The Political Economy of High-Growth-Era Japan

The Political Economy of High-Growth-Era Japan

Background Information.

Ed. Note: For more background information, please see Professor Peter Frost's essay, Postwar Japan, 1952-1989.

Japan’s economic growth between 1955 and 1973 has often been described as “miraculous,” as an industrial expansion of the speed and duration experienced by Japan during this time was unprecedented internationally. In the late 1950s, Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average rate of 9.1% a year; in the 1960s, the real heyday of what is now known as Japan’s high-growth era, the figure was over 10%. In the short span of three decades after the end of World War II, Japan went from being an economic basket-case in the eyes of the world, its industries largely reduced to rubble by wartime bombing, to being one of the wealthiest nations on the planet and an exemplary success story of economic development.

Scholars have advanced many theories to explain why Japan was able to grow so quickly and for so long. Much attention has been given to the role of the powerful central government bureaucracy in Japan’s economic rise: civil servants in organizations like the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, it has been argued, worked closely with the business community to chart strategic plans for economic development and deftly guide the nation’s industrial and financial advance. What has been called Japan’s “developmental state” thus quarterbacked Japan’s high-speed growth through the judicious application of “industrial policy” to promote rising sectors (like automobiles), chart the decline of moribund ones (like mining), and encourage the export economy. Other observers have traced Japan’s rapid growth to favorable international conditions (readily available technology and open access to international markets); some have emphasized Japanese trade policy (protection of the domestic market combined with aggressive export drives); and a few have suggested that Japan got a “free ride” to prosperity by relying on the United States for its military defense during the tense decades of the Cold War. Recently, more economists have tended to stress the importance of domestic consumption and rising living standards in Japan as crucial factors in propelling and sustaining Japan’s almost twenty-year-long economic boom.

The high-growth era was characterized by noteworthy stability in Japanese politics and patterns of policymaking. In 1955, the two major conservative parties in Japan merged to form the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), an entity often accused by its detractors of being neither very liberal nor very democratic. Crafting a political dynasty based on strong support in the countryside, ideological flexibility, and the enthusiastic promotion of economic growth, the LDP was an electoral powerhouse, claiming a majority in the Diet and a firm hold on the prime ministership from its founding until the early 1990s. The dominance of the Liberal Democrats at the polls prompted many critics to question just how democratic postwar Japan actually was; moreover, many commentators have claimed that policymaking was actually shaped less by the democratic process than by a complex network of cozy backroom relationships among LDP politicians, powerful corporate leaders, and leading government bureaucrats. This informal coalition of elites, often termed the “iron triangle,” was said to have been responsible for much of the top-level decision-making in the Japanese state after World War II. Skeptics, however, have noted that similar constellations of influential elites are hardly uncommon in the industrial democracies of the West; significantly, it seems that a majority of the Japanese people were content with the LDP and the “iron triangle”—and particularly the political stability and economic prosperity they appeared to deliver—during the high-growth decades.

Learning Goals.

1. Students will understand the postwar Japanese political system, including the “iron triangle” of conservative politicians, elite bureaucrats, and big business leaders said to dominate policymaking.

2. Students will understand the economic, social, and political forces that powered Japan’s rapid economic growth from the 1950s to the 1970s, including the concepts of “industrial policy” and the “developmental state.”

3. Students will explore the impact of rapid economic growth and the postwar political and economic systems on the lifestyles, attitudes, and expectations of the Japanese people.


Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Standard 10.  Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Standard 8.  Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  • Standard 9.  Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
McRel Standards
Language Arts

McRel Standard 4.
Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

McRel Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

World History

Standard 43. Understands how post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up.

Key Concept.

Postwar Japan's economic boom had a number of factors, including a powerful central government, favorable domestic consumption patterns, and favorable international conditions.

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.

1.  Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (New York: Knopf, 1989), pp. 1-6, 25-49.

2. Primary source documents “The Economic Planning Agency’s White Paper on the People’s Livelihood” (1960) and “The Income Doubling Plan” (1961) in Wm. Theodore deBary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur E. Tiedemann, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume II 1600-2000, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), pp. 1100-1105.

3. Feature film Ohayō (Good Morning, 1959), directed by Ozu Yasujiro.

Thought Questions.

1. Some observers have termed Japan’s era of high growth from the 1950s to the 1970s the “miracle economy.” Is this an appropriate term? Why or why not?

2.  What are the most important factors in explaining Japan’s relatively speedy economic recovery from World War II and its high-speed postwar growth? Were political, economic, or social/cultural factors most important? What about the significance of domestic conditions versus the international environment and foreign influences?

3. Is the “iron triangle” consistent with democratic government? Is a system like this unique to Japan?

4. Other than by using economic statistics like GNP per capita, how could you measure the impact of Japan’s high-speed growth on the Japanese people? Consider yardsticks like life expectancy, nutrition and health, ownership of appliances (like televisions) and automobiles, percentage of homes connected to sanitary sewers, urbanization rates, etc.

5. How can one explain the postwar political dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party?



Focus Activity Ideas.

In small groups, have students brainstorm answers to the following question: what are possible factors that contribute to a country's economic power?

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

1. Using data readily available online, ask your students to chart key national economic statistics (GDP, GDP growth rate, GDP per capita) for Japan and a variety of other countries (U.S.A., Britain, France, U.S.S.R., China, South Korea) from 1945 to 1975 (or the present). What does this data show regarding the experience of Japan compared to other developed and developing nations? How might this rising affluence have affected lifestyles in Japan?

2. Read and discuss the suggested passages from Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power (or use it as the basis for a lecture and discussion). van Wolferen argues that Japan does not have a “normal” state, but instead a “truncated pyramid” with no one ultimately in charge except “the System.” Many scholars refer to what van Wolferen calls “the System” as the “iron triangle,” an intertwined coalition of Liberal Democratic Party politicians, central government bureaucrats, and big business elites who collectively exerted preponderant influence over the running of the state and the making of policy in high-growth-era Japan. Consider whether this arrangement is truly unique to Japan (as van Wolferen argues) or is a variant of what is found in other industrial democracies, including the United States.

3. Read and discuss “The Income Doubling Plan” (1961), one of the Japanese government’s most important economic planning documents of the high-growth era. Note first the document’s emphasis on increasing living standards and spreading economic gains equitably over Japanese society. It is hardly surprising that this ambitious plan (whose growth targets were met far faster than the document outlined) was popular with the Japanese public and solidified support for the pro-growth Liberal Democratic Party. Note also the role of the state (and specifically the central government bureaucracy) in charting, guiding, and supporting the development of the private sector. This is an excellent statement of “industrial policy” in action and exemplifies what the political scientist Chalmers Johnson termed Japan’s “developmental state,” which was actively engaged with private-sector industry and finance in promoting high-speed growth.

4. Screen the film (or clips from) Ohayō and discuss how the director, Ozu Yasujiro, characterizes the changes in postwar Japanese society brought by modernization, materialism, and rising consumerism. What is the impact of rising postwar affluence on traditional values, social structures, youth, and the family unit? Ohayō is the story of two young boys who go “on strike”—refusing to perform traditional pleasantries, like saying “good morning”—in order to force their reluctant father to buy a family a television set. Discussion of Ohayō can be enhanced by combining it with a discussion of the document “The Economic Planning Agency’s White Paper on the People’s Livelihood” (1960).

Ed. Note: For alternative suggestions, please see Professor Antonia Levi's filmography, Anime - An Annotated Filmography for Use in the Classroom.  Professor Levi also presents ways to use anime in the classroom in, Anime and Manga:It's not all Make-Believe.

Summative Activity Ideas. Have students agree or disagree with the following statement and explain why: "Miracle economy" is an apt description of Japan’s era of high growth from the 1950s to the 1970s.


An accessible introduction to the Japanese economy, portions of which would be suitable for classroom use, is James Mak et al., Japan: Why It Works, Why It Doesn’t (University of Hawaii Press, 1997). A unique source is a translated comic book which details the workings of the Japanese economy and corporate system: Ishinomori Shōtarō, Japan, Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). Ishinomori is a well-known Japanese manga (comic book) artist, famed for his Cyborg 009 and work on the television series Kamen Rider.
A humorous look into middle-class life during Japan’s high-growth era is provided by the popular manga (and later animated series) Sazae-san, begun in 1946 by the female artist Hasegawa Machiko. Selections from this beloved comic series are available in translation: Hasegawa Machiko, The Wonderful World of Sazae-san, 12 volumes (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1997-1999). Another peek into postwar domestic life (and the changes brought by increasing affluence) can be found in the long-running Otoko wa tsurai yo (It’s Tough Being a Man) film series, which totaled 48 pictures between 1969 and 1996. Focusing on a good-for-nothing-traveling salesman (Tora-san) and his multigenerational family in the old shitamachi (downtown) section of Tokyo, the series is unabashedly sentimental and nostalgic. Several of the Otoko wa tsurai yo films are available subtitled in English.