By Preethi Amaresh,
Notion Press, 2020, 256 pp., INR 350/-
“Nihonomics: The Economic Foreign Policy of Japan (From the 16th century to the Present Day)”, is a book written by Preethi Amaresh, wherein she analyses Japan’s economic dynamics vis-à-vis the island-state’s foreign policy, from the 16th century (which was the Edo period in Japanese history and was marked by the reign of the conservative Tokugawa shogunate) till the present day, i.e., the rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led coalition (along with its junior partner, the Komeito) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second term at the helm of Japan. The moniker ‘Nihonomics’ is a unique one, coined by the emerging author, and one that seeks to reflect the nature of Japan’s ‘economic foreign policies’ vis-à-vis the country’s traditions. Japan’s erstwhile inward-looking economy of the Edo period was set in transitional motion by the Meiji Restoration.
The book comprises thirty short but insightful chapters that present a series of vignettes of the events that unfolded in the wake of Japan’s transition from a feudal state that was marked by reigns of various Shoguns to a modern-day, state-of-the-art democracy and the world’s third-largest economy (in Gross Domestic Product [GDP] terms) at that. The author of the book is a reputed scholar in the field of East Asian studies and is pursuing doctoral (PhD) studies in International Relations (IR) from the Geneva School of Diplomacy in Switzerland, after having graduated from the University of Madras. The initial chapters paint a historical sketch of the Edo and the Meiji eras in Japanese history. The financial and banking crises of the 1980s and the 1990s, from which Japan was able to temporarily bounce back, are particularly pertinent. The author’s argument is coherent, especially regarding the four phases of the Japanese asset-bubble burst of the 1990s. Japan had its own troubles during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, with several Japanese firms having had to file for bankruptcy, and its major security firms also having failed.
The book tries hard to be unique in its approach in addressing the several varied facets of Japan, but the author appears, on occasion, to have bitten off more than she can chew. Japan’s education sector is examined in detail, with the author unearthing and presenting relatively little-known facts, such as Japan’s promotion of technology through the ‘vehicle’ of education. The political machinations involved in extra-regional trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership are analysed vis-à-vis the role of the United States and other economic partners of Japan. A chapter highlights the Yoshida Doctrine of the 1950s, championed by Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, which actively sought to increase Japan’s reliance on the United States for its future endeavours in the domains of modern technology, military rejuvenation, and to address the geostrategic need to forge a regional alliance founded upon the vital features of cooperation and friendship.
Many of Japan’s unilateral policy initiatives that have helped shape the modern Japanese landscape, such as the post Second World War policy of ‘Rationalization’, which combined the quality of goods being manufactured with the nurturing of high technology, and, the Plaza Accord of 1985, which laid great stress upon Japanese commitment to an open market economy, are briefly enunciated. Japan’s foreign relations are analysed vis-à-vis the United States, — the world’s third largest democracy and the world’s sole superpower remain staunch allies, committed to each other’s defence in the burgeoning dynamics of Asia-Pacific security — the United Kingdom, the European Union, East Africa, and India. Amaresh’s work reflects a pro-Abe stance through much of the book, with particular focus on the ‘three arrows’ approach that is colloquially known as ‘Abenomics’. This is particularly evident in the later chapters of the book. Given the excellence of the current relations between India and Japan, — a relationship that is, to a large extent, hinged upon the close personal bonds between Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the LDP-led coalition of Japan — which is characterised by the multidimensional security collaborations, the interpretations of the author stand adequately vindicated.
The last few chapters dwell upon Japan’s advances in the tourism sector, and the targets set by the ruling coalition in Japan via the country’s central and provincial tourism agencies, to boost the prospects of foreigners arriving in Japan for short retreats. The author links this renewed focus on tourism with the Tokyo Olympics of 2020 (which, due to the ongoing novel Coronavirus pandemic, have been postponed to next summer) by stating that the Games will massively impact and improve present and future prospects of the tourism industry of Japan. The writer buttresses her arguments with statistics that throw light upon the state of Tokyo’s tourism industry, and its prospects in the future. Aviation, as a sector of Japanese preponderance, is also discussed, with the author describing civil aviation, in particular, as having played an important role in the rise of the Japanese economy.
The book has many praiseworthy elements. Amaresh does a brilliant job in constructively piecing together developments in Japan since the 16th century, with a precise focus on what the book’s title claims to be the ‘economic foreign policy’ of Japan, and not individually upon the financial/economic policies or the foreign/international policies of that country. This intertwining of these two otherwise-distinct subjects, which form key components of the central apparatus of Japan, makes for compelling and absorbing reading, with the author presenting several insights that demonstrate her painstaking scholarship. The chapter on ASEAN and Japan explains the many incidences that have shaped Japan-ASEAN relations, much to the chagrin of China and to the advantage of Southeast Asia.
Facts and information are stated, presented and scrutinised to an impressive degree, in the context of the policies pursued by this often-secluded island-nation commencing with the events of the late 1880s that led to its opening up to the world. The Meiji Rstoration is correctly emphasised, since contemporary Japan owes a great to Emperor Meiji, who laid the foundations for the country’s transformation into a modern, highly-developed, highly-progressive and remarkably-prosperous nation-state.
An epilogue to the book expresses optimism about Japanese prospects in Asia and affirms that Japan’s focus remains the very continent in which it is located.
However, the book also has significant shortcomings.
The relationship between the book’s title and the sheer diversity of the perspectives on offer, including such topics as Tokyo’s ventures into artificial intelligence and crypto currency, appears to be a forced one. The flow of logic that determined the inclusion of some subjects to the exclusion of others, as also the rationale that underpinned the sequence of presentation of the subjects, is difficult to discern. The author could, perhaps, have chosen to write different books with greater focus on a fewer number of subjects, but has, instead, opted to combine in a single book, a series of short summaries on an array of topics related to Japan.
While there are many gainful insights on offer for a wide swath of readers — ranging from casually interested readers of Japan’s policy-oriented leanings in its outlook of the world to serious researchers working on the shaping of East Asian and global economic dynamics by Japanese deliberations — the author’s minimal grasp over the form and structure of the English language severely mars her otherwise-praiseworthy analyses. Moreover, the editing of the book has been extraordinarily poor. Very nearly each of the book’s 256 pages is replete with grammatical errors, which greatly detracts from the overall readability. A reader must demonstrate considerable linguistic insensitivity while ploughing through a field strewn with solecisms and poor syntax. The overall scattered and disorderly sequencing of the book’s chapters, too, adversely impact its readability and extremely poor editing in this regard, is once again distressingly evident.
In summary, the book is certainly useful to a determined reader who can ignore its many linguistic failings and retain interest in the vignettes offered by the author on the events that helped Japan evolve from the closed ‘civilisation’ that it was in its feudal period (when successive shogunates reigned) to what the economic dynamo that it is today. At 256 pages, the book ends up consuming a few hours of a reader’s time, but the brevity of the individual chapters leaves each subject bereft of depth.
Finally, given that the Abe-government’s handling of the crisis induced by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has come in for severe domestic criticism and has resulted in Abe’s approval ratings dropping precipitously, the re-elected Japanese prime minister seems to have lost much of the momentum of his earlier term in office. As such, the author’s clearly pro-Abe stance may not be as much of a selling-point today as it might have once been.
About the Reviewer
*Jay Maniyar is a Research Associate at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), whose current research is focussed upon maritime issues vis-à-vis Japan and South Korea insofar as these are relevant to India’s own maritime endeavours. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.