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Era of Growth, Social and Environmental Impacts of Growth

industrial corridor, economic miracle, rapid urbanization, Inland Sea, economic summit

The social impact of rapid economic growth was enormous. The most obvious effect was rapid urbanization, especially along the industrial corridor stretching from Tokyo-Yokohama in the east along the Pacific coast through the Inland Sea to northern Kyushu. Between 1955 and 1970, people were pouring into Japan’s six major cities (Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto and Kobe) at an average rate of 1 million per year. Just before hosting the 1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo became the first city in the world to claim a population of 10 million. At the same time, Japan’s rural population shrank rapidly. By the 1980s less than 10 percent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture.

Rising household incomes and savings produced by the economic miracle transformed Japan into a middle-class society. Compared to other industrial countries, Japan had a relatively equal distribution of income, and few pockets of extreme poverty remained, even in the countryside. To most Japanese the ideal social status was that of the “salary man”—the white-collar middle-class employee of a large corporation. Since access to white-collar status depended on education, high school completion rates rose rapidly, as did attendance at colleges and universities.

But rapid economic growth had a downside. The Japanese had built the world’s third-largest economy with a population half that of the United States, in a country whose territory could fit comfortably within the boundaries of Montana. The results were predictable: overcrowded cities and suburbs, air and water pollution, huge accumulations of solid waste and garbage, overloaded highway and public transportation systems, and a disintegrating natural environment. During the 1960s and 1970s local citizens’ movements fought against the worst cases of industrial pollution. Under increasing public pressure, the LDP governments passed legislation setting tough automobile and noise pollution standards and providing compensation for pollution-related health problems. But difficulties such as crowded urban housing, lengthy commutes, and traffic problems were less easy to deal with.

Despite the domestic problems accompanying rapid economic growth, the other advanced nations recognized that Japan had emerged as an economic superpower. When the first economic summit was convened at Versailles, France, in 1975, Japan was invited to join as one of the “big five” nations. With international recognition came a recovery in national self-confidence. During the 1970s and 1980s books explaining the secrets of Japan’s economic success became bestsellers abroad, while at home a new cultural nationalism found expression in a proliferation of books explaining the distinctive strength and virtues of Japanese society.

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