Trump Will Make Japan Great Again

Japan has had a rough 30 years of no growth with soaring public debt and zero interest rates. In the same period, China’s economy has taken off at record-breaking speed – as we now learn, with considerable cheating on intellectual property protections and the like. On closer examination, the two phenomena are closely connected, with China’s rise being a major cause of Japan’s economic lassitude. Thus, if President Trump makes China play by the rules, he could Make Japan as well as America Great Again.

There is an obvious overlap between Japan’s and China’s economic capabilities, but the overlap between the two economies is much deeper and more durable than at first appears. Both countries derive from ancient very impressive civilizations that lasted more than two millennia. The similarities between those civilizations were far more important than their differences, and the countries’ trajectories were distinctively different from those of the nations of Western Europe and the United States.

China, from the reign of Qin Shi Huang, which began in 221BC and Japan from 660BC were centralized empires with almost complete civilizational continuity over more than 2,000 years. In Western Europe, on the other hand, the only long-lasting centralized Empire, ancient Rome, collapsed and was replaced by a multitude of petty warring states.

The centralized empires of China and Japan shared one distinctive feature: they had a very high regard for learning. The Chinese mandarin system selected senior bureaucrats based on their intellectual capability, with the mandarinate being famously chosen through highly competitive examinations. The mandarinate system became fully established in the mid-Tang dynasty, around AD 700 and was only abolished in 1905. Ambitious boys from low-status families would hope to achieve material and social success through excelling in those examinations. In Japan, this system was also fully used in a locally adapted form during the Heian period (794-1185) although less so in the Shogunate that followed.

In both societies, commerce was regarded as a low-status activity and scientific discovery was not given priority, while in periods of peace even military prowess was subordinated to the mandarinate system – there was, after all, no existential threat to either Chinese or Japanese civilization for most of their histories. The result, especially in Song dynasty China, was societies with relatively high living standards and extremely high cultural levels.

Contrast this with the West. From the fall of Rome until the Renaissance, only military prowess was of any value; the incessant wars between petty states made it essential to collect, train and deploy warriors effectively. After 1500, commerce and eventually scientific achievement, of a practical kind, were also valued. Achievement for the young took the form not of success in examinations, but of military prowess, commercial success or eventually “handyman” technological advances. Examinations only began to play any kind of role in the late nineteenth century, with the British civil service being the first Western institution to adopt a form of the Chinese mandarinate examinations in 1855.

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Gary Anderson 2 months ago Contributor's comment

Interesting. However, Trump does not like Japan much either. He is driving China and Japan to more cooperation because he is relentlessly stupid. And also, Japan was sideswiped by Basel 1. China was smart enough not to sign Basel 2, which allowed China to help pull the US out of the Great Recession. For its help, all China gets is flack from the relentlessly stupid one.