A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview

14
Economic and Social Transformations

The Japanese economy expanded at a stunning pace from 1950 through the early 1970s. These two decades, beginning with the Korean War boom, have come to be called the “era of high speed growth” by historians. At unprecedented speed, Japan changed from a site of destruction and poverty to a place of prosperity. How did this happen? The so-called economic miracle was in part produced through the transforming magic of the market. But in important and distinctive ways, it was a managed miracle guided by the Japanese state. The experience of high growth was also a costly one. Jobs were often grinding, with long hours and tight discipline. Benefits were unevenly distributed between cities and country, between men and women, and between employees at large and small workplaces. Environmental damage was immense. The political struggles over these costs and contradictions of growth will be covered in the following chapter.

Change came more slowly in the realm of social experience. But several years after the postwar economy took off—from roughly the late 1950s into the 1960s—a postwar society took shape that differed greatly from the transwar Japan of the wartime or immediate postwar era. A way of life identified with what people called the “new middle class” rose to prominence. The middle class in Japan presented a powerful set of standardized images of a typical life. More people than ever came to share in experiences understood as those of middle-class or “mainstream” society. Nonetheless, some important social divisions persisted, and others were reshaped but not erased.

Japanese leaders in the bureaucracy and ruling political party, working in tandem with corporate executives, actively sought to manage these trends toward more standardized patterns of middle-class social life. A variety of programs supported particular versions of family and domestic life, schooling, and the workplace. Like its economic history, the social history of postwar Japan was shaped by numerous state programs to influence the thought and behavior of ordinary citizens.


THE POSTWAR “ECONOMIC MIRACLE”

Over the twenty-three years from 1950 to 1973, Japan's gross national product (GNP; the total value of goods and services produced in a year) expanded by an average

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