JPRI Occasional Paper No. 39 (May 2012)
The Myth of Change-Resistant Japan
by John W. Dower

All countries, peoples, cultures are unique, but in mainstream Western commentary no country surpasses the Japanese in being regarded as uniquely unique. This was true in the late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century when Japan startled the world by moving swiftly from feudal isolation to one of the “Big Five” powers at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Western commentators routinely diagnosed the nation's descent into militarism and war as singular historical and psychological or sociological pathologies. The highs and lows of Japan's post-1945 experience also prompted a steady stream of sui generis cultural explanations. In the realm of East-is-East-and-West-is-West myth making, “the Japanese mind” holds a special, and especially tenacious, place.

Through war and peace, a few core stereotypes have dominated this myth making. The favorite characterization of the Japanese among putative Asia experts during the Asia-Pacific War, for example, was “the obedient herd.” In the United States, much of the burden of explaining Japan at war fell to the urbane diplomat Joseph Grew, who was ambassador to Tokyo from 1932 until Pearl Harbor. The key, Grew explained time and again, was cognitive deficiency deriving in good part from historical backwardness. In a dispatch cabled to Washington in September 1941 (and made public during the war), he framed his view in the third person as follows:

The Ambassador stresses the importance of understanding that Japanese psychology [is] fundamentally unlike that of any Western nation. Japanese reactions to any particular set of circumstances cannot be measured, nor can Japanese actions be predicted by any Western measuring rod. This fact is hardly surprising in the case of a country so recently feudalistic.

In the six-plus decades since the war—through the whole rollercoaster ride from ruined cities to “miracles” to “bubbles” and protracted financial malaise—the obedient-herd stereotype has survived almost unchallenged. Indeed, foreign journalists and pundits seem to have an unwritten rule requiring them to cite the same Japanese aphorism: “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Herd behavior. Group think. Harmony and homogeneity. Conformity and tribalism. Them, in stark contrast to Us, with no recognition or acknowledgment of how familiar such sayings are in all societies. (Among English-language idioms, think “don't stick your neck out,” “don't rock the boat,” “to get along, go along.”)

Beginning in the early 1990s, when the bubble burst and doldrums arrived, another cliché joined the old bromides about Japan's special character: “change-resistant.” Japanese popular culture and technological innovation generally escape this sentiment, but rarely the political economy and seldom Japanese society and culture at large. Look almost anywhere in the print and online media and you will find a chorus of erstwhile Japan experts calling attention to “change-resistant bureaucrats,” “a hugely change-resistant political system,” “Japan's hidebound business culture and change-resistant financial system,” “the change-resistant men who run Japan,” “cloistered change-resistant administrations,” and, more sweepingly, “the conservative, change-resistant culture of the Japanese and their change-resistant society.”

Such crude cultural determinism tells us less about Japan than about our own abiding ethnocentricity. Of course history, and what Edward Gibbon called the commands of custom, matter. The history that matters most has little to do with feudalism, however, and a great deal to do with modernity as experienced by a vulnerable Asian state embedded in a fiercely competitive world defined and dominated by Western powers.

U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's gunboat diplomacy in 1853and 1854 propelled secluded Japan into this global maelstrom, and the Meiji leaders' response after the feudal regime was overthrown in 1868 was the very opposite of change-resistant. This early response involved intense campaigns promoting Western¬ style “civilization and enlightenment” and “wealth and power”—accompanied by tutelage in the lessons of Social Darwinism—that enabled Japan to do what no other non-Western, non-white, non-Christian nation in the world succeeded in doing: join the imperialist powers instead of falling prey to them, as most of Africa and Asia did.

There were notable milestones in Japan's rapid metamorphosis into a global power, highlighted most dramatically by military victories against China in 1895 and Russia in 1905. Contrary to Joseph Grew's later postulation of incompatible Western and Japanese measuring rods, the Japanese of the Meiji era measured Western prowess and practice with exactitude. The warships they deployed in these turn-of-the-century conflicts were state-of-the-art, and the legal instruments they manipulated in the wake of their wars established them as a bona fide imperialist and colonial power: in Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895, in strategic parts of Manchuria in 1905, and in Korea in 1910.

These accomplishments stimulated both unease and approbation among the Western powers. The most striking demonstration of the latter came from England, the greatest of the imperialist powers, in the most concrete and gratifying form imaginable: bilateral military alliance. Under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance signed in 1902 and renewed in 1905 and 1911, the two nations pledged to support each other if either signatory became involved in a war with more than one power. This alliance expedited Japan's war of choice against Russia and paved the way not only for Japan's entry into World War I as an Allied power, but also the country's subsequent participation in the Paris Peace Conference, where the victors gathered to reshape the map of the world.

The termination of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923, largely at the instigation of Britain and the urging of the United States, had both near-and long-term consequences. In the near view, Japan's leaders were left without a rudder at a time when the global order was about to fall apart. Economic depression loomed. Revolutionary developments in military technology obsessed strategic planners. Competing nationalisms and ideologies undermined the fledgling League of Nations and stifled cries for peace.

This is the milieu in which militarists and so-called renovationist bureaucrats assumed power in imperial Japan, threw caution to the winds, and took the nation into war, first against China and then, in 1941, against the Allied powers that supported China and presided as colonial overlords in Southeast Asia. Japan's aggression had nothing to do with being “recently feudalistic,” and everything to do with a quest for security-and ultimately autonomy or autarky-in a broken world.

The domestic triumph of the warlords was neither inevitable nor uncontested. Recent scholarship paints a picture of great tension and dynamism in 1930s Japan: cosmopolitanism and an avid embrace of “modernity” among the bourgeoisie; high levels of civilian technological innovation (as well as military technological hubris); severe disparities and antagonisms among urban and rural classes; and so on. Neither homogeneity nor harmony characterizes this era, and militarist propaganda about “a hundred million hearts beating as one” reflected an intense campaign of domestic indoctrination aimed at masking these tensions.

Post-1945 Japan is incomprehensible without an appreciation of, first, the complexity and vitality of this prewar baseline, and second, the exhaustion and deep anti-military sentiments that accompanied defeat. Two million Japanese fighting men and as many as one million civilians perished in the Asia-Pacific War, out of a population of slightly more than 70 million. The nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed saturation firebombing of 64 large and small cities. Defeated Japan was stripped of its Asian empire, and somewhere around a quarter of the nation's wealth was destroyed. What survived was a strong bedrock of skilled human resources that had expanded greatly under the mobilization for war, and a collective devotion to starting over in a society that directed these resources to peaceful civilian pursuits.

The so-called peace constitution that U.S. Occupation authorities drafted and the Japanese Diet endorsed in 1946 has remained unchanged into the twenty-first century because many Japanese still remember and recite the horrors of the war and the folly of the warlords. Although the original antimilitary thrust of the constitution has been diluted through “revision by reinterpretation” and incremental rearmament, and although the charter may eventually be revised, this antimilitary legacy will never be entirely dispelled. This development is a striking about-face from the militarism that eventually triumphed in the 1930s. It is also a blessing that has become battered and warped by the peculiarly intimate and asymmetrical nature of the postwar U.S.-Japan security relationship. It is here in the postwar U.S.-Japan relationship that the long-term impact, or at least resonance, of the old Anglo-Japanese Alliance, lies. Shigeru Yoshida, the conservative prime minister who negotiated Japan's transition from occupation to the restoration of sovereignty in the early1950s, articulated this relationship clearly. A former diplomat who entered the Foreign Service in 1906, Yoshida regarded Japan's bilateral alliance with England in the first two decades of the twentieth century as the key to the halcyon years of national glory. The ruin the militarists brought upon Japan made clear that “autonomy” was a pipe dream. At the same time, having witnessed the failure of the League of Nations-style internationalism that followed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Yoshida rested little hope in the new United Nations as a guarantor of peace and security. In these circumstances, he acceded to the quid pro quos the United States demanded for regaining independence under a generous, nonpunitive, multinational peace treaty: wholesale integration in Washington's Cold War policy of military and economic containment of Communism.

It is easy for outsiders to forget the conditions under which defeated Japan rejoined the so-called community of nations more than a half-century ago. It is not easy for the Japanese to forget these conditions, which continue to influence, haunt, and hamstring the nation's policymakers. Hammered out in the midst of the Korean War and just a few years after the Communist victory in China, the patchwork of interconnected bilateral U.S.-Japan agreements that accompanied restoration of sovereignty was simultaneously a blessing and curse. It established the military umbrella and patron-client relationship under which Japan promoted industrial policies that led to its emergence, beginning in the late 1960s, as the world's second-largest economy. At the same time, however, nestling so firmly under the eagle's wing locked Japan into what has turned out to be a lasting and psychologically enervating status of subordinate, or dependent, independence.

Yoshida viewed this subordination to Washington as unfortunate but unavoidable and by and large beneficial at the time, and envisioned Japan eventually growing out of such extreme dependency. On the latter score, he was overly sanguine. Under the quid pro quos of the bilateral security settlements, Japan agreed to rearm under the U.S. aegis without first revising the peace constitution, with both sides wishfully assuming such revision could be carried out sooner rather than later. Additionally, the Yoshida government acquiesced in continued maintenance of U.S. military bases throughout the archipelago, a policy that provoked vehement grassroots “antibase” movements in the 1950s and after. Okinawa was excluded from the restoration of sovereignty and retained as a neocolonial U.S. military bastion, with nominal sovereignty not restored to Japan until 1972 and extensive militarized real estate remaining in American hands to the present day.

The quid pro quos for regaining nominal independence also included participating in the diplomatic and economic “containment” of the People's Republic of China, which was excluded from the multinational 1951 Peace Conference. Even the fiercely anti-Communist Yoshida thought this exclusion madness. By way of compensation, Washington promoted Japanese economic engagement in Southeast Asia; granted favorable access to U.S. patents and licenses and general industrial and managerial know-how; and tolerated Japanese protectionism and mercantilist policies. Washington also patronized the consolidation and domination of conservative political power within Japan—to the point of embracing the premiership, beginning in 1957, of the former accused war criminal Nobusuke Kishi and funneling covert funds to him in return for continued unstinting support of the Cold War agenda. The 1960 revision and renewal of the bilateral security treaty under Kishi provoked massive protests that drew participants as diverse as communists and leftists, blue-and white-collar workers, students, farmers, housewives, and clergy.

Japan's isolation from China continued until 1972, when the Nixon administration abruptly reversed course and extended recognition to the PRC without notifying Tokyo of this theatrical volte face until the very last moment. Japan proceeded to develop extensive economic relations with China in the decades that followed as if the two earlier lost decades were of no lasting consequence, but that is too simple a reading. Washington's cavalier treatment of Japan's leaders, loyal to a fault, survived as a symbolic marker of the inequitable nature of the relationship. Even at the peak of Japan's emergence as an “economic superpower” in the 1970s and 1980s, the nation's leaders neither did, nor could, pursue a genuinely innovative and reasonably independent external policy.

The contrast to a defeated and occupied postwar Germany is noteworthy. Although West Germany, too, fell into the U.S. security orbit, this situation did not define the country's relations with its neighbors and the world at large. More noteworthy yet is the contrast to the independence and autonomy with which China now increasingly asserts itself on the world stage. That is an ironic development, in retrospect, when one recalls the dogmatism with which Cold War containment in Asia was promoted on the grounds that the PRC was a Soviet satellite—little more than a pawn in Moscow's grim game of monolithic Communism.

Obviously, the constraints and psychological burdens that subordinate independence has imposed on Japan's leaders since the restoration of sovereignty six decades ago have become compounded by China's emergence as the dominant state in Asia. Just as obviously, on the other hand, Japan can take pride—as China cannot—in having become a viable democracy, neither more nor less dysfunctional than the United States and major nations of Europe. In this, Japan is by no means uniquely unique, and not even significantly unique, which, when all is said and done, maybe what matters most.

Do these psychological constraints mean there are no powerful change-resistant forces, no hammers pounding down nails that stick up? Not at all, but we should be careful how we deploy such labels and metaphors. With regard to prime ministers, for example, the Japanese of recent years have been positively change-addicted. Between 1989 and 2010, no less than 14 prime ministers came and went, four of them in the less-than-four years between September 2006 and June 2010. The fourth individual in this recent accelerated parade, Yukio Hatoyama, lasted only nine months and was widely perceived as a vivid example of the hammer and nail.

Hatoyama came to power as leader of the new Democratic Party of Japan, promising to overturn the sclerotic modus operandi of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled Japan with almost no interruption since the mid-1950s. He vowed, among other things, to free Japan of excessive America-¬centrism by bringing about a more transparent and genuine “alliance of equals,” and at the same time to promote closer diplomatic ties and deeper economic integration in East Asia. One great, immediate, concrete touchstone in Hatoyama's agenda was a pledge to close the U.S. Marine Corps air station at Futenma in Okinawa, a long-contested site in a crowded residential area where anti-base sentiments ran particularly high.

A miscellany of political factors did Hatoyama in, but the most dramatic was the Obama administration's refusal to compromise on existing agreements regarding Futenma. As so often was the case, the hand on the biggest hammer was American.

On March 11, 2011, the domestic and international challenges that Hatoyama passed on to his Democratic Party successor, Naoto Kan, were shockingly eclipsed by the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged coastal prefectures north of Tokyo and became compounded by the terrifying breakdown of reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The name of the game changed unalterably, in ways that will require months and even years to evaluate.

At the same time, the international perception of Japan and the Japanese was, at least momentarily, transformed. Recognition of a shared humanity overrode all else. The dignity and discipline of the survivors, seen day after day, drew universal admiration. The Fukushima radiation crisis directed attention to risks and regulatory failures that were not unique to Japan's nuclear-energy plants. And the ripple of economic dislocations caused by the disaster became a reminder of how sophisticated and globally integrated Japan's economy is, despite the two decades of financial tribulation that have garnered so much negative attention.

Two days after the disaster hit, Prime Minister Kan declared that Japan had not faced such a crisis since the end of World War II. This comment was widely quoted, although most Japanese are too young to remember how shattered their country was when the war the militarists started came home in a rain of fire from the sky. Rapid reconstruction and recovery seemed impossible to imagine in 1945 and 1946. Yet it happened.

And it had happened before. Almost two decades earlier, the Japanese people had shown the same kind of resilience and creativity in the face of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. A more devastating disaster than the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the Kanto quake killed more than 100,000 people and destroyed most of greater Tokyo and Yokohama. The “reconstruction boom” that followed did more than just rebuild the metropolis; it was designed to transform the city in conspicuously modern ways that included transportation networks, parks, Western-style buildings, and commercial enterprises such as factories, department stores, theaters, and cafes. The 1945 air raids destroyed this “new Tokyo” physically, but not the spirit and human resources that made postwar reconstruction possible.

History does not repeat itself. We will not see another Japanese quest for autarky, such as occurred when the global depression that began in 1929 swamped the reconstruction boom and paved the way for the rise of the militarists. Nor will we ever again be bombarded with such hoopla as the “Japanese miracle” and “Japan as number one” that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. That is all to the good: postwar reconstruction was no miracle and the “number-one” rhetoric was delusory. Still, it is instructive to look back to 1945 and recall what people of good will, standing on the cusp of the postwar world, hoped defeated Japan might become: democratic, equitably prosperous, and never again a threat to its neighbors.

Japan achieved these goals and, for all its recent travails, has not lost hold of them. Such a fusion of resilience, competence, discipline, and collective creativity in the face of daunting challenges does not appear overnight; nor does it simply vanish.

John W. Dower is Ford International Professor of History at MIT, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Letters for General Nonfiction. He is also a member of the JPRI advisory board.

This essay first appeared in the collection Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works, edited by McKinsey & Company (San Francisco, CA: VIZ Media, LLC, 2011). To purchase the book, click the following link:

Downloaded from