The impact Japan has had on the modern world is enormous. It occupies less than one three hundredth of the planet’s land area, yet wields one sixth of the planet’s economic might. There would be few homes and offices that do not rely on at least some Japanese technology. Japanese cars rule the roads. Despite recent problems with so called ‘Japanese style management’, many western and Asian managers still try to do things ‘the Japanese way’. Japanese foreign aid props up many a developing country’s economy. Project developers around the world seek Japanese investment. Tourist operators target the large numbers of wealthy Japanese who now travel overseas. Japan itself features as one of the most popular of all ‘places I would like to visit’ in western surveys. The list goes on.
A leading player on the world scene, Japan’s absence from any major international forum would be unthinkable. No modern history of the world could fail to give it very considerable space.
And yet, of all the nations on the planet, Japan has come closest to annihilation. It is the only nation ever to have suffered nuclear attack. Many among its enemies in World War Two genuinely believed the extermination of the Japanese race was necessary for the safety of humankind. Even humanitarians like Franklin Roosevelt seemed to think ‘ethnic cleansing’ might be beneficial all round.
In the end, the Japanese survived. Far from being annihilated, Japan is one of the most powerful nations on earth. Far from being forced into interethnic breeding, the Japanese remain ethnically the most homogeneous of all populations.
Japan’s arrival in the world arena has been dramatic. From a quaint and obscure land of paddy fields and feudal despots just 150 years ago, it rapidly became a major contender among the imperialist powers, a military threat to the world order, and then, its crisis passed, an economic superpower. For many westerners, exotic and patronizing nineteenth century images of coolie hatted rice farmers, doll like geisha and funny little men trying to look civilized gave way to brutal warlords and fanatical samurai soldiers mindlessly loyal to an evil emperor. After the war the images changed again to slavelike workers controlled by ruthless capitalists out to dominate the world—and who succeeded in doing so. For many Asians, especially Chinese and Koreans, the one time ‘land of dwarfs’ ceased to be a backward pupil. The pupil became a harsh master, and a vicious and exploitative one at that. Though they respect Japan’s inspirational economic achievements, most Asians have still not forgiven Japan for its prewar and wartime behavior in their lands. Not all images have been negative. Among westerners, at the start of the twentieth century Japan was respected for its military victories over China and Russia and was considered an ally by some powers. After its defeat in World War Two, it was admired for the way it set about the task of rebuilding the nation. The ‘economic miracle’ that soon followed was an object for analysis, and would be imitators looked for the key to success in its educational system, its political organization, and particularly its management practices. Among Asians, alongside the wartime images of rape and pillage and murder there is also a grudging recognition that Japan has at least put Asia on the map in terms of world respect, and overturned western condescension. Many Asian nations are openly trying to model their economies on Japan’s, despite a few pit falls. Some, notably Malaysia, positively sing its praises.
Even though Japan in the 1990s has fallen from grace a little as a result of its economic recession and holes in its management practices, it is still clear that the current prevailing image of Japan, and its impact on the world, is largely economic in nature. In fact, Japan’s focus on economic growth at the expense of quality of life and other matters has been one of the...