The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

BookFrench writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr is credited with coining the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” But Japan and the Shackles of the Past, R. Taggart Murphy’s latest analysis of Japan in the context of its past, embodies the phrase.

Murphy has produced a book that is both an excellent primer for the Japan novice and a thought-provoking synthesis for those with deeper knowledge or experience of the nation. The narrative unfolds like a time lapse video of a blooming rose, with each delicate petal unfolding to reveal an exquisite blossom.

“Part One” delves into Japan’s past, beginning with its mythical imperial origins and moving forward to the present, highlighting key events and the resultant recurring cultural and political themes. It is well paced, providing sufficient detail without becoming bogged down.

We see the origins of both Japan’s insularity and its industrialization. We catch a glimpse of how power—what will come to pass for leadership in Japan—is held. We see how Japan’s push to catch up to the Western powers’ colonization of Asia naturally led to nationalism, authoritarianism, and the rise of the military that, in turn, marched into World War II and a disastrous result for Japan.

Murphy also analyzes the post-war situation and the ways in which the United States protected the rebuilding Japan, only to have its own economy briefly outstripped by Japan’s so-called economic miracle.

In “Part Two,” Murphy provides very deep analysis of the past few decades, as Japan has struggled to revive its flagging economy in the face of myriad challenges, many of its own making. He reveals a Japan so shackled by both its past and its present that it has yet to find its place in the world order.

Organized thematically, with each chapter leading seamlessly to the next, the second part begins with the self-inflicted origins of Japan’s bubble economy.

Murphy then shows that the post-bubble economy—in which large Japanese manufacturers of consumer goods no longer enjoy world domination—has plenty of smaller manufacturers of B2B components that are highly successful.

This is often largely because of Japan’s comparative advantage, which is derived “from such intangibles as fanatic attention to detail, an emphasis on the appearance and elegance of design, . . . patience, social cohesion, and teamwork.”

Murphy’s analysis of evolving business practices in post-bubble Japan leads to a consideration of recent social and cultural shifts. Yet, we see the young people who are the products of these shifts nonetheless prone to follow the advice of their parents and seek out the increasingly elusive security of lifetime employment, not recognizing the cost to themselves of that so-called security.

The last social change examined is the “decline” of Japan’s leadership class, which naturally leads to a consideration of the evolution of politics in modern Japan. Murphy provides us with detailed accounts of the rise and fall of several of Japan’s most influential politicians.

There are times when one or another offers the promise of change, but loses out for various reasons and things return to the way they were, just as a stretched rubber band snaps back to its original shape.

Finally, Murphy turns to Japan’s broader relationships with the rest of the world, most particularly with its sponsor on the world stage, the United States. The backgrounds and agendas of the political advisors to the US government and the US focus on Japan’s role in what it sees as regional security are insightful, as is Murphy’s examination of Japan’s ongoing territorial disputes with three of its neighbors, and why they may never be resolved.

Although, in the end, Murphy is bold enough to suggest a path forward for Japan, he concedes that there is currently no leader who can produce what he feels Japan needs. Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Vicki L. Beyer is a vice-chair of the Women in Business Committee of the ACCJ.
The narrative unfolds like a time lapse video of a blooming rose