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The Cultural Career of the Japanese Economy: Developmental and Cultural Nationalisms in Historical Perspective

Laura Hein

This essay explores the connection between the economy and cultural identity in Japanese nationalism. After World War II Japan was a pacesetter in the global trend toward developmental nationalism, including a transformation of its economy into both a wealthy and a highly egalitarian one. In the 1970s and 1980s, ethnic nationalism re-emerged, with the claim that economic success was the product of Japanese cultural uniqueness rather than of the developmental nationalist policies of the previous quarter-century. The economic downturn of the 1990s thus challenged Japan both economically and culturally, At first, this crisis prompted a critical re-evaluation of national culture, manifested as serious attempts to both resolve tensions with Asia dating from World War II and dismantle domestic social hierarchies. By the mid-1990s, however, this moment had passed and government and business leaders adopted full-fledged neo-liberal policies, reversing the long post-war trend toward income equality, while adopting a more strident and militarist cultural nationalism.

This is the second in a two-article series on developmental and cultural nationalisms. See the accompanying essay by Radhika Desai, Developmental and Cultural Nationalisms in Historical Perspective

Japan’s modern history is unusual in Asia because it was the only Asian country to achieve advanced industrial status in the first half of the twentieth century. Before World War II, it did so through intensive exploitation of the countryside and imperial conquest. After the war, the Japanese re-built their economy along far more egalitarian lines. Nonetheless, while nationalists in Asia faced many of the same conditions and incorporated many of the same elements into their ideas and practices as did their European counterparts, they jointly struggled with the proposition – energetically exported from Europe – that modern national power was somehow uniquely the birthright of Europeans. After defeat in World War II, Japan developed a distinctive and powerful version of developmental nationalism, although this gave way in later decades to cultural nationalism. Like cultural nationalisms elsewhere, not just in Asia, Japanese cultural nationalism, in both its optimistic and pessimistic forms, has provided justifications for social hierarchy and economic inequality, both at home and internationally. Cultural nationalism typically has operated in a way that undercuts commitment to equality of individuals, both at home and internationally. By contrast, arguments for Japan’s normality in the modern world have not been as susceptible to this use historically. [1]

Pre-surrender nationalisms

Modern Japanese nationalism, as elsewhere, emerged within the eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts of globalizing capitalism and imperialism. After establishing a modern state in 1868, and successfully warding off the danger of being colonized, the Japanese began a particularly intensive period of inventing national traditions, drawing on their rich and lengthy indigenous culture. As in most places, the Japanese national project involved homogenizing and subordinating peripheral regions and people. While this pattern was nearly universal, Japan’s particular circumstances were unusual, meaning that in some ways, Japan resembled the colonized world, in other ways early ‘late developers,’ such as Germany, and in yet others, imperial metropoles. Japanese nationalists shared with other non-Westerners the need to confront the fact that Europeans justified and explained their dominance by overt racism. Most late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Japanese were dismayed by Western power and thought of themselves as disadvantaged in the race for development by being Asian. Japanese leaders also shared with other late developers the challenge of coping with a...
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