Twenty years or so ago, Japan experts in the United States were on top of the world. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Japanese economy flew high, Americans seemed fascinated with Japan: audiences were easy to find, college classes were always full, the media overflowed with reports from across the Pacific. Many Americans viewed Japan with great admiration, some with hostility and resentment, and a majority perhaps with a kind of yearning, an envy tinged with nostalgia. Japan of the late 1980s seemed an eerie reincarnation of 1950s America, a nation in its glory days, economically potent, respected internationally, rock solid socially and politically. Japan seemed to have everything that America had somehow lost: safe streets, stable families, great schools, plenty of jobs and ever increasing material wealth. Just twenty years ago, Japan was a model, a vision, a threat, even a rebuke, that a United States down on itself could not ignore.
But in recent years, things have seemed far, far different. In the U.S., patriotism and national self-confidence swelled with the new millennium while Japan stumbled (indeed, stumbled badly) in the years following 1990. Japan has been mired in a tenacious recession for most of the past two decades, and there is no end in sight. Japanese society, once the model of probity and order, has frayed and fractured: gassings on the subway, schoolboy murderers, schoolgirl prostitutes, even the unfolding soap opera in the Japanese imperial family have badly tarnished Western images of Japan's tightly knit social fabric. Amidst the ongoing crisis, the central institutions of Japanese society--the conservative political establishment, the once- esteemed government bureaucracy, the corporate elites--have appeared rudderless and impotent. From our perspective at the start of the twenty-first century, the very notion of a "Japanese economic miracle" seems like ancient history. And indeed, in some ways, it is: few Americans can remember when Japan was an impoverished developing nation, few remember the days when Japanese products were synonymous with "cheap and shoddy," and soon few will even remember when Nissans were called Datsuns or the days when VCRs were made in Osaka rather than Guangzhou or Tijuana. To Generation X, Generation Y and their successors, nothing about Japan likely seems that miraculous, and most certainly not its economy. Indeed, to most Americans today, Japan and Japan's economic prospects seem rather irrelevant, not only in light of the very immediate problem of America's own economic woes, but even in comparison to the challenge of China, the process of globalization or the endless threat of international terrorism. The Japanese economic miracle is long gone and, just perhaps, is not even worth remembering.
However appealing this option might be, I am a historian and thus I think it is important to look back and get some sense of Japan's economic and social history of the past 60 years, examining a narrative that was (until quite recently) framed as an unparalleled "success story," but which now may seem more like a roller-coaster ride of thrilling ascents and harrowing free falls. Rather than presenting endless charts of economic indicators, or a wearying overview of Japan's crabbed political system, or a depressing litany of Japan's failings over the past decade, I would like to examine the rise and fall of Japan's miracle economy from a somewhat more unconventional--and, hopefully, somewhat more interesting--angle.
In 1985, when America's fears of Japan's rising economic power were near their zenith, a New York Times/CBS News poll asked 1,500 Americans to name a famous Japanese person. The top three responses were Hirohito, the Hong Kong martial arts star Bruce Lee, and Godzilla. This is, needless to say, a stinging indictment of American public knowledge of Japan: even in the days of Japan's greatest economic successes, Americans had plenty of stereotypes about Japan but little solid knowledge of Japanese history, culture or political economy. At the same time, these survey results are also a testament to the impact of popular culture icons--from Japanese royalty to a Chinese movie idol to a man in a green latex suit--on American perceptions of East Asia and its place in the world. Japan's cultural influence on contemporary America, one might well argue, is even more profound, pervasive and enduring than its economic or political impact.
Thus, my aim in this essay is to provide a whirlwind tour of Japanese history since 1945 by focusing largely on American images of Japan over the past sixty years. How have Americans--from academic specialists to the proverbial man or woman in the street--viewed Japan, its culture and its economic prospects? How have our perceptions--our stereotypes of Japan--changed over time? How, if at all, have they stayed the same? What, in the end, does this tell us about Japan, about ourselves and about the future course of U.S.-Japanese relations?
Japan as Geisha
Let's go back, then, a full six decades, to 1950. Japan at this point was still occupied by the United States and was still struggling to recover from World War II. Social dislocation, political instability and economic trauma were the facts of life in the years immediately following defeat. The American military had done its best to bomb Japan back to the stone-age, and Japanese industry was crippled first by the physical destruction of war, then by the postwar hyperinflation. In the wake of the conflict, Japan suffered from massive unemployment, endemic shortages of raw materials, slumping agricultural production and the loss of overseas markets.
In 1950, few observers could even imagine Japanese economic self-sufficiency, let alone an economic miracle. At the time of Japan's surrender, some in the U.S. government at least briefly entertained the notion of stripping Japan entirely of industry and returning it to subsistence agriculture. Few in Douglas MacArthur's occupying army took such a draconian view, but many believed that Japan had little chance of reestablishing itself as a major industrial power. …