Progress and Growth: Japan’s Conflict

Following the Second World War, Japan experienced a period of economic growth which – due to its rapid and sudden occurrence – came to be known as an “economic miracle.” The nation, which has suffered almost a decade of poverty, high levels of unemployment and market stagnation, then had a reputation as a rising economic superpower among Asian and western nations. Images of Japan as an economic success story was flooded with zaibatsu logos and names, towering skyscrapers and branded western luxuries forming a part of urban lifestyle. However, the impact of economic growth did not stop at elevating the national prestige of Japan. It had also affected the environmental and social landscape of the nation. The opportunity to build new infrastructures for the country, including roads and factories, was an immediate environmental cost of the economic growth. Socially, economic growth immediately contributed to an increase in the number of individuals with, primarily, newfound wealth. However, environmental and social costs should not be understood as two mutually exclusive impacts of economic growth. In fact, each of these costs should be understood as having an impact on the other cost – environmental degradation has changed how individuals and communities lived while social mobility has further pushed the decaying of the environment. The feedback loop hence led to the implicit social and environmental costs of the economic growth. This essay attempts to dissect how postwar economic growth impacted Japanese society and her environment, and how those individuals functioned as a feedback loop for further environmental and social change.

Firstly, Japan’s postwar economic growth have led to many industrial projects to spring up to keep up the with the economic demands of the nations. The growth of this demand occurred as result of the rise of Japanese products abroad along with the increasing affluence of the domestic population. To accommodate to this demand, many responsible entities – including the Japanese government – encourage the construction of relevant infrastructures such as dams, skyscrapers and factories. However, these constructions produced both primary and secondary costs. (Walker, 139) Constructing infrastructures initially required the clearing of land and this typically involves deforestation. Furthermore, the process would involve the emission of waste – a side effect which continued to occur following completion in cases like factories which continue to emit by-products during production. This environmental destruction would then impact the Japanese society as nature had an important place for many Japanese people. In Michiko Ishimure’s Secret Song, the author demonstrated how a dam construction in the town of Amazoko impacted the traditions of the nearby villages. The landscape of the town had been a major part of the villagers’ lives – the Amazako Mountain was a sacred site where they would pray to the wedding of the gods (Ishimure, 35.) On a personal level, the landscape also served as a reminder for one of the residents, Masahiko, of the fond memories he had of his grandfather. With the landscape of the mountain disappearing, the Amazoko community had lost a location where they could perform traditional rituals and some individuals found elements of their personal relations to be absent

Secondly, the increase of Japanese affluence also led to a rise in conspicuous consumption among the Japanese people. As in the rise of consumerism and materialism, the demand for material objects – especially luxurious ones – meant that more natural resources had to be extracted from the environment. In the novel Nontonaku Kurisutaru, author Tanaka Yasuo revealed the excess of materialism and consumerism in modern lives by listing all 442 brands mentioned in the literature as footnotes. (Ishikawa, 115.) This excess, according to Ishikawa, contributed to an existential crisis of the consumers where many found themselves to be defined the products they owned (Ishikawa, 117.) Although the novel mainly focused on how materialism came to affect the social dynamic of Japanese people, the environmental impact of excessive consumerism and materialism should also be considered. Many Japanese manufacturing giants were able to profit from the rise of consumerism by producing materials that would feed into the new lifestyle of the Japanese people. One of the companies were Chisso – a major PVC manufacturer whose industrial output impacted the environment in many ways. The mass production within the Chisso factory was contributing to the deforestation of camphor laurel trees (although from Taiwan) and the secretion of harmful chemical as the byproduct of this manufacturing (Walker, 161.) Products composing of Chisso’s PVC were proudly labelled “Chissolite” or “Chissoloid” and they consisted of items that made up a large portion of Japanese export like clocks, telephones and radios (Walker, 161.) These products were also what many Japanese would acquire to indicate their newfound status of wealth.

Finally, the postwar economic growth of Japan changed the social dynamic of Japan as it shaped the urban development and the transnational mobility of nation. Due to the rapid industrialization of Japan, many individuals faced identity and existential crises due to the strong influence that nature and the environment had upon them. This is particularly evident in the story of Moriko in Mizuko Masuda’s Sinking Ground. As a resident within the urban areas, Moriko found that the ever-changing façade of the urban world caused many confusion in her life as a young adult. Like the people in the village of Amazoko, the changes in her surrounding has affected her psyche and her relations to others. Moriko, who grew up with a troubled relationship with her father, realised that she found it hard to reminiscence the relationships she had with her parents as her childhood environment became unrecognizable. (Masuda, 55.) Sinking Ground also demonstrated the larger socioeconomic effect of rapid development. Noriko and her mother had difficulty in finding proper housing options in the city due to the influx of low-quality apartments created as a result to quickly feed the explosive demand for apartments (Masuda, 55.) In addition, the short story Full House also reflected the lack of substance in Japan’s rapid industrialization. The narrator in the story equated the new and upcoming constructions as being a mask for the “loneliness” in the undeveloped areas – a place that once what could be a productive site in agriculture or any of the primary sector that has been forced into extinction (Miri, 181.)

To conclude, environmental and social costs should not be classified as two mutually exclusive effects of post-war Japanese economic growth. As humans are almost fully reliant on nature for survival, separation of the two would be impossible. The Japanese too have historically manifested this idea with the concept of yin and yang in their natural worlds. According to Walker, the imbalance between the yin and the yang has been the basis of many natural abnormalities in Japanese thought (Walker, 164.) For example, if a woman found it difficult to become pregnant, it was traditional Confucian belief to assume that woman had “insufficient blood, and hence insufficient levels of yang” (Walker, 164.) The destruction of the environment then would equate to the destruction of society. It is fair to conclude the postwar economic growth of Japan as an event which elevated her national prestige. However, the growth also came with severe environmental and social consequences which were often irreversible. This conclusion should then reassess the definition of “progress” in a nation: will it be fair to label changes that appear to be positive on the surface as “progress” if they have implicit harmful effects?

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