The emergence of Japan from the ashes of defeat in 1945 to become the world's second largest economy has excited enormous interest from economists, but also from historians, and specialists in politics, international relations, sociology, social anthropology, criminology, law and other academic disciplines. Although many such observers have been primarily Japan-specialists, trying to understand what happens in Japan for its own sake, a substantial number have endeavoured to place Japan in a comparative context, to test existing theories against Japanese data, and generate new theories to be tested elsewhere, based on Japanese experience. Not all creators of theory have, strictly speaking, been academics. Some journalists and others have made significant contributions to the formation of theory from their experience of Japan.
This essay will necessarily be schematic and selective. From a vast compass of writing we shall concentrate on those items that seem most relevant to certain themes we consider especially important. It is true that there are differences between Japanese and non-Japanese approaches, but to sort these out is hardly practicable in the space available. In the more recent period, in any case, there is so much collaborative work between Japanese and non-Japanese specialists that the differences are less significant that they possibly once were. (In the earlier post-war period many Japanese theorists were influenced by Marxism, but non-Japanese theorists very much less so.)
A bewildering variety of approaches to the understanding of Japanese politics may be found in the literature. There is no simple way of categorising them, but the following two tables may be helpful. They are organised in terms of pairs of opposites.
Table 1 categorises theoretical approaches in terms of their underlying attitudes towards the subject. Here there is often a sharp divide between the attitudes expressed in the left hand and right hand columns of the table.
Table 1 Types of attitude exhibited by theorists
Japan as a model to emulate
Japan as a model to correct
Japan as a contributor
Japan as a threat