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Top Ten Things to Know about Japan in the Late 1990s

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Although Japan is sometimes compared in size to a state such as California, it is probably better to think of it in national terms. In that case, Japan is two-thirds the size of France, one-quarter bigger than Italy or Great Britain, and threequarters larger than the Korean peninsula. Geographically, the United States, Russia, and China are very big countries, while Japan is something more like “normal size.” (note 1) 

But geographic size does not itself determine world power, and “small countries” such as England and the Netherlands once wielded enormous economic and military might. Today, as the second largest national economy after the United States, Japan is a “big country” in terms of economic power.

Why, then, do Japanese people almost always describe Japan as a “small island country”? Because it is small in comparison to the countries that dominated its history: China, the historical great power in East Asia, and the United States, the global superpower in the twentieth century. Japan also seems small to Japanese because it is mostly mountainous, with nearly 80 percent of its 126 million population now crammed into some sixty cities. And because Japan is a country of four main and many outlying islands, it is indeed surrounded by the sea, which in past times often seemed to protect and isolate Japan from the rest of the world.

But no longer, for there are no island countries in the global economy. So while one understands why Japanese feel their land to be small (and vulnerable), Japan’s size must be measured in relative terms. In natural resources, Japan is tiny compared to Brazil or Canada; in national product, Japan is large compared to Italy or France, though not to the European Union as a whole; militarily, Japan may be big in relation to most of the world’s countries, but it shrinks mightily when the referent is China or the United States; in foreign aid given to other countries, Japan is at present bigger than the United States; and so on.  Take a look at The State of the World Atlas to see how the size of countries varies in relation to what is being measured. Size, it turns out, is always relative. (note 2)

Images of samurai and sumo wrestlers, of geisha and cherry blossoms, should not mislead: Japan is no exotic Lotusland . . .



Contemporary Japan is a modern society, an instance of the multiple patterns of modernity that characterize the late twentieth-century world.  Images of samurai and sumo wrestlers, of geisha and cherry blossoms, should not mislead: Japan is no exotic Lotusland, no topsy-turvy Asian version of Western style modernity. If modernity, broadly defined, implies industrialization, the nation-state, expanded political participation, forms of middle class or mass society, and growing integration in the world, then there is no single way to be modern, no Western way, no Asian way. Indeed, as any glance at the globe will show, modernity is notoriously uneven in its contemporary appearances. Yet there are patterns held in common, and modern Japan is a variant of a pattern of modernity, which, though it is by no means the only pattern, is one that Americans know quite well. It includes a capitalistic economy, a democratic politics based on representative parliamentary government, a large middle class as the social basis for both capitalism and democracy, and active engagement in global relations of power. (note 3) 

To know Japan today, think first of modernity held in common, first of commonality, and only then of difference.

If, as some say, the great theme of Chinese history is unity, that of Indian history, continuity, then the corresponding theme of Japanese history would be identity.



1. Henry Smith, “Five Myths about Early Modern Japan,” in Ainslie Embree and Carol Gluck, eds., Asia in Western and World History (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), p. 515.

2. Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal, The State of the World Atlas, Fifth edition (London: Penguin Books, 1995).

3. See Carol Gluck, “Japan’s Modernities: 1850s–1990s,” in Embree and Gluck, Asia in Western and World History.