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.
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