Written by Frank Li
Japan is a great country and the Japanese are a great people. However, Japan has been going through a very tough time: two lost decades and counting. So what’s really going on in Japan and, more profoundly, what is Japan, anyway?
In this article, I will explain to my fellow Americans, simply and “thoroughly”, what Japan is, in a way similar to my explanation of China (America: What is China, Anyway?) and even America (What is America, Anyway?).
1. Japan and me
I lived in Tokyo from October 6, 1982, to August 20, 1985, during which I recorded two major achievements as follows:
- I earned an M.E. degree from the University of Tokyo (aka “The Harvard of Japan”).
- I won a debate on “World Peace” (in Japanese), as evidenced by the photo below.
From 1991 to 1993, I worked for NEC America (Irving, TX), during which I eye-witnessed the following:
- Buying America, as many Japanese companies flocked to America to set up their subsidiaries in the U.S.
- Total incompetence of Japanese management in America in the fields of software, computers, and telecommunications, which is totally opposite to more successful fields such as autos and consumer products (e.g. cameras and TVs).
From 1997 to 2000, I was a director at Amdahl/DMR, a Fujitsu company, and further experienced more of the same as I did at NEC America.
In short, I know Japan, perhaps as well as a gaijin (i.e. foreigner) possibly can.
2. Japan’s history: a brief overview
For all practical purposes, I will divide Japan’s history into five periods as follows:
- 0001 – 1867: Ancient times
- 1868 – 1912: Meiji Restoration
- 1913 – 1945: Imperial Japan
- 1946 – 1989: Japanese post-war economic miracle
- 1990 – Present. Two Lost Decades and counting.
2.1 0001-1867: ancient times
Throughout this period, Japan learned virtually everything important from China, from the language to the culture. By the time I left Japan in 1985, I was totally convinced that Japan is largely a copy of China, with many changes, of course.
The image below shows an example: how Japan (top 3 diagrams) copied from China (bottom 3 diagrams) for three ancient architectures.
Next, let’s look at Japanese, the language. There are so many Chinese characters in Japanese that any attempt to reduce them will result in incommunicability. Interestingly, some Chinese characters are reversed in Japanese. For example, here is the word for peace in two Chinese characters:
- Chinese: 和平
- Japanese: 平和
Why is it reversed in Japanese? Well, one explanation is that Japan reversed it just to be different from an exact copy. Another explanation is that after learning it from China, the Japanese sailed back to Japan, drinking and partying on the ship. By the time the ship arrived in Japan six months later (note: this was more than 1,000 years ago, and traveling by sea was very slow), they did not remember much, but later recalled it, only in a reversed order …
In short, here is a simple analogy for Americans to understand the relationship between Chinese and Japanese today: it’s like English and French. They look similar sometimes, but are very different, even reversed occasionally.
2.2 1868-1912: Meiji Restoration
The Meiji Restoration (明治維新 Meiji Ishin?), also known as the Meiji Ishin, Revolution, Reform or Renewal, was a chain of events that restored imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. The goals of the restored government were expressed by the new emperor in the Charter Oath. The Restoration led to enormous changes in Japan’s political and social structure, and spanned both the late Edo period (often called Late Tokugawa shogunate) and the beginning of the Meiji period. The period spanned from 1868 to 1912 and was responsible for the emergence of Japan as a modernized nation in the early twentieth century.
During this period, Japan modernized itself so much by emulating the West that it leaped ahead of China. Worse yet for China, Japan waged a war against China and won (First Sino-Japanese War). Furthermore, Japan waged a war against the mighty Russia and also won (Russo-Japanese War).
2.3 1913-1945: Imperial Japan
Although WWI was largely a European matter, it inspired Japan more than any other nation. Japan, a natural resource-poor nation, thought that it could really rule the world with its elitism like the Germans tried to do, which meant to conquer all its neighbors first to acquire their much needed resources.
Taiwan was under Japan’s rule in 1895 (Taiwan under Japanese rule), and Korea was officially annexed in 1910 (Korea under Japanese rule), what should the next target be? China, obviously! But China is a huge country, so some serious preparation was necessary …
In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, the three northeast provinces of China (Japanese invasion of Manchuria). In 1937, Japan started invading the rest of China (Second Sino-Japanese War), committing despicable atrocities along the way, including The Rape of Nanking.
What a big mistake! The Chinese resisted fiercely. For those Americans who are truly interested in WWII history, particularly the role the Chinese played in that war, here is a must-read: Forgotten Ally.
Like many evils, Japan was carried away by its initial success in China and made its second big mistake by attacking America in Pearl Harbor.
Here is what happened: in order to secure its victories in East Asia, Japan felt the need to remove the only obvious threat left: America’s Pacific Fleet headquartered in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. So in 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It dragged Americans into WWII assuring Japan’s eventual doom! In the famous line attributed to Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto:
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Truly said by him or not, it was an accurate reflection of what happened. For more, read: Blagojevich and Pearl Harbor: They Are Related!
On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally (Surrender of Japan), as shown by the photo below.
See the news film of the day in the following video:
2.4 1946-1990: Japanese post-war economic miracle
Japan was hurt by WWII more than any other nation (e.g. absorbing two atomic bombs), but recovered faster and better than any other nation too. Three main reasons:
- America’s help. Not only did America not destroy Japan after WWII, America helped Japan rebuild, albeit mostly for America’s own interests, such as fighting against communism led by the former Soviet Union and seconded by Communist China.
- Continued screw-ups in its neighbors, such as self-destruction in China and the Korean War.
- Japanese people! They are hard-working and they are intelligent!
2.5 1991-Present: Two Lost Decades
There are many explanations of Japan’s two lost decades (and counting). Most of them are shallow and some are even misleading. Here are my three main reasons:
- America caused it! For example, let’s look at the US$-Yen exchange rate: In 1985, $1 = 250Yen. Today, $1 = 98Yen. Two net results:
- This has been a huge blow to Japan’s export-heavy economy since the late 1980s.
- It tricked Japan into “buying America” in the late 1980s and 1990s, only to have them lose tons of money in America, from real estate (e.g. Rockefeller Center) to Japan’s American subsidiaries (e.g. my former employer NEC America).
- The rise of Japan’s neighbors, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and especially China.
- Democracy (thanks to America)! I will dedicate Section 3 to it.
Oh, what happened to The Japan That Can Say No? It was a book (see below) followed by a lot of talks only. Today, Japan still cannot say “no” to America!
3. Democracy in Japan
Japan was a monarchy at the end of WWII, and I believe Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) was a WWII criminal. However, out of all the considerations, America, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, allowed the emperor to stay, alongside of a newly established parliamentary democracy.
Simply put, America imposed on Japan a political system similar to the British system, with a king (or queen) as a symbol and a prime minister running the show. The prime minister is the leader of the party with a majority in the parliament.
The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (自由民主党 Jiyū-Minshutō?), frequently abbreviated to LDP, Jimintō (自民党?) or Lib Dems, is a conservative political party in Japan. It is one of the most consistently successful political parties in the world. The LDP has been in power since 1955, except for a brief 11 month period between 1993 and 1994, and from 2009 to 2012. In the 2012 election it regained control of government. It holds 295 seats in the lower house and 115 seats in the upper house.
What is the LDP in American terms? It’s the GOP today, without the extreme right (e.g. the war hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham)!
Unfortunately for Japan, democracy no longer works over there, for the same reason as it is failing in America today. Specifically,
- The society, as a whole, is becoming more and more socialistic, with more and more takers than makers, including life-time employment and an aging population. Today, Japan’s national debt is 200% of its GDP!
- The competition from the BRICS, especially China.
Worse yet, I have already called the American Presidency a joke (American Presidency: Is It a Joke (II)?), but the Japanese system is even worse! For example, it may change the prime minister every six months, as it has happened several times over the past decade, at least! How could any government like that govern in any meaningful way? The simple truth is that from 1946 to 1980, it did not matter very much who the prime minister was in Japan. When it mattered as from the 1990s on, the flaw of the system showed up, totally!
Bottom line: Democracy is running out of gas in Japan, just like it is in America!
The Japanese are a great people. They work hard and they are intelligent: they know how to copy and make things, and they have been very innovative in many ways. That is the only way for a natural resource-poor country like Japan to thrive, and it did, for more than 150 years. As a matter of fact, Japan was the first country from the East to join the West in prosperity. Japan should be very proud of that!
However, geography matters, decisively sometimes! Unlike Germany with many neighbors, Japan is very much like the U.K. as an island (or a group of islands, to be more precise). Two points:
- Can you possibly imagine the U.K. launching a war against the European continent like the Japanese did with China in WWII? The British are smart enough not to do it!
- For expansion, the Japanese should have followed the British, not the Germans, by discovering some “new” lands far away (e.g. America, Canada, and Australia) and go from there …
Currently, Japan faces two huge challenges:
- Democracy: Democracy is a proven failure in human history, and it’s a key reason behind Japan’s two lost decades. It’s up to the Japanese to figure out a way to make democracy work over there, including the possibility of [largely] abandoning it.
- The competition from the BRICS, especially China. China is clearly reclaiming regional leadership from Japan. If the Chinese political system is slightly better than America’s, as I claim (“Saving America, Chinese Style“), it’s much better than Japan’s. Worse yet for Japan, China seems to embrace capitalism more and more. Although China is not natural resource-rich, it’s much richer than Japan! How, then, can Japan possibly compete against China? It will take much more than tough talks (e.g. Japan will stand up to China, says Abe)!
Now, what should America do in the race (or even conflict) between China and Japan? Stay out of it and mind our own business! America can no longer afford to save the world while bankrupting ourselves at home. The image below offers a good example.
- Democratic Socialism has proven to be even more destructive (as in America in general and Detroit in specific) than an atomic bomb (as in Hiroshima).
- Democratic Imperialism is just imperialism. For those Americans who have been brainwashed to blindly believe in U.S. military, read this: The War Within The U.S. Army. Here is an excerpt:
“We’re going to turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist.”
— Arnold Punaro, Retired Marine Major General and defense analyst
Next, a few words on Diaoyudao (aka Senkaku Islands in Japan) … It’s a contentious point between China and Japan now. What should America do? Stay out of it! Let them work it out by themselves, over time!
Two simple facts:
- China has never waged a war against Japan. But Japan has, the other way around.
- China has never waged a war against America. But Japan has, in Pearl Harbor in 1941.
5. Two messages to my fellow Americans
- China is challenging America in the same way as Japan did in the 1980s, only more massively in scale. America’s response must be different this time for one key reason: China can say “no” to America, unlike Japan!
- America can learn a lot from Japan’s two lost decades (and counting). They are coming our way! They are not here yet for one key reason: America is much more natural resource-rich than Japan, which has allowed America to screw up a lot more than Japan. However, at this pace of our self-destruction, the lost decade is coming our way, fast. Worse yet, once it is here, it will be felt more painfully than in Japan! Why? Because of the sheer size of our country and the depth of the hole we have been digging ourselves into! It’s still avoidable! How? Via political reforms!
For more, read my book: “Saving America, Chinese Style“.
6. Can’t we all just get along?
Japan, China, and America, the top three economies in the world today, I love them all. I have many friends in all three countries. I wish we can all get along and live peacefully. Unfortunately, life is not that simple.
First and foremost, I cheer for China. The Chinese suffered too much for way too long (Yes, some two hundred years)! They finally seem to have found their own way of success – Good for the Chinese!
Unfortunately, the rise of China has coincided with the decline of Japan and America. Here are two points both the Japanese and Americans must understand:
- The Chinese have the right to pursue prosperity, just like the Japanese and Americans do!
- It’s easy for Japan and America to blame China for everything. But not only is it unfair, it does no good for Japan or America! Why? Because the real solution resides within Japan and America, respectively! The choices for both Japan and America are obvious: Continued self-destruction and resisting change, like China did from 1800 to 1976, or self-improvement via reforms, like China has been doing since 1978 …
For Americans, always remember this:
For the Japanese, always remember this:
For the Chinese, always remember this:
Once again, Japan is a great country and the Japanese are a great people. I hope Japan will find its way out of its two lost decades peacefully and intelligently.
Japan must acknowledge its crimes and atrocities committed during WWII (e.g. The Rape of Nanking), without ever repeating them, in any way, shape, or form!
There is a lot America can learn from Japan, especially the dreadful two lost decades (and counting). Deal with the danger now or suffer from it soon! For the best solution, read my book: “The GOP Bible for 2016“.