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Japan's postwar economic miracle (1950-1990)

Written by Maciamo on 16 May 2004

In 1951, Japan's GNP was US$14,2 billion, half of West Germany, 3x less than Britain, and a mere 4,2% of the US economy. By 1970, Japan had overtaken all European economies, and represented over 20% of the US's GNP. In 1975, it was double of the UK's, and 1980, it reached US$1040 billion, roughly 40% of the USA's.

We have seen what favourable conditions have prompted the economic boom following the American occupation. But what are the factors that allowed the Japanese economy to sustain its exceptional growth during the three decades from 1950 to the late 1980's ?

First of all, Japan benefited from the American military protection, which spared the government from high defense spendings. The same happened in West Germany, and both nations experienced the most formidable economic growth in the postwar era. But whereas West Germany's GNP increased 28.5x between 1951 and 1980 - compared to 18.7x for France, 12.7x for Britain and only 8x for the USA, Japan's increased 73x !

Their are obvious reasons for which we should minimize this number at first. The yen was intentionally set to a very low rate in the 1950's, and was worth 3x to 4x more in 1980's. At equal exchange rate to the US$, the Japanese economy didn't grow 9x faster but less than 3x. The second reason is that Japan was completely destroyed in 1945, its cities flattened and industry annihilated, while the US did not suffer any damages on their home land and had nothing to rebuild. It thus took Japan many years to recover its prewar level. Had the country ended the war intact, the economic "miracle" would not have happened. The same goes for Germany, which GNP stood at 68% of the UK's in 1951, while it had obviously been superior to it during its WWII peak.

Coredo, Nihombashi, Tokyo

However, the Japanese economy continued to grow steadily, quintupling its size every decade.

But the Japanese economic miracle didn't owe only to having to reconstruct the country and mobilising the entirety of the war's military spending, installations and energy into business. Although the economy was based on the American liberal system, the government boosted business by providing low interest loans to sectors designed for growth, and organized the economy to facilitate development as much as possible. For example, the MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) pressured iron and steel producers to acquire the licence rights of a new Austrian oxygen furnace together, thus sharing the costs and benefits, while the logic of Anglo-saxon free-market would have had each company obtain the licence individually at much higher expenditure.

Japanese enterprises borrowed massively from banks, which drew their funds from high households savings. Inflation made it easy for them to pay them back without difficulty - until the bubble burst in 1990, which left the banks with innumerable bad loans and brought many to bankruptcy or need of financial support from the state.


Nominal GNP of Five Major Nations, 1951-1980 (amounts in US$ billion)
Year

1951
1955
1960
1965
1970
1975
1980
Japan

14.2
22.7
39.1
88.8
203.1
498.2
1,040.1
USA

328.4
398.0
503.8
688.1
992,7
1,549.2
2,633.1
W.Germany

28.5
43.0
70.7
115.1
184.6
418.2
816.5
France

35.1
49.2
60.0
99.2
145.5
339.0
657.1
Britain

41.4
53.9
71.9
100.2
124.0
234.5
525.5
Source : Keizai Koho Sentaa, Japan: An International Comparison (Tokyo: Keizai Koho Sentaa, (1983), p.5.


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