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Top>Opinion>Japan Entering the Third Cycle of Innovation since the Meiji Restoration


Norihito Tambo

Norihito Tambo [Profile]

Japan Entering the Third Cycle of Innovation since the Meiji Restoration

Norihito Tambo
Professor and Full-Time Researcher of Environmental Engineering
Center for Research and Development Initiatives, Chuo University
Director of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido,
Professor Emeritus of Hokkaido University and the Open University of Japan

The Cloud above the Slope cycle in Japan's modernization

During World War II, after becoming one of the greatest naval and army powers, the Empire of Japan expanded its sphere of influence to reach as far as the Aleutian Islands, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Burma, central and coastal China and Manchuria, albeit over a short period of time. After the war, the Japanese economy was revived from the ruins and expanded again to create the industrial and technological giant dubbed "Japan as No. 1," spreading its excellent products throughout the world and contending for hegemony in the economic war. Japan finally became such an economic superpower that from the latter half of the 1980s to the 1990s surprising pieces routinely appeared in newspapers describing an aggregate land price in Japan that was higher than that in the U.S. At the height of the expansion-albeit relatively short-lived-Japan definitely did boast the second-largest national and per-capita GDPs in the world. Both huge expansion periods were the result of prior efforts that people had made for more than thirty years to adjust the social system and the industrial structure in order to lay the foundation. Before the war, Japan expanded as a military power; after the war, as a lightly-armed economic power calling itself a peaceful nation. In both cases, the expansions were undermined by insufficient energy, resources, advanced technology, and systems of governance.

The cycle drawn by the generations who have not experienced war

I was a first-year junior high school student in 1945, one of the last students who went through military training under the old educational system during the war. My grandfather was a soldier dispatched to open up Hokkaido, who went to the Japanese-Sino War (1894) and the Japanese-Russo War (1904 - 1905). I do not recall him telling me about the wars, which had been fought fifty years prior and forty years prior, respectively. The era of Saka no Ue no Kumo, or the cloud above the slope-a famous novel about early modern Japan written by Ryotaro Shiba-was already regarded as a historical novel by junior high students like me. Today, sixty-five years have passed since Japan was defeated in the World War II in 1945, so it is no wonder that children do not know about the war. In the latter half of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, twenty-five years after the war, Japan started experiencing twists and turns in various ways such as university disputes. Characters in Saka no Ue no Kumo were born around the time of the Meiji Restoration, a point of radical value transformation in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and twenty-five to thirty years old when they played central roles at the dawn of Japan's modernization and fought the earlier wars.

The generation of rebel students in the university disputes, most of whom have recently retired, were born around the time of a revolutionary value shift immediately after the defeat in the war, swaggered through the period-due to their numerical superiority and the lack of traditional conventions imposed on them-and took an active part as the central force in the second cycle of Japan's modernization following the Saka no Ue no Kumo generation.

People who were born in the Taisho era (1912 - 1926) would be the generation who closed the curtain on the era of Saka no Ue no Kumo, the first cycle of Japan's modernization, after facing an Asia with great hardship and sacrifices made during the World War II. My generation, who were born during the first decade of the Showa era (1926 - 1989) and include the present Emperor of Japan, experienced the war defeat but know little about battle fields. While this generation involves many leaders who drove the postwar development to create an economic power in the second cycle of Japan's modernization, the practical role was, in terms of numbers, played by the post-defeat generation who were born around the time of the defeat in war during and after the second decade of the Showa era. The defeat almost totally upset social values and deprived public education of norms to teach, which in turn led to swollen individual egos; the majority of the people recognized that organized private interests helped the national economy develop, which brought individual benefit; and the people devoted all their efforts to economic development with small national armaments-protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, although Japan has suffered nuclear bombing.

The Saka no Ue no Kumo generation imported modern western civilization, inheriting the soul of the previous generation who had worn swords at their sides and topknots on their heads. The post-defeat generation, amid the apparent breakdown of all values, actually acted based on the behavior that older people had demonstrated before and during the war. There were still many rural areas that had preserved close ties between parents and children as well as among family members. Thanks to such a base, they were able to voluntarily act as a group. In retrospect, the objections that were raised by the university students questioning traditional values seem to be disputes over the form of the groups, though many of those who were involved would not want to accept such a view. This generation might naturally think that they must be present at their parents' deathbed but would not require their children to do so.

The third cycle "post-modernization" has begun

Today, people have noticed that progress has been more difficult in the second cycle of modernization than in the first. For one thing, energy issues are more emergent: coal, oil and other fossil energy that have propelled the modern society over two hundred years as well as uranium-235 and other nuclear energy will run out in one hundred years, and the development of renewable energy such as hydraulic power, solar radiation, wind, and biomass can only meet twenty to thirty percent of energy demand at most. For another, there will be food supply issues going forward. That is, cyclical water resources will no longer be sufficient to manage the increasing population on the earth and the demand for more luxury food quality, potentially resulting in a situation predicted by Malthus in his book An Essay on the Principle of Population that population increase will exceed available supplies of food at some point in the future. Chemical fertilizing enabled by petroleum chemistry and advanced agricultural machinery, both of which brought about the modern green revolution, will be more and more impracticable due to exhausted oil reserves. Moreover, modern large-scale farming has already used non-cyclical deep ground water such as fossil water in considerable proportions to supplement inadequate cyclical water resources, which means that even water has lost sustainability. All these factors imply the end of the development-oriented modern world.

All Asian countries but India and the Philippines are expected to undergo low birthrates, aging populations, and shrinking populations-as in Japan-after 2050. I believe that Japan, whose population is expected to be significantly reduced after 2005 for the first time in the world, stands in the position of the most advanced country to lead worldwide preparation for the post-modern era by creating a new way for human beings to live on earth. How can we reduce the population with minimal adverse effects? How can we progress beyond being a modern world that values only mass production and mass acquisition of goods? How can we exploit the strengths and overcome the weaknesses of the excessively expanding modern pursuit of material enrichment in order to invent a new set of values for the way of life? These are the problems that confront us. Since Adam Smith, the division of labor has added value to the modern activity, which is nowadays supported by advanced education based on the university system divided into academic departments. We would also need to consider what such education will bring to students going forward. Though the people thought they had lost everything when they were defeated in the war, it was actually the dawn of postwar prosperity. The lost decade in Japan and the subprime loan issues might indicate that we should abandon still more. Going forward, youth and teachers need to develop ways of thinking and behavior free from conventional frameworks, while avoiding recklessness.

Course change strategies are the most difficult

During more than two hundred years in the Edo era (1603 - 1868), the population in Japan's three main islands-Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu-increased from twenty million to thirty million. It was the largest population ever in the matured "green" civilization only consuming solar energy and relying on developed new fields and biomass. It is inferred from the maturity of Edo that a green civilization alone would be able to independently maintain merely some forty million people on the Japanese Islands, given that Hokkaido was added to the main islands and technology will advance to some extent. Japan's population reached this size in 1900, when Japan began penetrating the Eurasian continent following the Japanese-Sino and Japanese-Russo Wars-the era of Saka no Ue no Kumo.

Since 1945, when the defeat broke the spell of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere initiative resulting from the continental invasion, the domestic society had to accept all Japanese people who returned from the continent and all around Southeast Asia, boosting the population to about 100 million. This figure exceeds the appropriate population size derived from the population in Edo, the world's largest and most long-lasting closed green civilization, by sixty million. The post-defeat generation have fought the great trade war during the second cycle based in Tokyo, the largest city in the world and a Pacific-coastal megalopolis, to feed the largest-ever Japanese population of 125 million with the world second-highest GDP from the end of the Showa era to the Heisei era (1989 - present). This population goes beyond independently sustainable ones by 85 million. This is the nature of Japan who could not survive without foreign demand for Japanese products. Japan has lived by processing trade relying on imports of ninety-six percent of energy, sixty percent of food (based on caloric content), and most raw materials, including metal. GDP is the standard of this modern civilization. While energy, food, and raw materials are approaching their global limits, and developing countries are pursuing a course of modernization that resembles the one that postwar Japan passed through, the modernization in many nations worldwide will nearly be saturated and begin losing value in the twenty-second century.

It is expected that the Japanese population will decrease considerably to below seventy million by 2100 even without war, major disasters, or great plagues. This is the same population size as the one at which Japan embarked upon the invasion of China-through the Manchurian Incident-to deal with the excessive population. If we failed to construct new values, tradable and exchangeable new technologies, new social systems, and new culture by ourselves, we would have to mimic the Headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army-using deceptive euphemisms, such as honorable death for annihilation, or course change for defeat. We should strive to be a very advanced nation that creates a genuinely new civilization and leads human activities suitable to the era of the excessive world population of the twenty-second century. This is a primary objective that is essential for Japan to survive.

Norihito Tambo
Professor and Full-Time Researcher of Environmental Engineering
Center for Research and Development Initiatives, Chuo University
Director of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido
Professor Emeritus of Hokkaido University and The Open University of Japan
1933 Born in Hokkaido
1955 Bachelor's degree from the Department of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Hokkaido University
1957 Master's degree from the Graduate School of Engineering, Hokkaido University
1965 Doctoral degree of Engineering from Hokkaido University
1969 Professor, Hokkaido University
1993 Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Hokkaido University
1995 to 2001 President of Hokkaido University
2001 to 2007 President of the Open University of Japan
2007 to March 2010 Professor, Center for Research and Development Initiatives, Chuo University
2009 Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure
In addition to the above, the author has been a member of the Science Council of Japan for two terms, the president of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, and the president of the International Water Association.