Under the leadership of the United States, the first atomic weapons were successfully tested for the first time in July 1945 in a desert in South-Western United States.
By Subhash Jangala
Nuclear fission was discovered in 1938. Einstein’s famous 1939 letter warned the United States of the possibility of Germans building a bomb using the technology. This prompted the birth of the Manhattan Project. Under the leadership of the United States, the first atomic weapons were successfully tested for the first time in July 1945 in a desert in South-Western United States.
Within a month of the successful test, on the 5th of August 1945, Mrs. Nakamura walked her three children aged 10, 8 and 5 to the designated gathering point, a parade ground, in Hiroshima. Hundreds of American B-29 bombers roared in the skies as announcers warned of an impending attack. The children slept until 2 AM at the ground when the bombers roared past Hiroshima and the danger passed. Mrs. Nakamura walked the dreary and sleep-eyed kids back home. At 7 AM, the next day, as the local siren blared once again, Mrs. Nakamura, a Japanese soldier’s widow consulted with the community leader who advised her to stay home until an emergency call was sounded. She cooked some rice for the kids and fed them with peanuts. At 8 AM, while the kids were still half asleep, a white light rose in the sky, the brightest she had ever seen. The explosion tore apart her house, lifted her and the children into the air and propelled them. Within an instant, she was covered in debris and faint cries of her youngest engulfed her. Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey in his bestseller “Hiroshima” described the gruesome tales of the bombing as seen by the survivors. 6th August 2021 will be 76 years since “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima killing more than 1, 00,000 individuals including soldiers and civilians.
Within 9 days of Hiroshima, Japan surrendered and for the next 7 years was occupied by the Allied Forces. The Constitution was re-written, the structure of governance was reframed, the Emperor’s powers were cut and most importantly, Japan was banned from maintaining a standing army. Within 45 years of utter destruction, global disgrace and a non-existent economy, Japan quickly rose to become Asia’s only developed nation and the second largest economy in the world in 1990. As of 2021, Japan is the third largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and has the world’s highest life expectancy. What happened in Japan after Hiroshima is a lesson in public policy and social reform.
While Japan was already well developed industrially in the early 1900s, the war flattened most of the commercial and manufacturing infrastructure of the country. Unemployment was rife. Since the military was disbanded, millions of troops had to be absorbed into agriculture. Inflation was high and electricity and food supplies were shrinking alarmingly. With the assistance of the Allied Powers, Japan underwent economic reconstruction.
The most talked-about features of the reconstruction are the breaking down of industrial monopolies, redistribution of land and empowering of labour. All were swift and successful. The Japanese men and women feverishly worked to bring the country back to its original might notwithstanding their class, their social position or their affiliation. They earnestly gave away their erstwhile privileges like land and capital. The disbanding of the armed forces helped Japan focus its limited streams of income towards re-building its social and physical infrastructure. Japan imported technology from the west and the Korean War of 1950 gave a fillip to Japanese manufacturing. In 1951, Japanese exports crossed its imports for the first time since the Second World War. However, this is the path most modern nations took towards economic growth. Most countries had laws to restrict monopolies, reformed their land holding systems and provided protections to their workers right after independence. While the success rate may differ considering the size and diversity of each country, was there something Japan did differently? Indeed.
The aspect people don’t talk about much is how Japan, while importing and incorporating western technology, applied its collective conscience to improve upon and innovate. Japan, while seeking help from the west, focused on adding value to everything that it was learning. This is one of the pillars of Kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement which doesn’t view mistakes or failures as negative concepts but utterly positive starting points for a perpetual cycle of betterment and progress. Japan’s unique constraints were poor natural resources, cold weather, a long coastline and a highly geologically active zone of the Pacific ridge. Japan focused on its weaknesses and developed them into its strengths. While it still imported natural gas and oil, the world had become so dependent on Japan for its manufactured goods that in the 1970s, Japan’s trade surplus was expanding exponentially. The government focused on saving energy and having lean management in companies and this directly and indirectly created virtuous innovative cycles that rapidly modernized Japanese industry.
The Japanese government identified sectors of the economy which could generate export surpluses. These sectors were carefully nurtured. The Japanese bureaucracy went to great lengths dovetailing its manufacturing base to the consumers of the world, mostly the Americans. Steel making, Ship building, fertilizer production, heavy electrical machinery, automobiles and synthetic fibres were the areas that were focussed on. The Government went to great lengths to precisely design the industrial policy to quickly boost Japan’s export competitiveness. Japan took full benefit of the GATS System and the opening of world trade.
Another key aspect which isn’t discussed much is the extensive involvement of the Government of Japan in employment. Most of the employment was nationalized. Organised and systematic structures were put in place for manufacturing companies in urban areas to directly pick and choose employees from graduates in the rural areas. Before the introduction of the Shudan Shukoku (group employment program), companies couldn’t choose by merit and schools did not train by demand. Once the system was put in place, there was an exact matching done between the employers and employees through the right skills, the right number of students and the right location. This gave incredible impetus to the continuous flow of high quality, precisely trained manpower, which let the Japanese industry evolve and innovate rapidly.
Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) has often been called the biggest contributor to the Japanese turnaround. MITI was the face of the government to the industry. MITI had carefully brought national economic goals and private economic gain closer in order to boost Japan’s economic situation. MITI also served as the via-media for channelling the savings of millions of Japanese individuals into Japanese businesses in the form of loans through the Japan Development Bank. MITI today is a case study for Ministries of Investment and Trade across the world. MITI went beyond being a Ministry. It became a true symbol of Public-Private partnership, not in the limited sense of income generating projects but in the form of a comprehensive ecosystem that planned all factors of production keeping in mind national priorities while not affecting private interests adversely.
Even to this day, Japan continues to inspire the world. The Olympic Games underway in Japan at this moment truly reflect the Japanese knack for innovation and sustainability. Metal from unused, broken mobile phones donated by Japanese people made up the Olympic medals, plastic waste from the Pacific was used for manufacturing the podiums and plastic from used water bottles was used to make the t-shirts of the torch-bearers.
As Japan rose like a phoenix after the nuclear bombing, its story has lessons for all of us. Upskilling, sustainable innovation from an Indian perspective and targeted, comprehensive support to key economic sectors are secrets to drive India through this delicate phase of rebuilding after the pandemic. The Skill India program, the Startup India Initiative and the Invest India Scheme are all attempts to place India on the world map as a manufacturing and service sector hub.
On 6th August 2021, let us remember the sacrifices of this great East Asian nation in pulling out its people from starvation, misery and international humiliation to world-leaders in technology, manufacturing and transportation. The shared heritage of Buddhism and the cultural traditions of democracy, tolerance and pluralism drive both nations forward.
Let us remind ourselves how the Indian concept of Dharma and the Japanese concept of Ikigai are comparable in some respects. Both philosophies expound the importance of a higher purpose in life. A path of good positive action that will drive the individual to higher levels of self-actualization at every step, taking with herself, the family, the community and the society towards becoming honourable, self-contained and sustainable.
(The author is an officer of the 2011 batch of the Indian Revenue Service. He is Joint Director in the Directorate General of Administration and Taxpayer Services at New Delhi. The views of the author are personal and do not represent those of the Government of India nor does it reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)