In the postwar era, Japanese corporations prospered by focusing on cooperation and group loyalty, especially company loyalty. Those values would remain important. But Japan also needed to foster what Nakasone Yasuhiro, the Japanese prime minister, described as an ‘adventurousness and strong individualistic leadership’. He specifically cited Morita Akio, the founder of Sony, and Honda Sōichirō, the founder of Honda. These two men had been exceptions, until now.
Nakasone’s Political Standing in the World
In the future, Japan would need more entrepreneurs. And Nakasone wanted Japanese education to change to nurture and support that different, less conformist temperament. Nakasone formalized his ideas in an official policy statement and voiced them at a meeting with Ronald Reagan at Camp David in 1986.
Nakasone pledged to increase Japanese domestic consumer demand and open Japanese markets to US products. He also promised to increase Japanese military spending in support of Reagan’s confrontation with the Russian ‘evil empire’. Reagan was thrilled. The two men were supposedly on a first-name basis. And the Japanese media dubbed their relationship ‘Ron-Yasu’ for Ronald and Yasuhiro.
This was a personal triumph for Nakasone, who had long resented how France’s Charles de Gaulle once dismissed an earlier Japanese prime minister, Ikeda Hayato, as a ‘transistor salesman’. Nakasone was above that—he and Reagan had met as equals, like Roosevelt and Churchill.
Moving Too Fast for the World?
But Nakasone, with his bold vision of the future, got ahead of his own government. Even before he returned home, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was disavowing Nakasone’s promises. The LDP was not ready to stop protecting Japanese farmers. And it was leery of changes in military policy.
Nakasone did break the 1% ceiling on defense spending—a key part of the postwar political consensus—but that was mostly through an accounting trick. The government changed how some military pensions were calculated to make military spending look bigger. So, in the end, Nakasone stumbled. But many Japanese shared his views about the need for a bolder, more assertive Japan.
For example, in 1989, the conservative Diet representative Ishihara Shintarō and Sony founder and chairman Morita Akio co-authored the book, No to ieru Nihon—or The Japan That Can Say No. The book was a collection of short essays, each with a single author. But the two men agreed on a single theme: Japan was a rising world power, and the US was in decline.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern Japan. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Japanese Corporations vs American Corporations
Sony’s Morita voiced dismay that America remained great at pure research but couldn’t turn that research into products. Why? Because its business culture was broken. US executives chased short-term profits rather than long-term product development. They used financial tricks to boost share prices and raise their salaries, without considering long-range corporate interests.
Given the US decline, Morita thought Japan would need to act more independently in Asia, primarily through increased foreign aid. Ishihara, by contrast, celebrated American decline. Japanese dominance in semiconductors revealed a painful truth: Japanese culture was innately superior to American culture. US products were inferior because Americans were poorly educated and lazy. And Americans were too smug to recognize their own cultural inferiority.
For Ishihara, the innate superiority of Japanese culture could be seen in how Japan’s former colonies of Taiwan and Korea were thriving while America’s former colonies, such as the Philippines, were not. Japan could no longer rely on the United States for its security.
It needed to rearm as an independent military power. Ishihara’s brashness advanced his political career. He had already been a successful novelist and film director, but he now went on to serve for 13 years as the governor of Tokyo.
In the United States, a similar vision of impending Japanese dominance fueled both policy and paranoia. In 1989, Congress modified US trade law to require—not just authorize—the president to take action against any country that violated international trade agreements or otherwise discriminated against US exports.
The legislation was called ‘Super 301’, and the targets were super-computers, communications satellites, and wooden products. That last item, wooden products, reflected job losses in the Pacific Northwest.
Japanese Corporations in Popular Culture
In popular culture, Japanese corporations now became objects of both admiration and terror. Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel, Rising Sun, identifies the chief threat to humanity not as recombinant DNA dinosaurs or aliens but as the Japanese government industrial complex. The novel’s key plotline involves the Nakamoto corporation, which is plotting to acquire the US company MicroCon as part of its plan to dominate the microchip industry.
The Nakamoto corporation uses an advanced computer to edit a videotape, and then blackmail a US senator in a sex scandal. The senator had been planning to block Nakamoto’s acquisition of MicroCon. But the edited tape shows him murdering a prostitute. In Crichton’s vision, Nakamoto will stop at nothing to achieve its master plan for global economic control, including bribery, extortion, and murder.
Common Questions about Nakasone’s Vision for Japanese Corporations
Nakasone Yasuhiro pledged that he would open Japanese markets to US products and increase Japan’s military spending in support of Reagan’s confrontation with Russia. He also thought that Japan needed more entrepreneurs to build Japanese corporations with a less conformist temperament.
Morita Akio believed that, unlike Japanese corporations, American executives chased short-term profits instead of long-term ones. They would use financial tricks to boost salaries and share prices but wouldn’t think of the long-term implications. He believed the business culture of the US was broken.
In Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel, Rising Sun, the Japanese corporation, Nakamoto, plans to acquire a US company named MicroCon. A US senator who planned to block Nakamoto’s acquisition is blackmailed in a sex scandal by the Japanese company. To achieve global dominance in the microchip industry, the Japanese corporation will stop at nothing.