It was not an ingenuous moment when in September, 1945, U.S General Douglas MacArthur asked to be photographed with the then Emperor of Japan Hirohito at his Imperial Palace, producing what we today regard as one of the most treasured relics of the Second World War. Instead the gesture is well understood, in part, as the general’s final attempt at recovering his esteem which the Japanese had trampled to deprivation just a few years prior, when he was forced to relocate (run and hide) himself from the Philippines (where he was operating from) to Australia. Barely a month had elapsed since the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan when MacArthur had arranged to meet with the Emperor, who up until that moment had been to the Japanese people a deity so revered and infallible that it was accepted with every ounce of submission, and inclusive of all ranks and merits within her populace, that, like the holy Tabernacle, no soul was to even glimpse at the face of Ten’nō Hirohito.
With both hands firmly arrested in his khaki pants pockets, a slight unclenching of his hips, and the benefit of at least 6 more inches in height, the General posed alongside his counterpart who, in stark contrast (further elevating the oddness of the juxtaposition), was dressed slick and dapper in a dark tuxedo. The very next day MacArthur was to make sure that all the local newspapers had in their front cover the image of their god standing side by side with the more dominant looking general. This was done so, precisely, to dissolve once and for all any image of the Emperor’s immortality among his subjects, to display to them that a foreign man could so callously project his presence to the emperor, that their god was, after all, just like them.
This simple black-and-white picture was to change forever the history of the Japanese civilization, and of the world. One might like to argue against these events as an imperial taste and haste of the Americans. But we must immediately remind such folks that the Japanese did empire in far more inhumane fashions—let us not even begin to recount their countless atrocities and war crimes across the East Asian subcontinent, for which, we must supplement, they have yet to apologise, and quite certainly never will. And so, with the command of a Western military man, the Japanese were made to forget what it meant to prostrate before their emperor and were instead required to absorb the many foreign words hurled at them with generous enthusiasm: democracy, capitalism, individual rights, pacifism. In what can be inarguably claimed as by far the greatest recovery in human history, the Japanese by losing their empire somehow gained the entire world.
By the end of the Cold War, Japan had emerged as the second largest economy in the world with a standard of living rivaled only by her new ally the United States, had positioned itself as the largest exporter of goods and services, produced one of the finest education and healthcare systems in the world, and carried the task of leading the world in creativity and ingenuity. It doesn’t require much to do but try and plot her GDP per-capita over time on a ratio scale and note how the steep fall of living standards in the mid-40s was met with a Himalayan rise in the immediate decades that followed (outpacing every other battered nation of Europe), and at one quarter in the 70s boasted an overall GDP growth rate of 17%. Statistics like these have seldom been replicated. They have caused inspiration and aspiration. South Korea and Singapore watched and asked themselves why they shouldn’t be permitted to such achievements; she was China’s envy, America’s competition, Asia’s leader. Go to the remotest corner of the world and be not surprised if you encounter a guerilla fighter in a forgotten jungle deriving utility out of a Sony Walkman. Many of the world’s poorer countries cannot be grateful enough for the affordable, fuel efficient, safe automobiles that gave them a chance at experiencing what it meant to be a part of the middle class. And outside of Hollywood where else would we turn to for entertainment but to Japanese creations and characters (however eccentric). And all this they accomplished, paradoxically yet conscientiously, while preserving themselves and their centuries-old value systems.
But roses come with thorns, and just as Japan had witnessed her stellar rise, she has had (and continues) to face bleak futures. A stock market crash in the 90s wiped out vast amounts of her wealth and placed her as the only industrialized country to witness almost three decades of economic stagnation. Today, Japan’s debt outstanding of 250% of GDP bears no resemblance to any other nation of similar prominence. Historically low birth rates and an ever-aging population are problems gripping Japanese policy-makers, who are quite clearly running out of practical ideas. Many have questioned if it is truly the end of an era, the slow yet sure death of an epoch whose name has been synonymous with precision, punctuality, and attention to detail. The Bank of Japan struggles every year to hit its target inflation rate, a far different atmosphere than that which prevailed in the 70s when the BOJ seemed sure headed towards central bank omnipotence. And do note that we have not accounted for the natural disasters that frequent the island nation in ever so unforgiving patterns. I am in no temper, though, to associate myself with the skeptics. It was, in fact, Lee Kuan Yew, with his deep understanding of Japan (borne out of his half-century relationship with her leaders), who declared with unambiguous optimistism that they—the Japanese—would eventually reclaim greatness. And as Zhou Enlai is rumored to have said in response to Richard Nixon pressing him on his thoughts of the French Revolution, It’s too soon to say. Indeed let me be one to agree that it is too soon to admonish her decline, if for no other reason but by what that great country has continually proven to the world, overcoming one crisis after another crisis.
So what are we to make of this? I should like to believe that there are numerous lessons on which the rest of us can learn only to our gain. But I concede that I remain in search of such reasons, the ones that separate the Japanese from the rest of the world, or for that matter, from the rest of the Orient. Is it Asian values? Nope: disproved trivially. Their societal structure? I don’t see how they distinguish themselves sharply on this from, say, the Chinese or Koreans. Capitalism with Asian characteristics? hmm. Their millennia of cultural and economic isolation? Their diet of mostly raw fish and boiled vegetables? Their volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis? The reader can observe how absurd it begins to sound when one gets carried away with audacious hypotheses. I hope to know them someday, the real reasons that make the Japanese, well, Japanese.
For a while now I had been meaning to write something substantial about the old country (though I feel I could have served the cause better). It would’ve never occurred to me that a transit at Narita Airport was what was required to spur my fingers to type the necessary words. But since I have had about 2 hours of sleep in 30 hours, or more reasonably because the boarding call to my next flight is to commence any moment now, or maybe, rather precisely, because my fellow Indian passengers have found it convenient to transform the waiting room to a photo booth, I have to stop here and continue another day, perhaps, when I truly have some meaningful answers.
Author: Resem Makan
Resem Makan is an Economics PhD student at the University of Washington. Before this, he was at the Indian Statistical Institute (Delhi) where he studied Quantitative Economics. He grew up in Nagaland, Aizawl, and Shillong, and thus feels a part of everywhere.