Modern Japan: All That Matters

Andrew Osmond turns an anime eye on a new history book

Modern Japan: All That Matters

If the past is truly another country, then the just-published Modern Japan: All that Matters suggests the average Japanese youth may be as remote from the land of shogun and samurai as Britain is from today’s Tokyo. Jonathan Clements’ new book is a concise history which focuses on the country’s last seventy years, from Japan’s surrender in 1945 to the present. The last pages mention Japan winning the 2020 Olympics, as well as the execrable Justin Bieber’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine this April  – both events with powerful historical resonances, as we’ll see.

Modern Japan, as Clements notes in his introduction, is conventionally taken to start nearly a century before World War II, in July 1853. That was when American ships, “two of them terrifyingly high-tech, coal-powered steamers,” sailed into the remote, closed-off island. Japan had sealed itself off from the world for two centuries, a foreign policy called sakoku or “chained country.” Anime reference: the CGI science-fiction adventure Vexille makes direct reference to sakoku, imagining what would happen if Japan sealed itself off again.

Clements briskly summarises the next decades in a few pages. Japan, formerly a frozen society where even the samurai had no-one to fight, experienced several upheavals. There was a civil war (the Meji Restoration) in the 1860s, which made the country’s Emperor,  previously a marginal figurehead, into a symbol binding the country, and left the samurai out in the cold. The anime-manga franchise Rurouni Kenshin takes place around this time, while the zany Gintama imagines that instead of seafaring Americans, Japan was instead transformed by space aliens. Several live-action samurai films of recent decades are also set around this time of change, including Hollywood’s Last Samurai, Japan’s excellent Twilight Samurai, and the Japanese reworking of Clint Eastwod’s Western Unforgiven.

By the 1900s, the Japanese were dubbed in some quarters at the “British of Asia,” thanks to their proud new navy, which triumphed against China in 1895 and Russia a decade later. Even now, the legend of Japan’s battleships endures in anime, most obviously with Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato, but also with names like Musashi, the flying ship in Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere, named for a World War II vessel, and Mikasa, the name of the badass heroine of Attack on Titan and also the flagship in the Russo-Japanese war. In the new Kantai Collection or “KanColle” franchise, World War II ships are anthropomorphised as… well, have a guess.

After fighting on the Allied side in World War I, Japan was snubbed at the Paris Peace Conference when it tried to counter policies designed to discourage Japanese migration to Australia and North America. This helps explain why the Japanese later became so contemptuous of Western diplomacy, leading to Japan’s infamous walkout from the League of Nations in 1933. In invading its neighbours, building an empire from stolen land and puppet states, Japan was using “the same methods of expansion and capitalism as the Western powers,” for example imposing “foreign rule on supposedly incompetent natives.”

Giovannis Island

That culminated in Pearl Harbor, and escalating catastrophes up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Clements highlights the significance of Japan’s old enemy Russia declaring war on Japan, just as a mushroom cloud rose over Hiroshima. Russia began snatching small islands to the north of Japan, as shown in the Production I.G historical anime film Giovanni’s Island (set on the isle of Shikotan, still part of Russia today). Russia’s actions helped scupper the last-ditch plans of the Japanese military for a land-war (yes, even after Hiroshima) and may have inadvertently shaped the peace that emerged. As Russia gobbled up Japanese islands, it’s plausible “the Japanese leadership wanted to surrender to the right kind of enemy [i.e. America], rather than to communists.”

There followed the years of Japan’s occupation by America – planting the seeds of the lurid alternate-world anime Code Geass – and a brand-new constitution. In Clements’ words, the constitution “stated that power derived from the people, and described the Emperor not as the supreme being that conferred rights on his grateful, cowering subjects, but merely as a ceremonial head of state.” The constitution also included the contentious Article 9, according to which “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a means of settling international disputes.”

Clements notes how this pacifist article was compromised and reinterpreted almost as soon as it was established – not by diehard Japanese militarists, but by Americans worried by the Cold War. Japan’s National Self Defense Force was set up in 1954, supposedly as a defensive constabulary. Thousands of American troops stayed in Japan at US army bases, using the country as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. The situation is criticised overtly in Patlabor 2, and lurks behind other anime, ranging from Blood The Last Vampire to Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (in which invaders grow a bio-weapon in an occupied country). As we’ve seen, even Attack on Titan can be linked to the continuing row over Article 9.

Clements covers other controversies in the early post-war years, including the decision not to put Emperor Hirohito on trial (see our discussion of Fam the Silver Wing) and the wider issue of “Victor’s justice.” When it comes to war crimes, can a nation take the moral high ground after wiping out thousands of ‘enemy’ civilians? The book has a fascinating discussion of Indian judge Radha Binod Pal, who argued along those exact lines; his words echo “in every subsequent dissenting voice over war crimes and doubtful causes from Vietnam to Iraq.” Pal is often quoted – and travestied – by Japanese right-wingers who deny Japan committed war crimes at all. Their mecca is the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan’s war dead, some of whom are seen as monsters elsewhere in Asia. Shame no-one told Justin Bieber…

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

In 1945, America had occupied a country it had largely pulverised. By 1952, when the Occupation ended, America had jump-started modern Japan, thanks, again, to warfare. “The Occupation period injected two billion dollars into the economy, revitalizing Japanese industry with, for example, massive US army vehicle contracts for Nissan, Toyota and Isuzu.” Not only did this energise Japanese manufacturing; it also saw the revival of corporate structures along pre-war lines. This would have big implications for today’s anime, as we’ll see below.

But as Japan was being effectively rebuilt by its former enemy, there was a reminder of their violent history. In 1954, a Japanese fishing boat called the Lucky Dragon V was hit by fallout from America’s A-Bomb test at Bikini Atoll. The crew were hit by radiation sickness, causing the death of the radio operator and a national scandal (which actually had a positive outcome, leading to the acknowledgement of the radiation sickness suffered by A-bomb survivors). It also inspired the original Godzilla film, during a boom in Japanese cinema which also saw the rise of Akira Kurosawa – before cinema was thrashed by the rise of Japanese TV in the 1960s.


One tentpole TV occasion was the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The landmark event, Japan’s chance to show itself to the post-war world, was preceded by huge building works, including the first shinkansen or Bullet train line in the country. It was worth it. Around the world, “images of Japan no longer concentrated on post-war rubble; instead, Japan was presented internationally as a vibrant, high-tech society.” Two decades later, Akira cheekily combined images of the Olympics, high technology and post-war rubble. The sixty year-old PR triumph helps explains why expectations are so huge for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, especially given Japan’s current economic downturn.

Japan’s boom of the 1950s and 1960s was boosted by the Olympics, but Clements argues it was fundamentally down to “the feedback loop of government and corporate interests, incredible (often foolhardy) investment pushed by ministerial fiat and also in the basic hard work of the Japanese themselves.” At that time, the Japanese worked the equivalent of twelve more weeks a year than their European counterparts. But the world economy was as controllable as an earthquake. The oil crises in the 1970s, and the massive hiking of the price of petroleum, led to Japan’s companies scaling back on construction and moving into “lighter and more intricate industries,” like electronics.

Yet the industrialisation of the post-war decades had already taken its toll, in a series of health scandals. There was Minamata disease, “a cluster of health issues, disabilities and congenital defects arising from highly toxic methylmercury dumped in nearby rivers.” There was the city of Yokkaichi, “wreathed in clouds of sulphur dioxide from a nearby petrochemical refinery,” reminiscent of the coal-based pea-soup fogs which once plagued London. Locals in the Jinzu river basin suffered from an excruciating bone disease, thanks to cadmium poisoning – the culprit was an upstream mining operation. Such scandals are implicit in the eco-themes of Miyazaki films, from Nausicaa (the toxic jungle) to Spirited Away (the river of sludge). Clements notes the patterns of corruption and cover-up recurred in 2011 with the botched handling of Fukushima – a natural disaster exacerbated by incompetence and indifference to basic safety measures.

New generations rose in 1970s Japan, kids who didn’t remember the war. Taller than their parents, they spoke differently and influenced Japanese SF, with parallels to X-Men or Tomorrow People. “The term shinjinrui (New Breed) came into use, and found fantastical application in many a TV show or manga comic about psychic children or time-travelling schoolgirls.” You can find an exemplar in our piece on the original 1965 story, The Girl who Leapt Through Time. Another paradigm is the first Gundam, which introduced “Newtypes,” youngsters with sixth senses and psi powers.


In the 1970s, Japan’s corporate integration was extended to the media, leading to the intricate franchises that anime fans know today. The giveaway phrase in an anime’s credits is Production Committee. “Read between the lines on many a Japanese TV show or computer game,” writes Clements, “and you will often see the names of the channel (that gets the broadcast rights), a publisher (that does the spin-off books), a music company (that provides the theme song) and a talent agency (that provides the star that sings it), and sometimes dozens of other interests, from toy companies, to phone companies, to carpet factories and cosmetics firms.”

And who were the people who bought these webs of products? Often, Clements says, they were university students, living through a second childhood after a frazzled hell of hothouse schooling, far removed from the high school fantasies of anime. “For many boys, university was the place to finally experience the delayed gratification of a squandered childhood… free at last from the relentless grind of testing and retesting, (embracing) the cartoons they never had the chance to watch and the computer games they had only dreamed of playing.” The otaku cometh. The word in its fanboy sense was coined in the early 1980s.

This was the “Bubble” decade, when Japanese companies could buy Van Goghs and Picassos to display as trophies. The bubble was based on absurdly inflated land prices, demonstrating how “real” estate could be a ludicrous fallacy. When the bubble burst in 1991, “banks called in loans, only to discover that they were secured against paltry scraps of industrial wasteland or pitiful back lots.” Economics were only one reason why the 1990s was a dark decade. There were two terrible shocks in 1995, occurring within weeks of each other. The first was an earthquake in Kobe, killing more than six thousand people. It also wiped out Britain’s Barings bank, thanks to the bunglings of crooked banker Nick Leeson, played by Ewan McGregor in the film Rogue Trader. Then Tokyo suffered its first terror attack, when the cult Aum Shinrikyo gassed commuters on the underground.


The final pages extend the litany of woes. There is, for example, the continuing issue of hikkikomori, Japanese people who shut themselves away from the world, for years or even decades. These people often rely on their parents, but what happens when their parents grow too old to support them? Then there’s the rising number of young NEETs in Japan, people “not in employment, education or training.” In Clements’ words, both NEETs and hikkikomori “have pronounced a dismissive curse on a Japanese work ethic that seems to have failed their parents, and which seems to have offered little happiness to their classmates.” Anime director Kenji Kamiyama explored such issues in his series Eden of the East, as he explains in this interview.

2011 saw the horrors of the Tohoku earthquake, from which much of north Japan is still struggling to recover. Then there are the continued quarrels over islands like Shikotan, minor matters which could suddenly go ballistic (think of Britain and the Falklands). And then there’s perhaps the biggest time bomb of all; Japan’s shrinking, ageing population, in urgent need of immigrants to shore it up. Not for nothing is Japan now sending hefty aid packages to Africa; it needs its workers. “Japan in the 2020s,” warns Clements, “may require a radical rethinking of its racially homogenous self-image, and an acceptance of many international trends to which it has formerly only paid lip service.”

The closing pages introduce “Abenomics,” the fiscal policies of Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. They amount to a huge stimulus package, designed to pull Japan out of its quagmire. Its success is impossible to predict yet, though it should be greatly bolstered by the 2020 Olympics. Clements suggests Tokyo was given the games “at least partly in recognition of the fact that Japan could do with a lucky break… It might be considered to be firing the starting gun on Japan’s seven-year race out of recession.” It’ll be the job of the next Modern Japan book to explain how the country won – or lost.

Modern Japan: All That Matters is published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton.




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