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The meticulous planning the helped the country to rise from the ashes of World War II to become the world’s second largest economic power had by the 1990s created a prolonged slump. A people so justifiably famous for hospitality, politeness, and respect also produced an army whose brutality during its occupation of Southeast Asia during the war remains a stumbling block to “normal” international relations. A society whose indigenous religion centers on nature worship for decades has tolerated appalling environmental damage – commercially exploiting its own nature reserves for timber, lining river banks and beds with concrete, and filling its air, water and land with dioxins and other pollutants.
Japan is an extremely densely populated country: If you nod off looking out of the window of a long distance train, you will likely see an identical city-scape when you wake up an hour later! Does such crowding account for Japan’s legendary tradition of politeness, self-discipline, and resigned acceptance?
In some ways, this is the only way to make intolerable situation somehow manageable.
These are just some of the issues facing anyone wishing to “understand” Japan—if such a thing is indeed possible. After all, the Japanese themselves are constantly analysing their own nature. In fact, they have devised the subject of Nihonjinron (the “theory of Japaneseness”), books on which sell millions of copies each year and cover such bizarre topics as the unique chemistry of Japanese blood, the special configuration of the Japanese brain, and other examples of what supposedly sets them apart from the rest of humanity.
This is certainly a challenging task, but the rewards for doing so are the myriad windows and doors into this fascinating country that will open for you.
Everywhere you go you’re likely to find this constant contrast between old and young, traditional and modern, past and present. Oftentimes, these polar opposites come together: Ise-Shima, the most sacred of all sanctuaries of Shinto (Japan’s ancient, nature worshipping indigenous religion) reinforces Japan’s profoundly intimate links with the sun goddess and her grandson, the God of the Earth.
Although it was established some 1,700 years ago, the main shrine you’ll see today was erected in 1993. Unlike Christianity’s massive gothic cathedrals, designed to convey a strong sense of permanence, this austere wooden structure is dismantled every 20 years and replaced by a new one. Since Japan’s Shinto deities are believed to permeate the natural surroundings in this case, a beautiful cedar forest – the man- made shrine is just there for the fleeting present moment.
This strong sense of transience and impermanence has doubtless arisen as a natural response to Japan’s devastating geography and seismology. The string of islands that make up Japan is in fact a highly volatile archipelago dotted with volcanoes and regularly subjected to earthquakes and typhoons. Over the ages, the Japanese built everything of wood—and then waited fatalistically for them to burn down, collapse, or be blown away ion one catastrophe or another, after which they commenced another cycle of rebuilding.
Area: ranked 42nd in would, with 377728 square km (147200 square miles) area on four main islands plus about 3900 smaller islands. Mountains cover 72 parents of the land. Highest point: Mt. Fuji, at 3776 m (12388ft).
Population: ranked 7th in world, with approximately 127 million Japanese, 670,000 Koreans, and 130,000 other non-Japanese residents. Density:318 square km.
Capital: Tokyo (metropolitan population 8,960,000).
Major cities: Yokohama (3,250,00,) Osaka (2,700,000), Nagoya ( 2,100,000), Kyoto (1,500,000), Sapporo (1,500,000), Kobe (1,400,000) Fukuoka (1,000,000) , Kita-Kyushu (1,100,000) , Kawasaki (1,000,000) and Hiroshima (900,000).
Government: Parliamentary democracy, headed by Prime Minister and cabinet, with emperor as titular head of state. Parliament (Diet) comprises House of Representatives (511 seats) and House of Counselors (252 seats). Country divided in 47 prefectures, each with a governor. “
After years of government propaganda predicating the worst atrocities, most Japanese civilians were surprised at the warmth and friendliness of the occupying forces. The postwar period began, however, with millions of displaced people homeless and starving, To counter a perceived communist threat form the Soviet Union, the US quickly set to work reconstructing and economy by transforming Japan’s institutions and devising a new pacifist constitution. Article 9 renounced Japan’s right to maintain armed forces, although the ambiguous wording was later taken to permit the creation of a “self-defense” force.
The zaibatsu conglomerates that had proved so instrumental in boosting Japan’s militarism were disbanded, later to reemerge as the keiretsu trading conglomerates that dominated the economy once again. The entire economy received a massive jump-start with the outbreak of the Korean War, with Japan ironically becoming the chief local supplier for an army it had battled so furiously just a few years earlier.
The occupation lasted until 1952 having already planted the seeds for Japan’s future stunning economic success. Economic output was back to prewar levels, and British auto companies provided the support needed to get Japan’s auto companies provided the support needed to get Japan’s auto industry back on its feet. Japanese companies then enthusiastically imported any. Western technologies they could get their hands on. This included transistor technology – invented in the US but then considered to have only limited applications – for the surreal sum $25,000. It was Japan that produced the world’s first transistor radio. The electronic technology spurt that followed is now legendary.
Parliamentary democracy finally came into its own, albeit with distinctly Japanese characteristics reflecting the dislike of debate and confrontation and the group-oriented preference for maintaining the appearance of harmony at all times. The government through the powerful Finance Ministry and Ministry of International Trade and Industry, generously supported favored private corporations; fist shipping, then cars, then electronics firms basked in the warmth of the governments loving attentions.
Japan overtook Britain economically in 1964. By the end of the decade, Japan’s was the third largest economy in the world- less then two decades after the war had left the country in ruins. Prosperity was not without its own problems; pollution caused by “dirty” industries a high incidence of stomach ulcers (even suicides) among schoolchildren pressured by over ambitious parents, and the awkward questions of what to do about nuclear energy.
The famous coziness among politicians, bureaucrats, and private companies, together with the strong cultural emphasis on relationship building and lack of transparency and accountability, eventually led to corrupt practices of endemic proportions. Breach-of-trust scandals became common. In an increasingly producer-led economy dominated by price fixing cartels operating with the government’s blessing, consumers were left to foot the bill.
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