The most volatile debate in regard to modern Japanese history has been that over the methods Japan used to achieve its remarkable economic growth after 1945. In the 1950s and early 1960s American political scientists and historians, such as Edwin Reischauer, suggestedthat the Japanese recovery was a testament to the enlightened guidance provided by the United States. Japan was accordingly presented as an example of how the modernization theories of economists such as W.W.Rostow could work in practice. This in turn led to a backlash in Japan, in which Japanese economists proclaimed the indigenous, cultural roots of its success. This debate is described in a fascinating article by Laura Hein, ‘Free-Floating Anxieties on the Pacific: Japan and the West Revisited’, Diplomatic History (1996), vol. 20, pp. 411–37.
The nature of the analysis changed dramatically in 1982 with the appearance of Chalmers Johnson’s highly influential book, MITI and the Japanese Miracle (Stanford, CA, 1982) in which he argued that the Japanese state, in the form of MITI, had been the key element in guiding the economy towards rapid growth. Japan, he argued, was a ‘developmental state’ that operated in a fundamentally different way to the American capitalist system. This thesis not only sparked off a new historical discourse, but also substantially influenced the contemporary debate in the United States about how it should deal with Japan and its ever-increasing trade surplus, and inspired a number of commentators to engage in ‘Japan-bashing’ books and articles. Gradually, a number of Johnson’s contentions have been challenged. Writers such as Daniel Okimoto (1989) have demonstrated that MITI’s record of ‘administrative guidance’ was far from flawless, while others, such as Kent Calder (1993) and Mark Mason (1992), have put more emphasis on the role of the large industrial companies. Furthermore, as the economic history of the Cold War becomes subject to greater scrutiny, the manner in which the United States encouraged Japanese growth is once again being studied, most notably in Aaron’s Forsberg’s book America and the Japanese Miracle (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000). The idea that there is a monocausal explanation for Japan’s success is thus not sustainable.
Moreover, the nature and intensity of the debate have changed over time. In the 1980s the Japanese model appeared as a threat to the United States and as a possible panacea to the development conundrum, and therefore became one of the central research areas in the field of political economy. However, Japan’s poor economic performance in the 1990s has undermined the relevance of the debate, making it increasingly of academic rather than political interest. Indeed, those working in this field now have to account for the relative failure of the Japanese system in the 1990s.