Japan poses a conundrum. On one hand it’s the success story of the developing world. Little more than an economic puppet to the Western world at the turn of the century, Japan jumped on the industrialization fast track, eventually kicking Europe out of Asia in the 1940s, and then recovering from the ruin of World War II, rebuilding itself into the second largest economy in the world.
On the other hand, it’s a cautionary tale to all industrialized countries that economic superiority is only temporary in this world of globalization, and risky or short-sighted banking and corporate policies will eventually burst any bubble.
It boasts the oldest life expectancy in the world. It also suffers from an aging population that threatens to wipe out all retirement benefits.
It clings to an ethnic purity that features a nation of close to 99% citizens of pure Japanese heritage. But its restricted immigration policies handicap its ability to yield a labor force able to keep up with global demand.
It’s usually the first country to embrace technological innovation, and its workers have become the model of productive efficiency. It also suffers from a culture of depression and intolerance where suicide rates dwarf the rest of the world, and millions hole themselves in their homes, fully amputated from society.
So which Japan do we accept? The one that stands as the model of what humans and economies can achieve, or the one that presents a foreboding glimpse into what can result when a flourishing economy is the sole goal?
In August of 1945, Japan was a civilization on the verge of extinction. A generation of Japan’s finest men gave their lives to the Imperial Army. Relentless, indiscriminate American firebombings left close to a hundred Japanese cities in ashes. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were left to crawl out of their atomic holocaust. The Emperor’s feeble voice was heard for the first time on the radio, formally surrendering to American forces. Factories lay impotent. Transportation and communication networks were useless. Millions needed to be mourned, homes needed to be rebuilt and mouths had to be fed.
Economic recovery was improbable. Regression to a pre-industrial state appeared the more likely scenario.
But then Japan did the unthinkable. Not only did they mend their war wounds, they surpassed all worldly expectations. First protected by the American occupying forces, then subsidized and shielded from foreign competition by the Japanese government, industry boomed. By 1960, the atrocities of the Second World War were pushed deep into the Japanese psyche, and a full-fledged...