Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Japan is one of the world's most important societies, yet remains one of the least understood. This book is designed to fill the gap for a concise but thought-provoking introduction to all aspects of the country's political, economic and social life set in a clear historical context.

The author's starting-point is that the study of Japan is 'contested territory' where even such apparently simple questions such as 'Who is in charge?' spark considerable disagreement and controversy among experts. To understand contemporary Japan, Duncan McCargo argues, it is necessary to get to grips with a range of different perspectives on Japanese political and social structures. Integrating contrasting perspectives throughout, the core chapters of the book focus on the changing economy, government and politics, society and culture, and Japan's place in the wider world.

The new third edition of this popular text has been fully revised and updated throughout to cover key developments such as the historic end of LDP rule in 2009. This accessible and lively book will be essential reading both for students and general readers who want to know more about this important country.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Themes and Debates

Abstract
You are now entering contested territory. The nature of contemporary Japan is hotly debated by specialists and observers, both inside and outside Japan. Whether the topic is Japan’s domestic politics, international relations or economic order, apparently simple questions such as ‘Is Japan a liberal democracy?’, ‘Is Japan a superpower?’, or ‘Does Japan have a free market economy?’ will provoke radically different answers from different scholars and analysts. Facts about Japan are often buried under different interpretations and perspectives. When reading books or articles about contemporary Japan, we need to be constantly alert to the biases and preferences of their authors. This book starts from the assumption that in order to understand much about contemporary Japan, we need to understand the alternative perspectives to be found in the literature on Japan.
Duncan McCargo

2. Historical Background

Abstract
After a long period of relative isolation from the beginning of the seventeenth century, in the late 1800s, Japan began a process of extraordinarily rapid industrialization and social change, making the transition from an essentially feudal society to a modern nation-state within a couple of decades. Following its successful defeat of a western power in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan increasingly turned towards imperialism, and eventually to the militarism which culminated in the disastrous Pacific War. After the humiliating surrender of August 1945, Japan again recreated itself, this time as an economic giant. By the 1980s, Japan was challenging even the United States in trade and manufacturing. Yet, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, Japan faced new challenges, as its political and economic systems appeared to be losing direction. Many aspects of this history are highly contentious.
Duncan McCargo

3. The Changing Political Economy

Abstract
The phoenix-like emergence of Japan from the ashes and rubble of the 1945 defeat to become one of the world’s most powerful industrial economies by the 1980s has often been casually characterized as a ‘miracle’. Yet, as with other aspects of contemporary Japan, both the origins and the nature of that ‘miracle’ are highly contested. For some scholars, Japan’s success represents the triumph of market forces: they see Japan as engaged in a process of convergence, becoming more and more like the West. Other interpretations stress the special circumstances of Japan’s economic rise, notably the external agency of the United States — with its technical assistance and know-how — and the fortuitous outbreak of the Cold War (and especially the Korean conflict) which provided the Americans with a compelling rationale to bolster the Japanese economy. Revisionists, led by Chalmers Johnson, emphasize the degree to which Japan’s accelerated post-war industrialization was a state-led process, coordinated by key agencies such as the Ministry for International Trade and Industry. Johnson describes Japan as a ‘developmental state’ a view opposed by mainstream American scholars, who are generally uncomfortable with statist explanations for ideological reasons.
Duncan McCargo

4. Social Structure and Social Policy

Abstract
How far does Japan’s social structure differ from those of other societies? Mainstream scholars identify numerous points of similarity, arguing that Japan has been engaged in a process of modernization and convergence with western models. Revisionists tend to emphasize the shortcomings and the dysfunctional aspects of Japanese society, challenging the dominant view of Japan as overly rose-tinted. For culturalist analysts, Japanese social structure can only be understood through the study of distinctive patterns of order and behaviour that reflect longstanding cultural norms and mores. One view that borrows from all three perspectives is the metaphor of Japanese society as an onion, where the bulk of the population can be viewed in terms of different concentric rings. At the core of the onion are the most privileged members of Japanese society: male, permanent employees of large companies. In the outer ring are disadvantaged groups such as migrant labourers and minorities. The middle rings contain blue-collar males, women, the elderly, people hired on short-term contracts, the self-employed, and employees of small enterprises. Generalizing about the Japanese is difficult, since those at the core of society are vastly more privileged and comfortable than those on the margins.
Duncan McCargo

5. Governing Structures

Abstract
Under the 1947 Constitution, sovereignty rests with the people rather than with the Emperor. The Emperor serves as the ‘symbol of state’: technically speaking, Japan has no ‘head of state’, a legacy of postwar attempts to strip the throne of all power. The Diet contains two houses: the Upper House (House of Councillors), and Lower House (House of Representatives), both housed in the Diet Building (see Illustration 5.1). However, the lower house is much the more important of the two. Both houses are filled by elected members. In many respects, the formal structures of the Japanese parliamentary system reflect the British model, with executive power concentrated in the hands of the cabinet and the prime minister. At least 50 per cent of ministers must be members of the Diet. There is an independent judiciary, and local governments at the prefectural and municipal level enjoy autonomy. Civil and social rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, are incorporated into the constitution. Citizens are equal before the law; public officials are accountable to the people, who have the right to choose and dismiss them. Despite some criticism of the 1947 Constitution as a ‘foreign’ import imposed on Japan by the Occupation forces, no formal motion to amend it has yet been put before the Diet.
Duncan McCargo

6. Political Society: Parties and Opposition

Abstract
Few aspects of contemporary Japan inspire as much controversy as its party-political order. For mainstream scholars, Japan is a working liberal democracy similar to those of western Europe or the United States. For revisionists, Japanese electoral politics are a travesty that has little to do with popular representation, and everything to do with structural corruption and special interests. For culturalist scholars, Japan’s politics reflect the distinctive nature of the country’s history and culture, and attempts to draw comparisons with other nations are therefore often inappropriate. Revisionist critiques of the Japanese political system were based partly on the fact that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was able to govern almost continuously from 1955 to 2009 — with the exception of a brief interlude between 1993 and 1994, followed by a spell during which the LDP formed the largest party in a coalition administration. However, the decisive defeat of the LDP by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009 had the effect of ‘normalizing’ Japanese politics, demonstrating that power could change hands from one major party to another.
Duncan McCargo

7. Socialization and Civil Society

Abstract
How are Japanese people socialized into the prevailing political order? To what extent do different elements of Japanese society act as checks and balances on the power of the state, and the ruling elite? This chapter examines two aspects of Japanese society: sources of socialization (such as education and policing), and the nature of civil society, as manifested in the media, community organizations and protest movements. Most mainstream scholars would argue that Japanese institutions are highly successful in producing good citizens, and that the majority of Japanese people play a constructive role in the political and civic order. Revisionists are generally more sceptical, believing that the Japanese state in some way compels or coerces its citizens into compliance and outward conformity. Those analysts who use culturalist approaches view Japanese society as primarily shaped by cultural norms and traditions, rather than by state-led social forces and institutions.
Duncan McCargo

8. Japan’s External Relations

Abstract
In 2010, China decisively overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. While this shift had been long in the making — China was already ahead using a number of standard indicators — the downgrade to number three was an important symbolic moment for Japan, reflecting changing dynamics of political influence as well as financial and industrial clout. Since the end of the Pacific War, Japan had been the most important nation in Asia, and the primary ally of the United States. In the wake of the spectacular 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China had claimed a front row seat on the international stage — rather as had Japan in 1964, and South Korea in 1988.
Duncan McCargo

9. Conclusion

Abstract
Evaluating, summarizing, and assessing contemporary Japan is a highly contentious business. At the beginning of the new millennium, Japan seemed to have lost the remarkable sense of purpose and direction that characterized its earlier post-war history. From the ashes of the American bombing, and the humiliations of defeat and Occupation, the Japanese successfully recreated themselves as a major nation. By the 1980s, Japan was challenging America’s place in the sun, and appeared poised to become the world’s ‘number one’ economic giant. The rest of the world looked on with awe as Japan gained a dominant economic position in the Asia-Pacific region, and began exporting productive capacity to Europe and North America as well. Yet Japan became more than simply an economic superpower. Many features of Japanese society, ranging from world-beating life expectancy to extraordinarily high levels of literacy and exceptionally low incidences of crime, attracted enormous international attention. A whole literature sprang up with a ‘learn from Japan’ theme, as people sought to discover what ‘lessons’ could be derived from the Japanese experience, and how far Japan’s social and economic successes could be replicated elsewhere.
Duncan McCargo
Additional information