“Japan is a “miracle” of modern times. With astonishing speed during the last half a century or so it has emerged as an economic super-power, an industrial giant and one of the most thriving and vibrant nations. Its presence is being increasingly felt throughout the world as we move into the 21st century, for there is hardly anyone in contemporary world who remains untouched by decisions made in Tokyo”.
The island nation of Japan lies off the east coast of Asia mainland at a strategic location close to Russia, China and South Korea on the western rim of the Pacific Ocean. The country consists of nearly 3,400 islands that stretch some 1,200 miles (1,931 km) from northeast to southwest.
The four larger ones; Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku make up 97 percent of the country. To the west, the Sea of Japan separates it from the eastern shores of Russia and North and South Korea. To the north, the Soviet island of Sakhalin lies barely 26 miles away, and to the northeast the Russian-controlled Kuril Island is less than 10 miles, both these territories have historically been Japanese possessions or claimed by Japan.
To the east and south lies the Pacific Ocean, the gateway to the United States, and to the southwest is East China Sea and on the mainland the People’s Republic of China. The physical proximity of Russia, China and Koreas is of great strategic significance and important in understanding Japan’s political geography. Japan’s location along the shortest sea route between eastern Asia and western North America, particularly in regard to the United States is also significant.
Japan is not just far to the west of North America, but lies close to the main great circle route between the continents of Asia and North America. The Pacific Ocean acts as a great commercial link between the two continents; most of the world’s major ocean routes pass through Japan.
Thus location has imparted commercial advantage to Japan, for here meet two of the world’s great trade routes; one originating in Europe, crossing the Indian Ocean to Singapore, moving north past Hong Kong and Shanghai to Kobe and Yokohama, and the other starting from North America going westward via Japan to China and the Philippines.
In political and military terms, the islands provide a major outpost of the non-Communist world on the eastern margin of Asia restricting Chinese and Russian access to the Pacific. On the other hand, if Japan were to become allied with Chinese or Russian interests, it could act as a barrier to western encroachments into eastern Asia.
The islands have the advantage of accessibility and at the same time of relative security. This has allowed the outside ideas to penetrate easily—from China in ancient times and from the West after Japan’s self-imposed isolation during modern times. The insular position has brought safety. Not until the World War II in 1945, any invader ever landed on Japanese shores. The Mongols under Kublai Khan tried in 1281, but a typhoon thwarted that attempt.
Japan is a “miracle” of modern times. With astonishing speed during the last half a century or so it has emerged as an economic super-power, an industrial giant and one of the most thriving and vibrant nations. Its presence is being increasingly felt throughout the world as we move into the 21st century, for there is hardly anyone in contemporary world who remains untouched by decisions made in Tokyo.
The Japanese manufactures flood the world markets with technologically advanced equipment ranging from optical goods and cameras to microwave ovens, VCRs, stereo systems, cars, huge oceangoing vessels—materials that reflect the precision, skills, and innovative designs and functional ease—characteristic of the Japanese society. Capitalizing on its economic might, it has become the only major counterbalance to the United States and Europe in a post-Soviet world.
It would be, however, inappropriate to consider Japan as a mere economic giant. The so-called “miracle” of Japan’s rise to great power status is indeed astonishing, but it is no miracle; it is based on a tradition of impressive achievements, grounded in extreme devotion to artistic and cultural values, combined with a historic sense of national mission and identity.
However, the fierce Japanese sense of nationalism has been preserved not only by the retention of historic values but also by selective adaptability, and an eager searching for the kind of change based on direct western models that the Japanese considered essential for the preservation of their independence.
The Japanese were ready to reject only those aspects of their past that they thought interfered with newly acquired changes. Their objective was the preservation of Japan, and not it’s Westernization. Though they borrowed heavily from western models, and techniques in pursuit of economic prosperity, they specifically safeguarded Japan and preserved its identity. Preservation of centuries-old Japanese art, literature, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, and the careful humanization of the land has given a distinctive quality to the Japanese culture.
Cultural and Historical Background:
Ethnically, the Japanese are akin to the peoples of eastern Asia, the Chinese and the Koreans. The original natives, the indigenous Ainus have nearly been assimilated into the general population who in their pure form are on the verge of extinction, although small groups survive in Hokkaido. Koreans form a minuscule minority for less than 1 percent of the population most is descendants of those who migrated to Japan in the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was a Japanese colony. Japan, thus, contains one of the most cohesive ethnic societies.
Japanese, the national language belongs to the Altaic linguistic group and is largely akin to Korean and Chinese. Until the 4th century it had no written form, when the system of writing in characters was borrowed from China, and by 9th century redesigned retaining the Chinese ideographic forms. Like Chinese, the language is highly complex, containing some 50,000 characters, involving 40 brushstrokes, which has earned it the notoriety of being the “devil’s language.”
Its standardized and somewhat simplified form was established through the creation of a national educational system in the late 19th century. The unique cultural identity of the Japanese people is based primarily on the fact that the Japanese islands have been inhabited by the same racial and linguistic group, with virtually no admixture from outside, for nearly 1,500 years. Although
Japanese culture contains many similarities to the culture of China, some of which trace back to pre-Chrisitan era, the Japanese assimilated and transformed the Chinese cultural borrowing into a uniquely Japanese mold. Regarding the religious inclinations of the Japanese, Shinto, the indigenous religion, various sects of Buddhism and Christianity together with a number of “new religions” that have emerged since the 19th century coexist in relative peace. Shintoism and related religions claim their adherents of about 40 percent of the population. Practicing Buddhists form another 38 percent and Christians nearly 4 percent.
Most of 18 percent of the remaining population practices an eclectic form of several religions or are non-believers in formalized religions. Most of Japanese are, however, affected by the practices of a number of religious beliefs. For example, in a family a person may believe in several Shinto gods and at the same time belong to a Buddhist sect.
Shintoism is a polytheistic religion, and its followers worship natural objects, major historical or mythical figures, or Hindu gods and Chinese spirits in a uniquely Japanized form. Each rural settlement has at least one shrine of its own. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 Shinto became a state-supported religion, but this institution was abolished after World War II. Buddhism arrived from Korea in the mid 6th century. By the next century contacts with China had been firmly established. Buddhism also traveled from there reinforcing the prevailing Buddhist hold.
Several Buddhist monasteries were built throughout the country. A century later (8th century) it had acquired the status of a national religion. From China too, came Zen Buddhism in the 12th century, which has since claimed a large following. Christianity was brought in the 16th century by the Roman Catholic missionaries and was initially well received both as a religion and as a symbol of European culture. The “new religions” were formed after the mid 19th century. Most have their roots in Shintoism, but have also been influenced by Buddhism, neo-Confucianism, and Christianity, and some like the Soka Gakkai (“Value Creation Society”) have powerful political organizations.
The aboriginal Ainu population is proto-caucasoid in origin, which originally arrived from the mainland in the southwestern parts of present-day Japan probably during the postglacial period of earth’s history (even before the present territorial configuration of the country had taken shape). The earliest man may well have been able to walk overland from the mainland.
Gradually the Ainus partly contributed to the racial composition of the modern Japanese. From the mainland the Chinese later on carried their culture into Korea and brought it in southern Japan whose peoples were themselves in contact with Korea by the 3rd century B.C.
By the mid 6th century Buddhism had been officially introduced and the Chinese culture had formally made inroads into Japan. The Japanese leaders dispatched commissions to the court of China, as there was a growing realization that their knowledge was incomplete, and they should study all possible aspects of the Chinese culture. Thus began a program of “modernization” that would in due course permeate throughout southern Japan. All types of subjects were studied—ranging from Buddhist theology to city planning, from painting to manufacturing. This enormous task of culture transfer was integrated into a distinctive, evolving Japanese milieu, and blended with the elements of native existing culture.
The centuries between 900 and 1400 A.D. were the most important periods of cultural activity transformation, and maturity in Japanese history. Although the Japanese culture was modeled upon that of China, but slavish copying was never permitted. For example, the Japanese religion grew into a mixture of Buddhism and native animism.
The Chinese ideographic writing underwent substantial transformation as to be distinctively Japanese. The house types using movable panel walls, designed to let in light and sun, clean floors and mats were clearly Japanese innovations blended into Chinese housing styles. The Japanese agriculture developed its own methods, tools and customs retaining the basic Chinese modes.
All through these times the leaders of Japan had carefully discarded those elements of Chinese culture that would have minimized their control over the various clans, but retained and modified the elements of the utilitarian arts, agriculture and settlements that they had learned from the Chinese. They were also anxious that the early patterns of social stratification remain strong. Thus a sharp social cleavage between the masses and the small group of leaders, holders of wealth and large owners of land eventually developed.
In China, on the other hand, a centralized system had historically been the pattern. In Japan provincial administration on the other hand, remained powerful, the emperor remained a figurehead. This situation often led to a competitive struggle between the leading classes.
The struggles for power between the leaders of class in turn were responsible for the development of a professional soldiery, which gradually became the samurai class, enjoying social and legal status, and deriving income from taxation of the peasantry. The military tradition of the soldiery in modern Japanese history prior to and including WWII stems largely from Japan’s military tradition.
Throughout the feudal era, the peasant class which had been relegated to a lower social status in comparison to the samurai class had been protesting for better treatment. Thus, internal stresses had been gathering in the society. The arrival of the occidental culture through trade or contacts with the outside world was perceived as a threat to the society which the Japanese thought would aggravate the internal stresses.
For example, the arrival of Christianity was considered a threat as it carried allegiance to a God who lay beyond the sea outside Japan. Therefore, the Japanese decided to close Japan to the outside world. The Tokugawa rulers shut off the Japanese ports to Asian and European traders, the Spanish and Portuguese were expelled, and Japan sealed itself in a hermit-like state.
The significant political result of this was that Japan escaped the fate of colonial status, so abhorrent to the several Asian nations. The net outcome of this policy of a long period of hermitage was to solidify the Japanese culture and gave the nation a distinctive identity.
Commodore Perry arrived in 1858, and called upon the Japanese to end their two and a half centuries of isolation. Although earlier similar overtures had been made and overturned, the American overture was made through a show of force. Reluctantly Japan started a new period in its history.
Within a few years trade agreements with several occidental countries were signed heralding a new phase of modernization. The abolition of landed feudalism and renovation of administrative system was the first step in the modernization process. Railway lines were constructed in the 1870s. and focus in economy was diverted from agriculture to industrialization and trade.
With the beginning of the Meiji rule in 1868, the country took a new direction in economic and military policies. In 1872 compulsory elementary education was instituted. Soon after, the old privileged warrior class of samurais was eliminated, and a reformed bicameral parliament Diet was set up.
Realizing that Japanese culture was out of date compared to the foreign trade, and industrial and military might of the West, the new leaders started developing contacts with the West by sending students to study abroad to learn the western sciences, technology, and cultures. Because many of these new leaders were derived from the old military class, their immediate concern was the building of a strong military force that could deter the colonial imperialism of the occident.
Partly as a consequence of the burgeoning population and partly due to the military tradition of the society Japan embarked upon a period of conquests between 1894 and 1931. It quickly gained control of Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Liaodang Peninsula (China) in 1894-95; Korea in 1910; and in 1931 Manchuria. The Japanese invasion of China came in 1937 which alienated the western democracies.
In 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and in 1942-43 the Japanese forces pressed their conquest of Southeast Asia. Finally, after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it surrendered to the U.S. forces. Horrified at the massive destruction that the American bombs had caused, the nation decided to forsake the military- tradition.
Even before the World War II the Japanese had shown great appreciation for western industrial technology and started to undertake a thorough-going industrialization program. For nearly half a century the Japanese government sent commissions, observers, and students to the west to study the material economy of the west in a concerted effort to bring Japan up to date as quickly as possible. The pace quickened during peaceful times since the end of World War II. Thus, the industrial revolution arrived in Japan during the last 50 years.
Modern Japan has now become a unique blend of the ancient oriental and modern occidental cultures in all their forms. The American dime stores full of artifacts labeled “Made in Japan”, the American style farmstead in Hokkaido, the cultured pearl, the Japanese Army, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Honda automobile companies, the high-tech cameras and photo-equipment material, the religious shrine and tourist centers are the expressions of the industrial modernization of Japan harmoniously coexisting with the guarded, time-honored Japanese cultural traditions.