The Japanese Miracle

Robert Ketcherside

For the past twenty years, social and political scientists from America and other Western nations have been flocking en masse to the study of the success of the Japanese "miracle". The phenomena, unique to Japan, is that over the past century tremendous economic growth and prosperity have been stimulated, while social harmony, political stability, and an excellent human rights record have been able to be maintained. The examination of key causal factors and their relationship to each other can bring a reasonable understanding of this political and social success.

Perhaps the most studied, and least agreed upon, factor contributing to this success is the state. According to Chalmers Johnson, the success of Japan is due in large part to the overwhelming strength of the Japanese state. Able to dictate policy to business, financial, and other market interests, the Japanese state instigates economic growth and prosperity for the public and private good. Political stability is maintained by the inability of outside forces to wrestle control from the LDP, the ruling party, and that social harmony comes about from the lack of channels for the public voice to be heard. Pharr claims to agree with Johnson, saying "This (Tokugawa) strong-state tradition was carried into the modern era by a powerful bureaucracy..." (Pharr, 1990). She attempts to show that Tokugawa era regulations on local travel and women's life can be compared to modern day economic policy and conflict resolution techniques, at least in that they both fit into the Western definition of a strong state. However, she goes on to say that this lies in seeming contrast to the 'small government' of the Japanese state, small in that it operates with small size, small budget, and small tax bite. That they are able to maintain this 'small government' while still being able to implement 'big government' strength and authority, she says, is apparently incongruous. She does go on to explain how this is possible, that the small government is able to maintain power specifically by delegating to such varied bodies as local governments, labor leaders, and community public officials, and also generally by relying on cultural values (Pharr, 1990). However, this is contradictory, as in effect it is a support of a view of a weak state which relies on outside forces to implement or create policy.

Before continuing with a further analysis of weak state theories, it will be helpful to understand these cultural values that Pharr produces, although unknowingly, as support. "Under Confucianism, which provided the philosophical basis of Tokugawa rule, no clear distinction was made between state and society, public and private; rather, the state was seen as encompassing the whole of society in its familistic embrace" (Pharr, 1990). In the West a different view is held, one in which the state and society are divided starkly, if not contrastingly. This has led to the "big government" problems in the West, where the government has taken increasing amounts of the private domain into the public sector with such policies as welfare and defense contracting. Rather than, as in the America, operating as a separate agent intruding into society, or as a benefactor providing support to it, the Japanese government acts as a part of society. Perhaps this is fundamentally a difference in perception, but even that is significant. It results in citizens who feel as if they are, rather than transgressed upon by the state, part of a larger structure which contains the state. As Duus notes, "The lack of a clear distinction between state and society in Confucianism might encourage the idea that society should be subordinate to the needs of the state, but it could also imply that those in authority had a responsibility not to rend the social fabric by despotic action" (Duus, 1982). Thus, as in all vertical relationships, although the people are subordinate to the government and must 'grin and bear it' to some extent, the government must in turn fulfill its obligation to the people. One final value is what Pharr calls 'conflict avoidance.' "When conflicts occur. . a search is launched for a consensus that accommodates the various competing needs and viewpoints represented in a group, with participation in the process based on status" (Pharr, 1990). First, conflicts are dealt with case-by-case in their applicable groups, whether it be the school, the workplace, the community, or the Ministry-based peak association. In this way, conflict resolutions are more personal and less applicable to other similar conflicts. Second, the outcome is reached by avoiding conflict - great lengths are taken to avoid outright aggressive action - to the point that the plaintiff group will often ignore problems as long as possible before attempting to reach a resolution.

All of these cultural values factor into the weak Japanese state and its apparent sociopolitical successes. One result is a policy in which the state "follows when it can, coordinates when it must, and deregulates when it can not coordinate" (McKean, 1993). In the interest of avoiding conflict and either of fulfilling its obligations as the leader of the group, or possibly of avoiding taking the position of leader of the group, the state follows the will of industries when possible, assuming, for one thing, that the industries are more knowledgeable about their needs. If it is impossible to follow, for instance when there is more than one interest involved, the state attempts to coordinate a resolution rather than taking a stand with one side or the other. If coordination proves impossible, the state deregulates the matter to a lower authority, such as community government, in the hopes that a more closely related group will be able to resolve the differences of the two sides. These factors contribute to show how a weak state, not a strong state, is able to maintain harmony, stability, and human rights.

Although the environment of the state and culture are probably the two key elements in the 'success formula', there are a few additional worth mentioning, which can all be grouped under the label 'unity'. First, the Japanese are a heterogeneous people. Some people argue that the Japanese can not in fact be called heterogeneous, in part because of past and present immigration of Koreans and other peoples, and in part because the origin of the Japanese is unclear, some believing they originate from the Korean Peninsula, some believing from Polynesian islands. However, the fact that the vast majority of the population, some 95 percent, have the same history, the same cultural background, and are from similar origins (even if tainted somewhat over the past few thousand years), is undeniable. This, as Pharr suggests, "operates to insure that superiors understand the vantage point of inferiors and take their position into account" (Pharr, 1990). Another unifying factor has, since World War Two, been the restructuring of the nation and the pursuit of prosperity. For several decades Japanese workers slaved tirelessly for long hours without much apparent dissatisfaction. Although now there is widespread unease with the long hours that have been prevalent in the past, this has only come with widespread prosperity.

Part of an extended group which reaches down to the smallest child, the state has a responsibility to ensure the well-being of those below it, a responsibility which entails human rights. As the head of this group, the state is also responsible for maintaining social harmony. Both with market and citizen conflicts, the state is responsible for finding a smooth resolution to these conflicts, whether it be through followership, coordination, deregulation, or other means. Finally, national unity through background and purpose has helped state efforts to increase economic growth and prosperity.