Showa Japan

Showa Japan by Hans Brinckmann

I’ve decided to read a book about every country that I travel to. I stumbled upon this idea when I finished My Promised Land by Ari Shavit after coming back from Israel. I was supposed to read it last semester, but didn’t get around to it. Reading the book after being there firsthand was a totally different experience. It helped me shape my thoughts about Israel and also taught me much more I had not known about. Likewise, I was fascinated by Japan and by how little I knew of its history, so I picked up this book to help fill in the gaps. From now on, I will read a book for every country. It’s not exactly easy, and I had to search for quite a while to find quality books. The best ones are by local journalists who have the ability to interview locals from different aspects of life. To my surprise, these books are hard to come by. In the case for Japan, I settled for a book by Dutch banker who spent long periods of his life in Japan. While I value his opinions, I did read this book with a grain of salt. Ultimately, locals are the best observers of their countries, especially for a country like Japan, which has a reputation for treating foreigners as a class of their own.

1. Blue collar workers in Japan are very much respected.

Brinckmann cites that peasants and farmers ranked above merchants in feudal Japan. This point is certainly interesting, and it may help explain the flawless appearance of Japanese public facilities – only possible through the hardwork of the cleaning crew.

2. Mitsubishi bought the Rockerfeller Group, who owned Rockerfeller Center.

It makes me wonder if big Chinese firms would soon be buying up American landmarks as well.

3. Emperor Hirohito ruled until 1989.

He oversaw almost the entire 20th century, in which Japan grew to be a world power, lost it, and gained it back. I’m interested in learning more about his role in WWII and how he managed to stay emperor in the aftermath.

4. Loose lending was a major cause of the Japanese bubble.

Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the Japanese bubble and burst. I still have to dive deeper into the details, but it seems like the classic case of loose lending and rampant spending and investment. I’m surprised how little coverage this bubble receives nowadays. Japan is effectively still reeling from this bubble that burst over 20 years ago. It is reasonable to think that other countries will suffer a similar fate.

5. During the Showa period, companies existed for more market share and employment than for shareholders.

I’m not sure how true this is. But there is definitely a move away from the concept that one’s company is there to provide lifetime employment and protection. This increase in labor mobility is one example of policy reform that is supposedly to rejuvenate the economy. The results are debatable, since this mobility has translated into many less-than-ideal temporary jobs.

6. Subway terrorist attack by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995

I don’t know how I had never heard of this sarin attack that killed 13 people. This is a huge black spot in an otherwise peaceful and orderly society.

7. Japan suffers from infantilism.

This is one of Brinckmann’s sharpest claims. He thinks that the Japanese people are “babied” by society. There is an overemphasis on cute things. Cartoon characters are used to promote anything and everything. No one ever has to take responsibility for his/her actions. In short, the system works too well. This has led to complacency and is hurting Japan.

8. Rise of political right

The latest approach to its sagging economy seems to be a reemphasis on nationalism. Abe is strongly right, and there are no signs that Japan will appease China. Why should they? In my opinion, I think the rise of China has to do a lot with the decline of Japan. The Asia Pacific region cannot accommodate two true superpowers. Still, not everyone is happy about China’s aggressive stance in the region, and many countries may flock to Japan for protection. We will see what happens.

9. Wooden chopsticks – Waribashi

Brinckmann uses the waribashi as a symbol of Japanese society. The chopsticks are fixed together, mirroring the group mentality of the Japanese people. They are thrown out after one use, representing the emphasis on cleanliness.

10. Japan is easy to love.

I agree. Out of all the places I’ve been, Japan has impressed me the most. How does everything look so nice and work so well? Still, I am a tourist and only saw the outer surface which Japan has perfected. It obviously has problems, and it’s amazing how little of the trouble is visible. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Japan got it right after WWII. Because it was so good, it could afford to run in place. But now, that doesn’t work anymore. If you’re not running forward, you’re falling behind.


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