Hacker News new | more | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
True Story of the 1980s, When Everyone Was Convinced Japan Would Buy America (businessinsider.com)
96 points by amerf1 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

If anyone doesn't remember this (perhaps you weren't around then) it's worth reviewing this when you read the absurd statements made about China.

Yes China is big, yes china is (still) growing fast, yes China wants to be more powerful on the world stage. And yes, China raises some challenges/risks to the western/OECD countries. But the level of the risks as they are today and in the near future are significantly overblown because to do so is useful to those who bang the drum.

And china itself faces many internal structural risks which are underweighed (or flat out ignored) both by those who want to tout China as a risk and by the Chinese government itself.

My favorite deal of the 1980s (1990) was when Martin Davis sold Pebble Beach to a Japanese developer. This was widely described in the press as evidence that the Japanese were about to take over the US (OMG the real estate value of the imperial palace exceeds the entire real estate value of California!!!!). Of course a few years later it was back in the hands of its original owners, the Pebble Beach company, for less than the Japanese buyers had paid. Now one story doesn't make a trend, but this high profile one is indicative of the situation. Some low-publicity slow-and-steady purchases have done well and the same in reverse (US companies in Japan). I expect the same with China.

On the other hand, Japan had half the population of the US while China has four times the population. The tendency of countries to converge on similar productivity was working against Japan but is very much working for China.

Can't be repeated enough. Totally incomparable populations, natural resources, military size, and monetary situation between yen and renminbi.

It's quite embarrassing, really, because the frequency of this comparison is almost certainly due to American perception of ethnicity. You don't see India/80's Japan comparisons or Brazil/80's Japan comparisons as often.

> the frequency of this comparison is almost certainly due to American perception of ethnicity. You don't see India/80's Japan comparisons or Brazil/80's Japan comparisons as often.

Isn't it more likely that that's because neither India nor Brazil have economies anywhere near the size or importance of America's, and don't appear to be on any kind of trajectory that will get them there?

maybe in a decade or two, folks myopically focused on building walls and fighting invader-terrorists will realize that immigration is a net good, and the principle way to keep china in check as it grows larger and more formidable (not as a threat but as a competitor). hopefully it won't be too late. think of the children.

The argument being made conflates illegal and legal immigration. American legal immigration continues to exceed one million annually, easily dwarfing any other country.

it doesn't, but regardless, the cia estimates US net migration was 3.9/1000 in 2017, which is 29th. the point was, why shouldn't we take every (legal) immigrant who will make this a stronger and more vibrant country?


"Stronger" is...vague, and "vibrant" is very much subjective.

I've never understood why people are so insecure about Chinese companies or East Asian companies rising up, given that the world is 1/5 Chinese and even more East Asians, of course there are going to be large and prosperous Chinese companies because if they can manage to scale to dominate the Chinese market, they can thrive on their internal markets alone. Doesn't have to be just American companies dominating another nation's market. (Same with India and South Asia)

Japanese companies still buy up American companies just like American companies buy up Japanese. Indeed, the job search company was bought for a billion dollars by a Japanese company. Sony PlayStation, Nintendo and the car companies are doing better than ever. It's just it's no longer in people's eyes or really news anymore.

It's also why Starbucks, KFC and Apple have been aggressively growing in China cos there is such a great market in China and East Asia in general.

Largely cultural factors and political ones. America still has a good relationship with japan (I.e. can control japan), China has a UNSC seat and is quite fond of going after its ambitions, looking to a world beyond American hegemony.

Japan, however, at that point was a liberal democracy with rights and stuff. Can't say that about the PRC.

It'll be interesting to see the political situation evolve in China. There's a popular perception in American mythology that liberal democracy causes prosperity, but if you look at economic history across many different cultures, the reverse seems to be more true: economic prosperity causes liberal democracy. As a growing middle class gains more economic power, they inevitably try to push for more political power, and because the country ceases to operate without them, they tend to get it.

I suspect that the political situation for Xi Jinping and the CCP is actually a lot more tenuous than is publicized outside of China, and that they're investing so heavily in surveillance & control technologies because they're insecure. It wouldn't surprise me if we see a democratic revolution in China within a decade.

South Korea and Taiwan both developed under a military dictatorship and transitioned to democracies. Singapore has been a democracy but not particularly liberal too.

IMO good governance goes beyond ideology. If you need a democracy because your political and economic situation dictates it will be best, then do that.

I hope you are right. I never see any indications a democratic revolution is even on the radar there. Is it all hidden?

It would be, right? If the government cracks down on any dissident accused of fomenting revolution, the very last thing you would do is talk about revolution.

I think any revolution is fairly unlikely while China continues to grow rapidly under the CCP, but if growth stutters or corruption becomes overwhelming (or if America collapses and stops buying Chinese goods), it could happen. The catalyst for most revolutions seems to be when people give up on trying to expand the pie and start stealing slices from less powerful countrymen, causing widespread resentment.

I'm just thinking back to other revolutions that have occurred, though, and they usually take people outside the country by complete surprise. I was a kid in the 80s, and the Cold War was basically a fact of life. I had an international relations professor who was in the Pentagon when Gorbachev was deposed, they had just completed their 5-year geostrategic plan, and nowhere in the plan was the possibility that the USSR might not exist. Same with the Arab Spring - from the U.S, it was like "What the hell is happening?"

Interestingly, it was not clear at the time of the American Revolution that it would result in a liberal democracy. It seems that the expectation at the time is that it would result in total anarchy (the way the Syrian Civil War has), with the colonists killing each other, and it almost did, and it wasn't until almost 15 years after Lexington & Concord that it was clear (with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution) that it wouldn't. And maybe that's the mechanism by which a wealthy & well-networked middle class leads to democracy: in states without it, a revolution collapses into anarchy and the elevation of a charismatic dictator, while with it the various interests need to negotiate and share power because each of them needs something that only the others can provide.

Exactly. China isn't scary, an oppressive authoritarian regime controlling the world economy is.


> To what extent does the mostly single party state of California influence the world economy?

California is not a “mostly single party state” other than in the sense that any state with a current legislative majority party is.

The California Republican Party, sure, has done a horrible job keeping voters over the last decade, following the national party on its rightward march faster than voters on the state were willing to support. But they aren't systematic excluded by government in the manner of a single-party state, and while they are a weak minority in state government, much government in the state is done at the local level, and Republicans still dominate local government in substantial swathes of the state. And, unlike in a single-party state, there are no structural barriers to the state Republican Party becoming more competitive if it chooses to actually try, rather than hewing to the orthodoxy of a national party far out of line with California voters.

The California Republican Party, sure, has done a horrible job keeping voters over the last decade, following the national party on its rightward march

It's the Democrats (I was one, until recently) who have been moving left. There has been some reaction from the Republicans, but the majority of the shift has been on the left towards the left.


But they aren't systematic excluded by government in the manner of a single-party state

Yet. I'd seen some nutty Craiglist ads, where people refused to live with anyone who didn't support Bernie, including other Democrats. (For the record, I think he wasn't treated fairly by his party.) Maybe it's the circles I'd been running in, but people here in the Bay Area are quite something. I'd never felt more comfortable in groups of only Asians until I moved here. This sort of toxic denigration and talking over me, like I'm a foolish creature from a Dr. Doolitle movie -- I'd only seen it from right-leaning bigots in Ohio or South Carolina. First time in my life, I've gotten it from the left.

Best that I can tell, there are a lot of people here who think it would be perfectly ok to mistreat wholesale groups of people who are more or less ordinary citizens, ordinary Republicans. There are a lot of people here who would enthusiastically denigrate innocent people, not because they necessarily disagree, but just because they'd ask certain questions. The saddest thing about it, is that such behavior comes from what I used to think was my own "tribe." I see too many attitudes that are not befitting for truth seekers, lovers of knowledge, and Liberal attitudes towards discourse and civic life.

Today I learned that California is an oppressive authoritarian regime...

If you go looking, you'll find that there are some people who describe it that way, and that's been the case for many years. No large polity has had a single, unanimous evaluation from all of its citizens, ever in the history of the world.

But that's the case for every polity - you'll find some people who find it oppressive, and a lot of people who don't. Most people in China wouldn't actually call it an oppressive authoritarian regime, even though by U.S. standards it is.

It seems to extend down to ridiculously small polities, eg. there are people in the local Peace Corps alumni association (membership ~100) that call it an oppressive authoritarian regime, and I've worked at a startup with 18 employees that some of my coworkers called an oppressive authoritarian regime.

The people in China are also heavily insulated from history of government overreach, and more culturally geared towards ignoring government overreach.

They key difference (should be the key metric) is exactly how badly the dissenting minority gets treated. By that measure, California is at the "not too bad, but shows some disturbing trends" stage.

I guess. IMHO dissenting minorities are treated pretty well in California - the Oroville dam repairs are complete (and look pretty impressive) and there's been a massive disaster response from CalFire & other local fire departments to the Redding & Paradise fires, despite those all being very red areas. And San Jose is covering the wages of TSA screeners at Mineta airport during the government shutdown, even though the TSA isn't exactly the most popular agency of Silicon Valley liberals.

I guess. IMHO dissenting minorities are treated pretty well in California

Sure. "Not too bad, but showing disturbing trends." Right now, we're at the stage where the police give certain people extra attention, and attitudes are brewing in the majority society.

> And San Jose is covering the wages of TSA screeners at Mineta airport during the government shutdown, even though the TSA isn't exactly the most popular agency of Silicon Valley liberals.

I agree with your general point, but I should mention that the Bay Area political climate is pretty sympathetic to government employee unions, such as those that represent TSA workers.


Maybe for a privileged urban techie. There are people here in California who grouse about the state being an oppressive single-party state. There are certain rural and city people (both white and black) who have to behave differently and give extra thought to avoiding unwanted law enforcement scrutiny. There have been numerous articles written about how many rural California interests are under-represented.

I have a friend who lives up north in the Sierras (who actually won an award for her work in social justice) who can't go to certain bars in her town, because someone might knife her over political disagreements.

There is some unrest, oppression of the less powerful, and under-representation here in California. It's much better here than in many parts of the world, but it's there. Some of it is due to the lop-sided nature of politics here.

> people here ... who grouse about the state being an oppressive single-party state.

I'm pretty sure you can say that about most states. Either you have a blue state with a rural population that feels oppressed, or a red state with an urban population that feels oppressed, or pockets of people identifying with the less dominant party within both urban or rural areas.

It doesn't fit neatly into 21st century American domestic political discourse (with emphasis since 2000 on red states vs. blue states), but we're really more interspersed than we believe, at varying proportions.

Either you have a blue state with a rural population that feels oppressed, or a red state with an urban population that feels oppressed, or pockets of people identifying with the less dominant party within both urban or rural areas.

I have a sense that California is singularly skewed in this way, however. I've seen a rural lawyer in California advise people to basically hide their cultural identity while driving.

It doesn't fit neatly into 21st century American domestic political discourse (with emphasis since 2000 on red states vs. blue states), but we're really more interspersed than we believe, at varying proportions.

The time to worry is when you have scapegoating of certain minorities expressed in law and government behavior. The time to worry, is then the authorities have decided it's now alright to trample on the rights of a subset of its own citizens, regardless of their innocence.

>I've seen a rural lawyer in California advise people to basically hide their cultural identity while driving.

Genuinely curious what one would do to hide or advertise their cultural identity while driving? Bumper stickers and flags?

Bumper stickers and flags?

Those were two of the things that were mentioned.

Not my point. The parent to your post was talking about oppressive authoritarian regimes. You compared to a democratic state with free elections and the rule of law that happens to also consistently vote a certain way. These aren't even remotely the same thing.

And not that it should matter, but I’m saying this as a republican living in California ...

Hmm it's not a democracy in the traditional sense. A single party has been in power for 40+ years.

> Hmm it's not a democracy in the traditional sense. A single party has been in power for 40+ years.

Thats not true. One party has been dominant over the past 40+ years because it won most of the elections, which are free and fair elections according to international standards.

Plenty of opposition parties have been active the entire time, they just weren't popular enough to win. They are not suppressed or restricted or thrown in jail -- they just aren't able to convince the voters.

There have been periods, including quite recently, when opposition parties held power. Their performance while in power caused the voters to vote for the dominant party next time.

You're a bit out of date, the DPJ managed to get into office recently before losing to the LDP again.

In the USA the Democrats held the House from 1954 to 1994, which is 40 years, but people felt the USA was still a democracy during this time. Even in competitive political systems, sometimes one party puts together a broad coalition that can hold power for decades.

Another example is the UK Conservative Party holding power for 18 years from 1979 to 1997 by winning every election during that period. It would not have been reasonable to say the UK was not a democracy in that period -- it was just the case that the voters preferred one party the entire time.

And under our nuclear umbrella, and housing multiple US bases.

The other thing you got in the 80s was a lot of cargo-culting of Japanese industrial planning practices. People like Lester Thurow (Nobel Prize in Economics) went around telling anyone who would listen that we needed large-scale government/industry partnerships like MITI if we weren't going to fall even further behind. Sematech was one outcome in the US around semiconductors. (It's still around but never had much impact.

Thank you for spurring a search engine trip to this interesting article about Sematech https://www.technologyreview.com/s/424786/lessons-from-semat...

That is interesting. That article sounds a much more positive note than what I recollected. I was admittedly on the periphery of the semiconductor space but I never heard much about them after the initial splash.

There is a really good book on the US reaction: “R&D Collaboration on Trial”[0].

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/Collaboration-Trial-Microelectronics-...

Interestingly, it's happening today on a fairly large scale in software--through open source. Open source has removed a lot of the barriers to cooperation because it can happen at least somewhat informally without a lot of the traditional legal and IP paperwork associated with consortia.

The fear of Japan was also fossilized in the classic Crichton novel Rising Sun (1992, made a movie the year later). But it quickly became aged, as that was right at the tail of the mania.

Japan essentially turned itself into a Western level society in 40 years. Meteoric post-war recovery, climaxing in a shift from manufacturing and agriculture to softer work like software and finance. Property costs started to spike. Debts become silly. And when everybody starts to default after a small economic contraction, banks start going out of business. Economy crumbles. Sound familiar?

China has the numbers and control in a way Japan never did.

Their growth has been slower and in that time, the West, China's market, has all but ceased manufacturing.

China owns (almost quite literally) poorer countries in Africa. They sponsor mining infrastructure, they buy mines and they have a local workforce that will turn up for bread.

If China ever develops a substantial middle class (as the West and Japan did) they can shift their manufacturing to another country they have control. They still own all the natural resources, they just need people (or tech) to build it all.

They don't just own Africa, they underwrite huge national debts. They've started selling these to other cash-rich countries.

China is controlled. They want more agriculture, they say so. They want to avoid explosive growth, they implement a one child policy.

I'll sure something could trip them up, but they have exit routes for most major historical economic issues. And totalitarian control as gravy.

I'm not an expert, but for anyone who would like to get more info on geopolitics, I recommend the "Geographical Challenges" videos from Stratfor, which can be found on YouTube. Whether you like or dislike Stratfor, I find the geographic and historical analysis of various countries are spot-on and highly valuable.

This is especially relevant for understanding China in the context of 21st century geopolitics. China has many of the same geographic advantages of Europe and North America. It's likely that China will want to extend its influence in its region, just as the US did when "The Monroe Doctrine" was formulated. On the other hand, China, when viewed on the longest historical time scales, seems somewhat metastable. My guess on the future: China will try to become a rival to the US for global dominance, and there will be naval conflict over who is in charge in the far east -- unless China follows another long term pattern, destabilizes and changes regimes. The former is far likelier than the latter.

It is more complicated than that.

I was reading recently about how the Shah of Iran was ended and how the US intentionally helped that happen while they were allies. I dug into that more.

Shah of Iran didn't have any imperial ambitions but the west didn't support him because of geopolitics reasons.

> The Shah of Iran had promoted secular rule and thus he believed that he would be embraced by the west. He also believed that his transformation of Iran from a near Middle Ages nation to a modern nation would be appreciated by the world at large. But, instead, he had gone too far too fast for Western interests. https://www.quora.com/Why-didnt-the-USA-help-the-Shah-of-Ira...

Same story but a different reason how British and Roosevelt did influence on Mosaddegh's overthrow! While Mosaddegh was doing everything that we would praise by today's standards and our modern values: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Mosaddegh

When you read two stories you just realize how geopolitics reasons can be unfair sometimes.

Many countries are destabilized because of regimes changes for sake of geopolitics reasons. And it is really hard to say if there is any positive outcome for anyone in it.

Economists are great at taking the run rate of the last 12 months and extrapolating it for 30 years...


Since 1973 climate models have proven to be quite accurate: https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-how-well-have-climate-m...

And, importantly, scientists were worried about greenhouse warming before it was every actually observed. All the theories about Japan's supposedly more efficient system came well after Japan's rapid growth started.

EDIT: Well, to add a bit of detail everybody knew way back when that if CO2 ended up in the atmosphere it would cause global warming. But most scientists thought it be absorbed by the sea instead and atmospheric CO2 would barely rise. Turns out that secondary effects made the sea go and release the CO2 it absorbed so here we are. I think scientific consensus didn't swing against absorption until the data really started to come in showing it wasn't but the important thing is that many people predicted Global Warming in advance of the evidence and the only credible argument against it, before the data, was something we now clearly see isn't happening.

It ended when bubble burst in Japan. China is a controlled economy.

Meaning the shock will be worse or such a shock can't happen? If anything, I presume the former.

I wouldn't say it's the same. China has imperial ambitions which gives the IMF a run for its money (no pun intended). Japan attempted that but faces a much stronger western opposition. While the rest of the world is facing destabilization, China is silently taking over their part of the world.

What imperial ambitions in the 1980's? Selling us cars that don't break isn't conquering manchuria.

attempted to create an IMF rival

You know how in Back to the Future 2 at the beginning Marty of 2015 works for a Japanese company? That's because in 1990, when the movie came out, everyone assumed that you'd work for a Japanese company in 2015.

Also Max Headroom, Neuromancer, Robocop, and a host of others.

The first science fiction that I saw that deliberately bucked this trend was Earth by David Brin. There's a line something like "Can you believe that back in the late 20th century everybody thought Nihon was going to control the world's economy?"

This belief also manifested itself in the way 2019 Los Angeles is portrayed in Blade Runner.

In 1984 or so, I was installing a new system my company designed in an elementary school. One of the kids asked if I could visit their class and talk about computers. During a Q&A, one asked about Japan taking over microprocessor manufacturing. I said something along the lines of "I don't see it. A lot of their chips are just copycats of US chips and they don't work that well. I can't see Japan taking over the market." I immediately noticed all eyes switching over to their teacher and I quickly scrambled to help her save face but I don't remember what I said.

See also Neuromancer.

I think part of the reason that China seems so scary is that they're way less developed than Japan was comparatively to the US in the 1980s. So if China's already threatening at 13% per capita American GDP, imagine what they'll be at 25%.

It was surprising to see the fluff listicle format popularized by Buzzfeed employed in a thoughtful tour of primary sources like this. As an easily-digestible exploration of the cultural-economic axis of the peak of the Japanese Miracle, it really worked, even if I kept expecting to see an animated gif captioned “TFW…”

Yeah. It took surprisingly long before I realized how similar the format was (the Voltron point).

I liked it.

I dont get this clipart scrap book article, are thy suggesting it blew over, got back to normal and its all good now like nothing happened? Lets consider just one example: video/TV industry. Not doing anything in the face of your market share going down to zero sure showed them!

Frontline: Coming From Japan [The Fall Of The US Television Industry] (1992) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aesJTsZqm6c

Hysteria or not, you absolutely do not want foreign countries as rentiers, you very much want it the other way around.

While trade is not zero-sum, it can be mutually beneficial. But payments for usage rights are not (whether IP, land, machinery, or even capital). Indeed, it is one of the core ways 19th century empires extracted wealth from colonies.

Didn't seem to mention the biggest factor in technology in that era: the Japanese Fifth Generation Computer Systems: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_generation_computer?wpro...

Didn't even mention Rising Sun: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rising_Sun_%28film%29?wprov=sf...

The 5th gen computing project was ahead of its time to a rather amazing extent. It literally looks as if they took a peek at what computing technology has finally achieved in the 2000s and the 2010s, and then tried their best at reimplementing it from scratch through a 1980s lens.

In similar hubris, many Americans believe Russians control their Democracy.

I did GCSE business studies in the 90s. It was basically just Japanese case studies. I still remember learning about Kaizen, when was the last time anyone (outside of Japan) used that word?

LOTS of people still use Kaizen outside of Japan. TPS is alive and well.

“Kaizen as a way of life” is the motto for a largely US centric fortune 200.

Continuous improvement is alive and well. As I say, I havent seen it called Kaizen in many years.

That was a very interesting read especially if you try to imagine yourself being an average person in either country, thanks.

Here's a Simpson's reference to Japan taking over:


Longer clip:


I was so convinced that this was inevitable I went ahead and studied Japanese in college and did a foreign exchange program there, since I figured I'd surely end up working for a Japanese company. Now I'm a little disappointed that I've never been able to use my Japanese.

The Hollywood version of this is fairly fun: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gung_Ho_(film)

A little bit before that, everyone thought "the Arabs" would buy everything -- see the movie Network. (No, I mean it, see it, it's brilliant).

Michael Crichton gets a bit overzealous with Japan paranaoia in his 1992 novel, Rising Sun

Applications are open for YC Summer 2019

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact