Japan

The first chapter of the book The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest for Wealth entitled The Radio that Changed the World by Michael Schuman discusses the developmental state story of Japan vis-a-vis the emergence of the premium Asian brand Sony. It was presented through the mixture of the narrative of the success story of the company Akio Morita and his friend Masaru Ibuka started, the historical roots of the Japanese determination for development instigated by American Commodore Matthew Perry, and the work of Shigeru Sahashi in the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). The three stories were intertwined in order to illustrate how the nationalistic sentiment of the Japanese led to their motivation to achieve an economic miracle just right after the Second World War.

The article started with the life of Akio Morita. A very innovative man with fascinations towards toys and technology, he grew up with much enthusiasm into almost every new invention or gadget that he would encounter—from Xerox machines to a personal American nickelodeon. True to this fondness, he had pitched in on a new gadget out of an unusual device which was seen as lacking in potential—the transistor. He did not have it in his way easily, though, as the very stringent demands and requirements of the MITI almost did not let the deal between Sony and Western Electric, the patent holder for the transistor, pursue. Eventually, it was encouraged to approve the agreement and Sony went on to creating new gadgets out of it.

This persistence present among the Japanese was attributed by the author to the historical actions done by the Americans to them during the isolationist period of the northern Pacific archipelago. As Commodore Perry attempted to deliver a letter by the United States President Millard Fillmore to the hostile Japanese, they have realized that their situation is far worse than the Americans. Owing to the opening of trade between Japan and the United States as a result of the actions of Commodore Perry, the Japanese saw how the backlog of their society was inimical to their survival as international citizens. Damaging their innate national pride and personal egos, modernity was introduced during the restoration of the Japanese emperor. Foreign ideas, technology, concepts, and institutions were imported but were used in order to develop something out of their own. They also did not succumb to the free market economy present in many Western countries where they had imported things but instead promoted state-led economic agenda which eventually paid off by them being the first non-Western country to industrialize.

This kind of attitude of the Japanese continued even after their defeat in the Second World War. Instead, it only intensified their seemingly healthy insecurity towards the West as they pursued an intensified involvement of the government in economic affairs. This was presented through the career of the so-called “Mr. MITI,” Shigeru Sahashi. A lawyer by profession, he got involved in the government due to his ultranationalist sentiments that bureaucracy is the way for the development of his country. The Japanese state then went into controlling its economy through identification of potential sectors that can be lucrative in order to fund and support their growth. These then turned into keiretsu, a revival of the pre-war zaibatsu. Together with other highly regulative measures and prioritization of export through tapping the huge Western market, Japan attained an impressive economic performance despite it being very devastated after the War.

The article presented some issues about the story of Japanese development including the disputed comprehensive role of the MITI into the economy and whether the ministry is the decisive or the supportive factor in the Japanese economic miracle. Retelling the success story of Sony—the epitome of the Japanese triumph—the MITI was illustrated to be almost the antagonist that may have hindered the company to be what it was—it is now struggling to keep pace with its American counterpart Apple and fellow Asian Samsung. The article implied but did not decisively disprove that the MITI is entirely responsible for the achievements of Sony and the whole of the Japanese economy. The case of Sony—at least by how it was presented in the article—was a result of the innovative, passionate, persistent and persevering attitude of its founders. The article ended with how Sony got the spotlight by narrating how it tried to produce recorders and sell them in a period where people were just recovering from the effects of the war.

Morita and his company Sony—although not directly one of the identified sectors with intensive government support—became the face of Japan in the second half of the 20th Century. This variant of East Asian development proves that there are potential benefits of government intervention in the economy, disproving the hard-line free market economy “fans.” Still, the state cannot take all the credit for what seemed to be an individual effort by the company to become one of the biggest technological companies in the whole world. Governments can only do much in terms of promoting development, but it is certain that it cannot do it all by itself.