loan. Japan has been described recently as a testbed for the experiences of Deflation - one of the most feared economic problems. As prices fall, people stop buying because they expect the goods will cost less later.

The new (2001) prime minister Koizumi was thought to be going to cause bankrupticies to remove the paralysis of the economy. So far (2003) he hasn't. Possibly, only after bankruptcies could Japan grow again.

(See Paul Krugman on Japan's economic problems.)

However, one feature may be the very low birthrate and the aging of the population - thus decision making is in the hands of the old and uncreative. It may be that the underlying cause of the deteriorating economic performance is the rigidity of the old. Other countries with low birthrates, such as most European states, make up for this by immigration. Japan forbids immigrants, except those of Japanese origin, to maintain the racial 'purity' of the population.

Japan seems to be severely affected by the Crash of 2008-9.

In many ways the fears of westerners of the rise of Japan have been eclipsed by the rise of China.

Interesting reading

Robert Wade - Governing the Market

Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization






Japan produces a great deal of pollution. During the period of most rapid growth heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury and Lead were dumped in the sea by chemical factories so that people eating fish from certain areas were poisoned (Minamata disease from Methyl mercury). Japanese eat more fish than Europeans and Americans do.

Air pollution in cities is still bad.

Japan has been reluctant to cease killing whales and evades international agreements by claiming killings are for "scientific purposes" . Whale meat is a traditional part of Japanese diet - but traditional Japan had fewer people and was thus less of a threat to the whale population.

Japan also has a reputation for logging in the rain forests of South East Asia without replanting. In general the Japanese do not appear to feel the need for ecological behavior and only respond to threats of boycott of Japanese products. (This is despite the traditional culture's sensitivity to nuances of the natural world. It is possible that the traditional culture may assert itself against the industrialists' insensitivity.)

There is known to be a supply of Plutonium from civil reactors. Japan could clearly manufacture nuclear weapons rapidly and probably would do so if threatened from North Korea.

Population growth decreased to European levels quickly and is now below replacement level. As immigration is extremely difficult an aging and shrinking population may be a problem in the near future - as shown by this BBC report. There are discussions of why the birth rate is so low. One reason may be the low status of women, who prefer to work rather than look after children at home. This suggests that the cultural structure of industry may be the root of the trouble. In the long run a smaller population will relieve pressure on land and housing.

Earthquakes and Tsunamis are a hazard to life, as seen on 10/03/11 when a earthquake under the sea off the port of Sendai produced a Tsunami that killed thousands of people and severely damaged a nuclear power station.





Human Rights

Human rights in Japan are believed to be good in general, but there are groups who are discriminated against. The Burakumin are the descendants of castes who did unclean work. They are still excluded from general society in a similar way to the lowest castes of Hindu society. Descendants of Koreans, often brought to Japan as slaves or forced to work as prostitutes, are similarly excluded from society.

There are also aboriginal inhabitants who appear to have been there from before the time the Japanese arrived from Siberia.

Jails very bad.

Last revised 7/06/12

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