Written in 1998 by Mark Prado.
Trip to Japan
I had an opportunity to stay in Japan for very cheap by staying with one of my wife's friends for free (no hotel), and found some special cheap flights, so I worked my butt off and saved enough money for a special trip with my wife and daughter. This free place to stay was not going to be available for long, so we took it as soon as we could.
This article is not a polished one but is something I wrote up while in Japan and on the airplane back. If I were to polish it, it would never be finished because of other interests of mine and my budget of time & energy. So here it is, as-is:
My Approach to Japan
Over the years I've read and heard much about Japan from people who have been analysts and been there, but had never been there myself. My eventual perceptions and analyses often differ with what I've read and those of my colleagues, and so I always maintain an open mind and objectivity as best I can. I also don't come from a mindset of individual or nationalistic interests. I'm a citizen of Earth, a believer in INTERnational security, and supportive of any citizens of any country who are peaceful, tolerant and good people. (The opposite is "My country, right or wrong" kinds of superpatriots and protectionists, who are often economically, spiritually and/or intellectually insecure identities, who come out causing widespread damages out of narrow self-interest.)
When I arrive in a country, I first try to understand how the culture came to be what it is. We are all human with essentially the same "hardware" -- instinctual drives (which many cultures strive to deal with suppressively in part, understandably) -- but due to the different environments (culture dishes) that we grow up in, we turn up with different thinking and behavior patterns -- different "software". It's genetics vs. environment. You can have a lot of computers but what do you program them to do, good or bad, basic or sophisticated, practical or theoretical analyses? Precious few "biological computers" in our species eventually rise above it all and program themselves entirely. The vast majority of people have thinking patterns which closely conform to their particular culture's norms.
I'd read about Japan over the years, many years ago. When I went to buy a travel guide book in Bangkok, however, I came out choosing one with a current analysis rather than a more hard core travel guide -- 90% literary and 10% travel info and tips. There were other books that discussed the history briefly, with discussions of customs and etiquette, a long list of historical and touristy places to see, hotels, vital numbers, etc. However, the book I chose was half the size of the Lonely Planet guide but devoted far more to analyzing the culture today as well as in the past, and page after page seemed much better written. The group of authors was impressive -- long experience as well as educational, including cross-cultural authors who had been raised in Japan. It was the current, third revised edition by APA Publications called "Insight Guides - Japan". 32 authors contributed, both western and Japanese. I quote it many times below, in an effort to save me time and quote more authoritative people than myself.
Current Perspectives on Japan
As is common knowledge, arriving in Japan means arriving in one of the most technologically advanced and richest countries in the world. It's also well known that Japan is relatively safe, has expansive and sophisticated infrastructure (especially transportation), and has a highly cooperative and helpful population.
Japan has a history very separate from the west except for the past 140 or so years, and a culture with significant differences. Cultures don't change easily or quickly. However, as I usually point out in my cultural analyses, I don't like to exaggerate or put out of perspective the overall differences between peoples. It is my observation that we have far more in common than we have differences, and most differences can best be understood as different degrees of a trait across a culture. Within each culture we have a wide diversity of individuals, so we are usually looking at a generalization regarding the ordinary, conforming person. A relatively conformist culture can have a substantial number of original, creative, bold thinkers who go well beyond the originality and creativity of the vast majority of the population in a liberal culture as well. The exception is sociopolitical systems which have strict penalties against those who don't conform, but contemporary Japan clearly does not fall into that category. Thus, when I talk about Japanese traits, I don't want to imply that these are traits of all Japanese individuals, or not traits of people in western countries.
Writers have historically made generalizations such as western rugged individualism vs. Asian conformist cultures. This is, in my opinion, the main issue of west vs. east. On average, this is true historically and at present as well. However, the whole range of traits exist in individuals in all cultures, and you can't say that all individuals of one culture are one way or another. There is conformity in all cultures and individual leadership for changes in all cultures, both historically and at present. Also, many "western" cultures have been roughly as conformist as eastern ones at one time or another, so when we talk of western individualism we are often talking of certain western cultures, not all western cultures. Indeed, there are countless incarnations of "individualism" which are quite conformist with one's peer group, not true individualism. And there are definitely individuals in the east who are leaders or potential leaders.
The real difference is that we are really looking at a much larger number of western individuals who have stepped out and made a radical difference in the course of world history. The greatest of those were scientists who changed our views of ourselves and our place in the universe (e.g., against conformist church powers) and who developed technologies which both impacted our cultures and empowered armies to spread a particular culture. Some western countries benefitted from democracies (thanks to certain philosophical political leaders with courage and without powerful enough physical threats) which protected the individual from conformist powers by proclaiming rights to the individual and limiting state powers, and there's a big correlation between a culture's respect for the individual and rate of scientific and technological advancement. As Einstein liked to say, great ideas come from individuals, not groups.
Thus, when I look at a culture, one of the first things I analyze is the individualist element. How diverse is acceptable behavior? How do state powers as well as ordinary people react (if at all) to nonconformists? How are children raised? What is the nature of the educational system? In the science and technology fields, how monopolistic are they? How active are the people in politics and current affairs? What are the arts like? What are peoples' values and interests?
It may be worth noting that some Asian leaders (especially from Singapore) have associated western individualism to certain forms of uncivil and repugnant behavior. I do not think this perspective is shared by many people in Japan. I think western ways are acceptable in Japan for the most part, though the Japanese in general do not adopt many of them. (Notably, the great majority of contemporary western LEADERS were quite civil relative to typical people in their culture, much like ordinary people in Japan and Thailand, not engaging in repugnant behavior in the eyes of most people.) But a culture's tolerance and its value of diversity are what can make anyone decent and sophisticated feel even more free to express their creativity in comparison.
I am nowhere close to being an expert on Japan, but a week long visit to Tokyo raises some interesting questions. I've lived in Asia for 4 years, and intensely studied a culture very different from my own (Thailand) including learning the language (a key for insights), but Thailand and Japan have very different histories. It is a gross overgeneralization to make sweeping statements about "Asian culture" because Asian cultures have major differences, as I've discussed elsewhere.
Before giving my analysis of Japan, it would be best to share with the reader both my on-the-ground experiences and previous Japanese history.
Observations Upon Hitting the Ground
Society is very orderly, efficient and somewhat fast paced, though it seemed to me not as fast as New York or Boston in pace. More like Washington D.C. (Bangkok is very slow and laid back.)
The place is clean. Everyone obeys the rules. People rarely jaywalk when the walk light is red even when there's no traffic. Drivers are very courteous. Traffic is not dense (in comparison to other cities of comparable size). Driver aggression is nil. (Most of this is in stark contrast to Bangkok -- the gagging pollution spewing from most bus and many cars' exhaust pipes, the motorcycle races when lights turn green, the dense traffic, and the practical live and let live bending of the rules everywhere, though aggression between drivers is low in Bangkok compared to the Washington, D.C., area despite the greater traffic frustration in Bangkok.)
Everyone is very courteous, polite, gentle and helpful, though few can or will speak English. (This is very much like Bangkok culture, and like most but not all western cities, but I find it hard to compare to the west because it's different. Bangkok is more polite than any large western city I've been to.)
The first negative shock I got was finding that Tokyo is not tourist-friendly in its writing -- there is not dual Japanese-English writing in many places. Since Japanese uses Chinese-like pictograms for words rather than a phonetically spelled language, if you're not Japanese then you have a problem. It takes school children years to be able to read their own language, and people say that you need to know at least 2000 pictograms to start reading a Japanese newspaper. The street signs usually don't have any English on them, the transportation system has little English (which got us into trouble several times), and when you look around at products, services and places in general, there's precious little English, even though Tokyo is the capital and should be relatively international. (In Thailand, all major and semi-major streets have dual language, the English in small characters, even way out in the boonies. Even small streets have English in many distant places.)
Not only that, but few Japanese people can or will speak English. Almost everyone learned English in school for several years, but they are totally unable or unwilling to speak it, in contrast to my travels to any other country (except Laos).
You go into a 7-11 store or a grocery store and the majority of cartons of milk and other things have no writing except in Japanese. (In Thailand, there's usually some English telling you what it is, e.g., milk and what kind -- low fat, sweetened, flavored, or regular.) More than once we bought a milk carton with a picture of a white creamy liquid pouring only to find out it's some sweet non-milk drink. The vast majority of products on the shelves gave us no clue what it is. This was in international convenience store chains such as "AM/PM" and "Family Mart", which probably had the most English. A trip to the grocery store supported this hypothesis.
As my travel guide put it: "The number [of Japanese] who can communicate effectively in any foreign lanugage is very small, in spite of the fact that the majority of them have studied English for at least six years."
I had even noted this in Bangkok -- practically all Africans, Middle Easterners, other Asians and of course Europeans spoke English in a functional way (to various degrees), but many Japanese in Bangkok did not. The Japanese are the biggest investor in Thailand, but you don't see them much around town because they stick together in certain areas which cater to Japanese, and a much higher percentage of Japanese I've met express that they can't speak English.
Nonetheless, there is almost always a Japanese around willing to help who can speak English, but when you ask for help the person you ask usually cannot help, but someone else in your vicinity will see what's going on and step in to help you.
It's a good idea to double-check things, especially on transportation. For example, in the train station, many of the big maps are only in Japanese, with no English. There are dual language maps, but you have to look around for them and they usually weren't comprehensive, e.g., only some station names translated. We were staying with friends and associates in a major suburb without foreigners about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the central train station in Tokyo. There are many platforms and train lines.
To find our train's platform we had to walk all over until we found a platform that listed our town. There was no guide to the station in English. None of the people who worked at the train station spoke English. We eventually asked other commuters for help, which is what got us pointed in the right direction.
This particular platform listed only about a dozen stops in English, fortunately including our own, all on a same-color sign. The subway trains are color coded, so we figured this one was the same -- that the destinations on the same colored sign on the same platform were also a sequential list of stations on the line. Wrong. The tracks split down a ways and trains went in different directions after that. The only way to know which train was going where was to hear the Japanese voice announcement when a train rolled in (no dual English announcement). The trains shut down at midnite. If you get on late at night and get delivered to the wrong part of town, then you may not have time to get back down the line far enough (or to the central station) and then take the right train. Taxis are expensive and rare in the suburbs. We were saved only by double-checking with a local despite the misleading sign.
An associate who I spent an evening with revealed that many official and even some social functions between American Embassy personnel and their Japanese counterparts use a translator brought with the Japanese officials, which is unusual compared to similar functions in other countries.
Sometimes it can get outright inappropriate and infuriating when people in certain positions do not speak English. I called my airline, United Airlines, a day before I departed in order to confirm our flight reservations. The lady answered the phone "United Airlines" but that was all the English she spoke, except the word "no" when I asked if she spoke English. Then I asked for someone who does and she just hung up. I'm sure this is an exceptional case here, but an international airline should not have someone like that answering the phone. (Notably, on the flight, the most considerate service came from the male host of Middle Eastern appearance and accent and a Thai hostess.)
(In Thailand, which uses a phonetic Sanskrit-derived language with an alphabet of 44 characters, I can read the sanskrit signs if need be for directions in remote places, and can read menus a little as well, though dual language menus are far, far more common in Bangkok than Tokyo.)
Rail transport is reasonably priced. It's about $1.50 to $3.00 for the subway. The ride from our suburb to the central station, however, is $11 each way. That meant $44 round trip for Ying, I and Angela (we took her in free in our arms).
Taxis are expensive compared to Bangkok. In Japan, stepping in the door costs $5, and the meter runs fast. Going a few quick suburban kilometers just a few minutes from the train station to our host's house ran it up to $11. In contrast, Bangkok taxis start at $1 and a 20 kilometer ride from my client to home costs between $3 and $4 depending on traffic. For $15 we can get a ride to Ying's country home which is well beyond the opposite side of town. But you can't compare Thai rates with Japanese, since Thai wages are so much lower and everything else costs so much less there. None of our taxi drivers could/would speak English (which is similar to Thailand).
Make sure you take the train from "Tokyo Narita Airport" to downtown Tokyo because a taxi will cost you between $130 and $200 depending upon destination and traffic. However, the train stations are not made for carrying luggage, so if you're old or not strong you'd better pack light or else take the bus. There is supposedly a service at the airport which will deliver your luggage to your destination within several hours but I didn't see it. I hauled a suitcase up and down countless flights of stairs, as there aren't escalators on some of the level changes. I didn't see a single elevator. If you're in a wheelchair you have a big problem.
Hotels are awesomely expensive in Japan, prices vary widely, and most are not of high quality according to western standards, which is why we went to Japan only upon invitation by an associate who has a house.
My travel guide noted: "Indeed, it is cheaper for Japanese to take vacations in Hawaii or Sydney instead of within their own country." However, Japanese take many quick vacation trips inside their country. I gather that they make a lot of money and spend a lot of money.
Indeed, there is a problem with discarded things. Products have a short usage time because they are replaced with newer models. We were shown some places where people just dumped their cars (minus the license plate) which appeared only about 5 years old, and things like TV's as well, on back streets in certain areas. The talk was about the potential to export these items to less developed countries, but the taxes and tariffs have become barriers.
On the street, many trash collection bins come in sets of three for three categories of trash, perhaps for recycling purposes?
Another shocker noted by the book is that about a third of Japanese houses don't have outgoing sewage. I happened to go for a visit to see someone with a house like that. It was like an "outhouse" but inside the house. No water. (In Thailand, they have squat toilets but always water. Country and many city homes have a big tank under the house, and once every few years you call the tank truck who comes out, unscrews the top of a pipe inlet, and pumps it all out into the tank on the truck. But when Ying was a girl in the country, they went out into the woods, dug a hole, and covered it up when finished. She's never seen a toilet over a pit with nothing but air between sewage and you.)
It was odd to see an old lady walking down the street of a not-so-old neighborhood (maybe 30 years old) with a bucket of some kind of grey sewage, pouring it into some kind of central place. Also, you could see sewage in a gutter which had one removed cover, and it stunk.
An associate I was visiting in that neighborhood who had lived in Thailand also pointed out something I'd noted before -- not many the Japanese in these neighborhoods look up and smile when they pass you by. Ying and I had ridden our bicycles thru many neighborhoods and walked thru others. As my associate noted, in an analogous neighborhood in Thailand you would usually get a friendly smile, and in an analogous neighborhood in America, especially the midwest, you get a friendly "Howdy" or somesuch. He said that in Japan they walk right by and mind their own business. This was in a suburb of Tokyo, so maybe it's different elsewhere in Japan.
At all the stores, the cashiers were very sharp and courteous. I made it clear that I didn't understand Japanese, but they go thru all their routine anyway with the perfuse courtesy phrases after giving me back my change. For example, at a McDonalds, they even kept asking me questions in Japanese rather than adapting to pointing to things on the menu. It was the least English I'd ever seen in a McDonalds anywhere. Ever.
Most of the time we ate at Japanese places, pointing to whatever they had a picture of, or at the Sushi places where you just take whatever looks edible off the conveyor.
We popped into a variety of stores just to look around at the kinds of things on the shelves of these "contemporary consumer museums" that are in demand by today's people.
There are many, many gambling places where you can drop coins into slot machines. I'm amazed that people play those. You can't beat the house over time. Yet enough people go there to make those businesses numerous, often several competitors within a kilometer. I wonder how this will affect the theft crime rate to support such an addiction, especially in recession times.
Crime is low in Japan, about a fourth per capita in the US, and violent crimes against strangers is very low, unlike in the US. A much higher percentage of cases are solved by the police. All this is the same as in Thailand.
One interesting place we visited, and indeed stayed at one night, was a kind of health club for busloads of Japanese tourists. For a mere $10 you get the run of the facility. It has lockers, hot pools and saunas, a bunch of machines for mechanical massages, places where you can massage your own feet by walking on things certain ways, little karaoke capsules you can tuck into, a nice restaurant, beer and cigarette machines, and a room with lean-back chairs, blankets and a huge wall screen where you can watch Discovery Channel (this time translated into Japanese instead of the usual Thai back home) until you nod off. Everyone walks around in robes with your clothes in the locker.
Unfortunately, that's also where our daughter's passport mysteriously went missing. (Notably, someone told us that theft was heard of at those tourist locker places, probably by the establishment.) The loss of the passport cost us a couple of days of time & effort, but with the help of some friends and Ying's charm, the pleasant and helpful Thai embassy rushed thru a new passport within 2 days of its loss so that we didn't have to try to rebook a flight on a later day. Fortunately, we had documentation with us.
There is a big Thai community there. We passed by more than one restaurant with Thai writing on the outside. I asked a Thai guy if they used the discarded stuff on the streets and he said yeah, many of them did, and it was pretty amazing, but you should get to it before it gets rained on.
It's notable that Thais who have learned English seem to go to more effort to speak it, both in Japan and Bangkok, at least among the countless Thais I know. They will shy away at first just like Japanese, but unlike the Japanese they don't make a quick decision that they don't speak English and then sit or stand there quietly. The Thais in Bangkok as well as in Japan will be silent a few moments and then come back and give you their best English, often with a shy smile and a giggle. Few Japanese did. It might say something about the education system -- cramming and passing exams but not enjoying the subject enough to remember it pleasantly.
I learned Spanish a year and a half and Russian a year, both more than 10 years ago, and can do better than these people who learned 6 or more years. And English is a language people should be motivated to learn and practice, as it's all over the world and in movies and culture.
I've also had American counterparts with engineering degrees from Ivy League universities who couldn't analyze a technical problem worth a damn after being out of school and doing other work for a little while. You can memorize and cram to do well on exams without learning much for the long term. You must enjoy the subject if you're going to remember it.
In Tokyo, fashion is in -- flashy clothes, dyed hair colors. (It's similar to Bangkok, but the skirts are shorter in Bangkok. However, sexuality in the television media is much more overt in Japan, though about the same in common magazines, and still less than in many western countries. Porno magazines can be sold with common magazines on the street in Japan, unlike in Thailand.)
Most amazing of all is that Internet is almost nowhere to be found in Japan. You don't see it on signs of products. In the US and Thailand, practically every news station displays their Internet address prominently, as do countless companies and products. In Japan, it's hard to find any Internet addresses. I didn't see any Internet cafes. I was told there is an Internet cafe in Rappongi, which is where the embassies and international community are.
If you ever go to Japan, Rappongi is a good first place to go. It's a nightclub place for ex-pats on the back streets. It's a place you can strike up conversation in order to find the good hang out spots and get the local scoop. The Rappongi station is on the subway map near the west-southwest part of the main Yamanote circular beltway train loop. (Don't confuse Rappongi with the prostitution district of Japan (there's reportedly a lot of it there in some places). In Bangkok, the ex-pat areas are very close to or intermixed with the tourist-oriented prostitution areas (it's all in two small areas), but in Rappongi any looks you get will almost certainly be from good people of the opposite sex with a genuine curiosity, and there is a lot of cross cultural fun-flirting and some serious courting that goes on, though there are remarkably few mixed couples and mixed friends getting to know each other. Outside Rappongi, Japanese and foreigners seen together as friends of any kind is quite rare, and not as common as in Bangkok.)
Traveller's cheques are generally not honored in Japan except at major hotels and banks. I went to a bank to convert American Express traveller's cheques into Yen and had to fill out paperwork and wait for half an hour. What a contrast to Thailand. I heard from others that credit card withdrawals often don't work unless the credit card is linked to an account on a local Japanese bank. I didn't try to verify this. In Thailand, my credit card works fine except after about 8:00pm when the local networks start to crash. (As some people know, I've fixed the Hong Kong Bank LAN/electricity/ATM problems, but other Thai banks just haven't come around though I really didn't push them at all but lost interest. In Thailand, it's technical problems but not policy problems. In Japan, the technical end is perfect but the policy end leaves a lot to be desired.)
History of Japan
Japan was connected to Asia as a long extension of Korea until about 8,000 years ago. In fact, looking at a map of sea depths, one sees that the sea is very shallow in a wide band which is a little wider than Korea, now part of the Asian continental shelf. The oceans were about 170 meters shallower around 15,000 years ago, and most of this area is shallower than that. There's a long narrow island between Japan and Korea, and the peninsular land bridge looks as it would have been about five times its width.
Old pottery dating back to 10,000 B.C. (some of the oldest pottery in the world) and refuse heaps show that a fairly nomadic culture lived in Japan a long time ago, living off of seafood and some wild pig and deer. However, most scholars think the Japanese people are not descended from these people. Around 300 B.C., a new wave of people started migrating into Japan from Korea and introduced rice farming which is what they relied on for food, and lived in stationary, tight-knit, and autonomous farming communities. Artifacts changed entirely with no mix with that of the original people. The original people moved to the northern islands. Indeed, there are still places today on the northernmost island where native people genetically separate from the Japanese still live. The rice communities spread from the south to the middle as well. "It is generally agreed that Japan was settled by waves of people coming from South Asia and the northern regions of the Asian continent, and that this migration very likely occurred over a long period."
There are many dark pigmented Japanese, compared to mainland Chinese, though most Japanese are very light-skinned. Many eyes, perhaps the majority, have strong Mongolian influences, which is what many call the "northern regions of the Asian continent". Many noses are fairly flat, which implies warm southern genetic inputs.
Ying was constantly mistaken as a Japanese. Whenever we went anywhere, people talked to her in Japanese and were initially confused and surprised when she didn't speak Japanese. Ying is one fourth Chinese, half quasi-Lao, and a fourth central Thai. She has a very flat Lao nose, even for a Thai.
Chinese writing, legal and political systems came to Japan at around 500 B.C., and Buddhism was well established shortly thereafter, blended with Confucianism and existing animist ways.
Notably, Buddhism and Confucianism are opposites in certain ways, and both incompatible with animism in their original forms. Buddhism is anti-authoritarian, originally teaching to question all dogma and authority, including the Buddha himself, and to decide for yourself both what to believe and what path to create yourself for transcending pain and suffering (of course, with many suggestions and much theory). At the opposite extreme, Confucianism is very authoritarian and dogmatic. In different parts of the world, different variations exist as blends with local animist beliefs and the teachings of other sages. (In Southeast Asia, one thing that kept the Vietnamese separate from the Lao and Thai, besides a rugged mountain range, was the sharp differences in religion and customs.)
Confucianism teaches that society works best when everyone accepts their place in the social class order, obeys one's elders, and follows authority.
The 700's "saw full enforcement of the system of centralized imperial rule based on Chinese concepts (the ritsuryo system), as well as flourishing arts and culture." There was tight control, all land cultivated for rice was under imperial ownership, and farmers were taxed heavily.
In the following era, this imperial rule quickly unravelled and was replaced by corrupt local officials, warlords, shoguns and samarais. The imperial court was completely disempowered and impoverished though it kept going on as a ritual and custom, mainly in the old traditional city of Kyoto, for many hundred years until 1868 (discussed later).
New cities were built, on the Chinese model, and Japan became a place of many fiefdoms. However, they all had certain things in common. A rigid, class-driven social structure existed everywhere, with the same names for strata and the same customs, more or less. Buddhism spread more deeply into the commons as Buddhist preachers arose. Formerly, Buddhism and other historical writings had catered mainly to the upper class who had the long education to read the Chinese written language. However, Neo-Confucianism became the theoretical basis for social and political policy by the shogunate. "The shogunate set up a rigid class heirarchy ... Whether in [the city] or the countryside, every individual knew exactly what his or her position in society was, and of how they were to behave. Sometimes encouraged with the sword, the emphasis on Confucian obedience and proper relations between superior and inferior filtered down to the lowest strata of society."
Religiously, Zen Buddhism also arose, though I don't think it's really all that influential overall. Much more emphasis should be put on Shinto, which came from the native animist beliefs before Buddhism was imported. Like many other animist beliefs, Shinto has it that all natural objects and phenomena possess a spiritual side. They're probably not joking when they talk about the God of Baseball or of a management school of thought. There are many Shinto sects today. and Japanese religion today is considered a mix of Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism. The Shinto facilitates merging of the religions, including Christianity. As in Thailand, any embrace of Christianity does not mean you give up your other beliefs, gods and spirits, but just take in an additional one. The "only one God" preachings of many Christian sects is not accepted, but Jesus Christ is accepted as a sage.
Anyway, back to where we were several centuries ago...
Japan's doors were closed to the outside world, and indeed those tainted by the outside world were brutally killed. However, the long years of isolated peace in the rigid society and efficient organization resulted in a rise in standards of living to the point where the shogunate had to quell the conspicuous consumption of wealthy merchants at times.
Shoguns created new cities, castles, and other infrastructure (required to run the big bureaucracy) in short times. By the early 1700's, Tokyo (then called Edo) had surpassed other Japanese cities in size and in fact was the largest city in the world, at about 1.5 million. Kyoto (the early capital) had 400,000 and seaside Osaka 300,000. All cities were organized, with higher strata of society in the hills.
In the 1800's, the industrial revolution was gaining momentum in Europe and the European powers were out colonizing the world. However, none was able to open Japan's doors. Finally, they were yanked open in 1853 by the US by Commodore Perry and America's East India Squadron. He reappeared the following year with his squadron and demanded to be welcomed in, and this time was successful, though people in Tokyo were not happy about it. However, it was clear to the educated upper class that Japan was being left behind in the world, and if they didn't modernize then they would eventually be subjugated by western powers.
In 1858, a treaty of friendship and trade was signed with the USA, and shortly thereafter with other western powers.
"The turmoil and tumult of the 15 years from 1853 to 1868 have been well documented in many books [and] may have acted to direct domestic energies away from internal wrangling." Eventually, rebel "daimyo", a class under the shogunate and samarais, "captured the emperor and declared the restoration of imperial rule. Shogunate forces sought to reverse the situation in Kyoto, but were defeated. The shogun yielded power to the imperial court in 1868 - the Meiji Restoration - and the emperor ascended once again to head of state [for the first time in many centuries]. The reign of the Meiji emperor, lasting from 1868 until 1912, would cast a new Japan that the shoguns could never have imagined." The samarai class was also abolished by imperial decree in 1872.
Emperor Meiji moved the imperial court from its traditional place of Kyoto to Edo and renamed the latter Tokyo, in 1868. Before leaving Kyoto, the emperor issued documents designed to revolutionize Japanese society. For example: "Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule ... Evil customs of the past shall be broken and everything based upon the just laws of Nature." As the tour guide puts it, "The quality of the nation's new leadership, and the political, economic, and cultural choices they made, can be seen as nothing less than spectacular."
The government was aligned with the top of the merchant class, the relatively small number of rich corporate, family-run "zaibatsu" (e.g., Mitsubishi). Some considered it state capitalism. It was powerful in Japanese social structures.
After 1868, Japan took to western industrialization with enthusiam. Culturally, there was a brief period of rejection of native things and adoption of western things, but the pendulum eventually swung back the other way with an emotional nationalism.
Japan's success in the Sino-Russian War of 1894-5 bolstered Japanese self-confidence, and when they won the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-6 it was the first time that an Asian nation had defeated a European power. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, starting an occupation which was by almost all accounts brutal, milking Korea for all it could, and forcibly bringing many Koreans back to Japan to work as low class slaves. This ended only with Japan's surrender at the end of World War 2.
(To this day, there are third-generation born-in-Japan descendents of these former slaves who are not given citizenship and equal rights in Japan, effectively people without any citizenship in the world. This is still a current affairs issue.)
By the time Emperor Meiji died in 1912 after 44 years of rule, Japan had changed from a closed country to a world power.
The short reign of the second contemporary emperor, Emperor Taisho from 1912 to 1926, may be best known for the "Taisho Democracy", a time when Japan was developing intellectually in the world arena, "... a time of good, healthy intellectual ferment, when ideas of all kinds were welcome. It was an attitude important both as a precursor to Japan's plunge into the dark period of militarism and war, and as a foundation for the country's emergence from the violent darkness."
The plunge into darkness came as a result of extreme political polarization. Intellectuals were questioning the existing socioeconomic system. "A new right, which believed in the politics of assassination rather than the ballot box, emerged from the political shadows. A series of political murders, including of prime ministers and former prime ministers, followed" and the military intervened in politics.
There are many theories, and some disagreements, on how militarism developed in the 1930's. "Whatever the political, economic and social forces that produced the military government and the aggressive war effort, some observations can be made. The distribution of wealth was still very uneven. The establishment factions included big business (the zaibatsu), the upper crust of government, and the military interests. Political power within the country favored establishement interests; suffrage was not universal."
In 1931, Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria. Protest by the League of Nations resulted in Japan leaving the League and starting a policy of a separate way from the west. In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and European colonial bases throughout Asia. Within less than a year, Japan possessed most of east Asia and the Pacific.
(Thailand had a somewhat parallel history. It was the only noncolonized country in southern and southeast Asia. An intellectual movement had changed the centuries-old tradition of a monarchy to a constitutional democracy in 1932, but the military put an end to that a few years later which made it a kind of military dictatorship. However, Thailand was surrounded by four European colonies who for many decades had kept encroaching or trying to encroach on its borders by gunboat diplomacy, and had become an ally of Japan in the late 1930's, even though it had always had good relations with the USA. When Japan insisted on using Thailand as a staging point for attacks on the surrounding colonies, Thailand eventually made the decision not to fight a battle they were sure to eventually lose, and let the Japanese come in, which led to a kind of puppet government but spared Thailand of much of the destruction and suffering experienced elsewhere, with a few exceptions, e.g., the building of certain railways using forced labor -- a mix of western prisoners of war, Burmese and Thais.)
Everyone should know the history of World War 2. Unfortunately, many Japanese don't. Japan has largely made an effort to forget that period. This has caused some problems in relations with other countries who want apologies and reparations. To make matters worse, in the early 1990's there were attempted denials by high ranking right wing and ultranationalist government officials that some very well documented, photographed, and widely experienced mass killing and raping events in China were myths promoted by opposition to Japan. I would imagine there was a heavy public backlash, but it raised the issue of the dangers of Japan society's desire to forget World War 2. It's amazing and revealing that such high ranking officials would actually believe and say such things.
As my guide book also points out, "What rankles its Asian neighbors most, however, is the regularity with which Japan's conservative politicians denounce factual history. In 1994, Japan's minister of justice publicly declared that the 1937 Rape of Nanking - when between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered by an out-of-control Japanese army - was merely an unsubstantiated fabrication. A myth."
Further: "And to this day, history books are censored by the ministry of education, and the media focus almost solely on Japanese suffering in the war; the impression is of only Japan as a victim of World War II."
It appears that in the issue of the war, with one side being aging veterans publicly purging their neghtmares and those with the Imperial army's own documents which magically appear from hiding, and the other side the ultranationalists, it appears the latter still hasn't been overwhelmed in political power.
When I first came to Japan, I was interesting to sit and watch people and think that people from Japan, as civil and gentle as they are today, are just one generation descended from the generation which had so many members who committed such atrocities across Asia. It's somewhat more comprehensible, though, that Japan had so many suicide bombers (the kamakazis).
Anyway, getting beyond the war for the purposes of this web article...
"A new 1946 constitution issued under the mandate of Gen. MacArthur's occupation government guaranteed western-style liberties, established a British-style parliamentary system, dismantled the prewar industrial zaibatsu, and renounced was as national policy. With the signing of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, the American occupation ended. Japan was sovereign."
(As a child, one of my absolute favorite subjects was World War 2, an event that I spent countless time reading about and looking at all the pictures, thanks to my father. I also happened to grow up near where MacArthur was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas (with MacArthur Park and museums) with some MacArthur memorability. The entire war phenomenon -- Europe, Russia, northern Africa and Asia made that one of the most awesome 10 years of human existence to date, ending with the two atomic bombs being dropped.)
After World War 2, Japan has maintained a pacifist stance with a very small military, and there definitely continues to be strong political forces to keep it this way. This also helped the Japanese economy boom, as the Japanese funneled all their resources into commercial enterprises as the US provided military protection ... not only from neighboring countries but also including the Middle East oil Japan is so heavily dependent upon. This is not a service that the US bills Japan for.
This is, of course, a brief history. For a longer, more complete history I suggest you look on the World Wide Web. There should also be synopses and translations of Japanese literary works somewhere.
Now, "there's the dilemma of interpreting how Japanese feel about events and situations. The past decade has not been easy for the Japanese as a group. The 1980s were an invigorating time, when the Japanese promoted themselves as the next superpower, even to the point of claiming that Japanese would be the next international language.
"Things have changed. The economy not only slowed down, it imploded. Scandals peppered the headlines. A severe earthquake [which destroyed infrastructure and buildings which were designed to be earthquake-proof] and domestic terrorism shook national confidence in the mid-1990s."
The book asserts that Japanese are inward looking, e.g., world news coming at the end of news programs as a footnote. (In comparison, Americans are more introspective and less world literate than Europeans and Australians, in my experiences with those other cultures, even though the US is the world's only superpower.)
Interesting coverage is given to how the Japanese think they are a special race, from denials of their ancestral links to Korea, China and South Asia, to such things as the Japanese government declaring that French skis were unsuitable to Japanese snow, and a high-ranking official in the agriculture ministry in the late 1980's arguing that only Japanese beef was suitable for the special and unique digestive system of Japanese people (when American beef producers were trying to open the market). "In the 1990's, respected university researchers claimed that the Japanese were genetically special and unique in their ability to appreciate to the fullest the sounds of nature: crickets and cicadas, and waterfalls."
One political party has ruled Japan for four decades, except from 1993 to 1996. That party is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), though as the guide book puts it, "Conservative, unprogressive, and decidedly undemocratic by western standards, the LDP seemingly serves only to make its leaders wealthy; national leadership and governing are inconsequential and inconvenient sidelines." (Sounds like many governments of Thailand over the last 40 years, though the current Thai government under Chuan Leekpai is a big exception.)
Recent events may lead to a downfall of the LDP again. The Japanese recession continues.
At the root of the recession is the corrupt banking system. Too many of the modern zaibatsu and conglomerates used their political clout to wrangle big loans out of the financial institutions (and at interest rates far too low), and when some big loans didn't perform, particularly in the oversaturated real estate sector where too many people try to get rich, there were losses, liquidity problems, and major bank failures.
Japan is not unique in this way. Many Asian countries that crashed in the 1990's did so due to similar corruption and friendly loans, mainly in the real estate sector. Before, some of their corrupt leaders asserted that there was something right about Asian ways of banking and project management that was superior to the west, as witnessed by higher growth rates. The truth is that all industrializing countries experience high growth rates, but once they industrialize the growth rates slow. Asian countries are not unique in corrupt ways of doing business or in the high growth rates (e.g., Latin American countries). It's a worldwide trait. But these particular Asian leaders are experiencing a Reality Check in the 1990's and should be sounding a different note now. This recession happened not during an oil embargo or any outside pressure, and indeed happened during the best worldwide economic conditions. It was corruption and bad loans.
One of the most interesting sociopolitical books I've read from Japan (around 1990) was a Japanese bestseller written by two people: Akio Morita, founder and CEO of Sony, and Shintaro Ishihara, an ultranationalist politician who was at the time roughly third in line for Prime Minister and is now Mayor of Tokyo. This book was written around 1990, at the height of Japanese optimism and shortly before the burst of the bubble economy. The book was a defining work for the potential political leadership campaign of Ishihara, and Morita is said to have had his own political ambitions a
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