Japan is Finally Here!

***Due to my vacation, this will be my last post until September 10th :)***

The wait is over. Christina and I will be flying to Japan this week, and I feel like my Chihuahua when he hears the words “let’s go bye-bye!” The travel will be arduous, but I am trying to remember that you have to eat an elephant one bite at a time. The flight is a 13-hour red-eye which will probably leave me depleted – I am bringing some boring books and Benadryl which will hopefully help me sleep.

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As most of you know, I have been reading various texts on Japan to obtain a greater understanding and respect for this complicated country. My last book before heading off was an excellent summary of the history of Japan by Christopher Goto-Jones – Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction. This book is actually one of many in Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series; each book tries to concisely address difficult topics. These books are similar to my Tackle the Library series *cue shameless plug*  except they are longer and dryer in nature. Nevertheless, I was able to get a comprehensive view of Japan from its feudal past to its post-modern present; Japan’s history is pertinent to Western readers because it shows how modernization can both destroy a culture and uniquely define national identity.

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Today Japan is the third largest economy in the world with a population of nearly 130 million people – for context, Japan’s neighbor, Russia is the 12th ranked economy with a population of only 145 million inhabitants. Japan was not always a powerhouse of human resources, and it wasn’t long ago that it was completely isolated from the world. For 250 years, Japan had very little to do with the burgeoning powers of Europe and the United States. It wasn’t until 1853 that Japan was forced by the United States to sign a trading agreement – within 50 years of that date the entire country would undergo a political revolution, establish a new constitution, become an industrial economy, and begin a colonial empire.

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Japan was highly motivated to develop their country because of the “Unequal Treaties” which were Western treaties that viewed Japan as a backwater not worthy of fair trade. This view was partially accurate, but Japan was far from simplistic – by the 17th century, Tokyo was the largest city in the world and Japan had a sophisticated religious system that facilitated the famous samurai class and a revered Emperor. Suffice it to say, Japan in the 19th century was primed for development, and with Western technology, it shot off like a rocket into the “modern” age.

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At the turn of the 20th century, Japan was involved in a paradoxical policy of Imperialistic Anti-Imperialism. Confused? The Western countries were trying to dip their fingers into the honey pot of Asia – taking land from less developed societies in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Japan believed Asia should be in the hands of Asians and subsequently went to war with Russia, Korea, and China to secure their own holdings; they were extremely successful in these endeavors, and the Japanese began to get a taste for military power.

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By the time of WWI, Japan assisted the Allies and was given a seat for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. This “seat” was celebrated in Japan as a concrete symbol of their worldwide respect and modernity. All optimism was short-lived once Woodrow Wilson and the other Western nations decided that Japan would not have an equal voice. This “Western racism” highlighted to the Japanese that no matter how modern they became, they would be inferior because of their ethnicity and culture; this would lead to the conflicts of WWII in which the Japanese highlighted their national superiority.

 

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Following their hard-fought defeat in WWII, General MacArthur occupied Japan and modified their constitution: disbanding the military, adding a bill of rights, and transforming the role of the Emperor. In the 50’s Japan’s economy quickly rebounded thanks to the Korean War and by 1960 Japan was the world’s largest shipbuilder. The next 57 years followed a close line with the development of the United States – cars, technology, and the middle-class became the standard.

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Japan however to this day differs from other modern countries. Because of their early isolation and disrespect, Japan was determined to maintain their culture and their Emperor. With the US occupation post-WWII, Japan was able to stay out of the Cold War and invest in their country – leading to its cutting edge technology, education, and infrastructure. Japan’s forced pacifism has made it difficult for them to reconcile their past and to reconcile their place in the “post” modern world. With an aging population, an overworked middle class, and a technological-isolated youth the question for Japan today is defining what the “Japanese Dream” actually represents and how it is different than the “American Dream.”

Old World vs. New World

One of my wife’s favorite Disney movies is Pocahontas. She likes it for its fun music, its dark-skinned-female-protagonist, and its historical accuracy. We all grew up with some vague idea of what it was like for Native Americans before the advent of the “white man.” There were happy tribes scattered throughout the country which cherished the Image result for native american stereotypesearth and went about their lives in natural simplicity. These Paleolithic people lacked technology, advanced government, and large-scale societies like their European counterparts. Unfortunately all of those beliefs are flat out wrong. What did the Americas look like before 1492 – the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean? Thankfully, I came across a fascinating book which answers this very question: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. With the advent of new technologies in archaeology there has been an explosion of discoveries that were never known about the early inhabitants of the New World; suffice it to say, the Western Hemisphere was comprised of sophisticated societies which rivaled any European, Asian, or African empire at the time.

Most people know about the Incan and Aztec Empires. There are still many remnants from these cultures and many sites are visited by overweight tourists. What most people don’t realize is that each of these nations was home to millions of people during their peak. The Incan Empire, in the year 1491, was the Image result for incan empirelargest empire on earth, surpassing the Ming Dynasty in China, Ivan the Great in Russia, the Songhay in the Sahel, the Great Zimbabwe in West Africa, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and any European state at the time. Their dominion spread over 32 degrees of latitude which is the equivalent distance between Cairo and St. Petersburg. The Aztecs, located in modern day Central Mexico, numbered over 25 million which at the time was the most densely populated place in the world; twice the number of inhabitants per square mile than China or India; for reference, Spain and Portugal had a combined population of fewer than 10 million.

Concurrently, Tenochtitlan – the Aztec Capital – was the biggest metropolis on earth far exceeding the second largest at the time-Paris. When the Spaniards first walked into Image result for Tenochtitlan sketchTenochtitlan, they marveled at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, bustling markets, long aqueducts, immense banners, colorful promenades, and immaculate public spaces.
What was more astonishing than the structures were the people themselves: taller, healthier, stronger, and cleaner than their European counterparts. This pattern of civilization was common throughout the Americas from the Amazon Rain forest to the Appalachian Mountains: there was advanced technology, sophisticated government, and efficient agriculture. So what the frick happened?

One word – DISEASE. From the time that Columbus landed in 1492, various diseases like Hepatitis and Smallpox spread throughout the Americas with rapid force. When Pizzaro and Cortez conquered the Incans and Aztecs, disease had already destabilized the populace and the political foundation. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the epidemics killed 100 million Native Americans which would be 1 out of every 5 people on earth at the time – the greatest destruction of life in history. Image result for native american disease and epidemics
Overtime, disease would kill almost 95% of all peoples in the Americas. A great example of this death toll is the east coast of the United States. Before the Pilgrims landed, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans inhabiting that area. A smallpox epidemic swept through during the late 16th century and cleared all resistance – the English zealots settling on a mass-grave site.

What remained of the Native Americans were small bands of people which were restarting their personal lives, their families, and their societies; this is how Europeans viewed their perpetual state – subsequently writing the history books. The Inca and Image result for native american mound builders sketchAztecs were not exceptions but rather the rule in respects to American civilization; advanced civilization rose and fell for over five millennia. Even more fascinating was the manipulation of the landscape by these cultures. We imagine the virgin forest as a staple of the pre-Columbian landscape – wrong again.
Not only were structures built, but the forest was regularly manipulated for agriculture, harvesting, and wildlife management. All of these facts are extremely important for today because it gives us a greater understanding of human and ecological development. We can gain knowledge from past cultures to improve our environment and Disney movie plot lines. The more we know the less we think one group of people is “better” than the other – maybe the term “savage” was applied to the wrong hemisphere.

The Upside of Down

What makes America great? Is it the people? The beautiful landscape? The election process? I think a lot of citizens define the greatness of America through her economic and military prowess. Over the past 10 years there has been a lot of news about America’s dominance fading in the world. I hear things like, “China owns half of our country!” “Their is a new Cold War with Russia!””There are going to be taco stands at every corner!” “All of our jobs are being shipped overseas!” I never really looked into these claims before so I wanted to read a book about the true economic status of the developed world compared to the developing. I picked up The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West by Charles Kenny. Kenny was previously a senior economist at the World Bank and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and writes for Bloomberg Businessweek and Foreign Policy magazines. To put it simply, this guy knows his stuff.

First off, China is definitely going to surpass the United States economy very soon – some economists argue that is has already happened. The math is simple: China has 1.3 billion people and the United States has roughly 350 million people. That is a billion more workers and consumers with an ever widening middle class that is ready to spend.

“…by 2030 the world will have four major economic players. China will be the heavyweight, with a share of global GDP around 24 percent (measured at purchasing power parity). Next will be India, the European Union and the United States – each with 10 to 12 percent of the global output. Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan will each control a little more than 3 percent of global GDP.”

Should this fact worry the United States? Not at all. It is great news. For one, the average Chinese or Indian will one day be able to buy more products from the United States. With more money flowing into America, there will be more jobs created and more services needed. Second, countries with large economies love trade agreements – allowing them to easily import and export. This increases alliances and decreases the risks of wars. Thirdly, with greater partnerships with other countries, the United States can reduce military spending and focus more on improving quality of life measures for her citizens (health care, infrastructure, worker benefits, etc.).

Now what about all the worries of immigration and jobs being taken by the “rest” of the world.

“…US offshoring may have been responsible for a 1.6 percent decline in manufacturing jobs over the period 1997 to 2007, but the impact on long-term productivity may actually increase employment (which may also be better paid). The idea is that firms save money by offshoring, which, by allowing them to sell more for less, increases both their own revenues and the revenues of those that purchase the goods they sell. As a result, they can hire more people, or their shareholders have more money to buy goods and services from other Americans.”

Yes, America has lost jobs overseas but the economy as a whole has benefited immensely from affordable goods and greater domestic purchasing power – the result being a net increase in job creation. So what about jobs at home being taken by immigrants? The United States attracts some of the best and brightest students from around the world. Our universities, with the help of foreign students, foster innovation that continues to make America a leader in patents and technology. Immigrants are vital to our growing economy, because as earlier explained, the number of people in a country is one of the biggest factors in economic health. With an aging population and a decreasing birth rate, the United States should be happy to take all the skilled labor she can get. What about the “illegal” immigrants? Shouldn’t we build a wall? It was found that immigrants from Mexico do not take jobs from Americans but rather help create new jobs (click here for clear example). By paying less for labor, businesses have more money for investments, purchases, and new job creation. Furthermore, between 2009-2014 there was net loss of Mexicans leaving the United States. This is due to an improving Mexican economy and better family reunification programs. It was found that increased border control actually increased the number of illegal immigrants in the country; due to the fact that it was harder for Mexicans to reenter their country.

All of this points to the need for more investment and economic teamwork throughout the world. We should not become a isolated country that is afraid of immigrants or the success of other countries. We need to remember that immigrants founded this country and that the rise of the rest is good for the west. If you liked this article please a related post, The World is Flat.

 

The World is Flat

When I was a 9 year old kid my Mom bought me a Y2K clock that counted down the days, hours, minutes and seconds before the calendar read 1/1/00. In the months prior to the impending Y2K apocalypse, my Mom and Dad stocked up on bulk spices and bags of water in preparation for society’s collapse (oddly enough they didn’t stock any food for the spices to go on). The Y2K disaster was, as we all know, adverted, but how did we prevent all those computers from malfunctioning? I read the answer to that question in The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Friedman who is a New York Times writer and author of several books on globalization. We were saved from Y2K because of a sequence of technological advances which promoted connectivity around the globe. Firstly, the advancement in the usage and monetary value of the internet in the 1990’s led to huge investments in fiber optic cables. This laying of cable spread all over the world and opened up lines of communication that were never before available. This new communication was tested with the Y2K conundrum because the US did not have enough engineers to fix all the computers because the cost and time investments would have been astronomical. Enter India. India, after 50 years of investing in technical education, had a untapped labor force ready to get their teeth on any technology work available. Since connectivity had increased so much in the 90’s, India was ready to take on all the Y2K work remotely. This was the first time many US companies worked with engineers in India and was the proverbial handshake of friendship for a healthy future of business relations. Shortly after the Y2K scare, the dot.com bubble burst and tech companies that survived the implosion now sought to cut cost as much as possible. Where could they go for reduced labor costs? You guessed right….India. The country of over 1 billion people began receiving contracts for work and the era of tech outsourcing was given running shoes.

Today, the world is flatter then ever with outsourcing occurring not only in India but in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and a whole host of third-world countries. Before I read this book, I thought outsourcing was a bad thing…now I have a different opinion on the matter. Outsourcing is the natural result of a hyper-connected world in which companies are trying to reduce waste and optimize every step of their supply chain. The United States has lost many manufacturing jobs because of these optimizations but in the end it has meant a decrease cost for goods by consumers and a shift in career outlooks. Students are now pushed to get technical or college degrees because they can’t get a manufacturing job right out of high school. A more highly educated society will push invention, creativity, and innovation more than a society based on workers that perform menial tasks. Complex thoughts and ideas cannot be outsourced and a country that is made up of engineers instead of line operators will compete much better with other advanced nations. The flattening of the world has showed how the US has gotten lazy and fallen from its once great educational supremacy-best highlighted during the cold-war space race. We need to push the next generation to excel in math, science, engineering, and my personal favorite…history. Globalization is here to stay and the more interconnected we become the more we will have opportunities to triumphantly succeed or catastrophically be left behind. Let’s stop complaining about jobs getting outsourced and start educating ourselves so our skills can never be cheaply replicated.