What Tunisia Can Learn From Postwar Japan - Tunisia Live What Tunisia Can Learn From Postwar Japan - Tunisia Live
What Tunisia Can Learn From Postwar Japan

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What Tunisia Can Learn From Postwar Japan

Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on board the USS Missouri as General Richard K. Sutherland watches, September 2, 1945 Photo credit: Naval Historical Center

Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on board the USS Missouri as General Richard K. Sutherland watches, September 2, 1945 Photo credit: Naval Historical Center

by Brahim Guizani, Ph.D

These days, we Tunisians are celebrating the revolution of January 14, 2011. This event will be one of the main turning points that history books will tell about for centuries to come. Only history will be able to judge how deep are the changes this revolution has brought, and how successful it was. As in any major upheaval, there are always uncertainties, anxieties, and certainly a lot of fear. This is why the chance for success for any revolution will depend mainly on the sacrifices a society is ready to make, and especially on the wisdom of its leadership, whether politicians, intellectuals, unions, thinkers, or civil society. Learning from other experiences, especially successful ones, can smooth the path of any post-uprising transition period. It is indeed the transition process that represents the most dangerous and fragile stage in the history of any revolution, in which self-interest groups try to deviate from it to the detriment of the common good, playing on the pervasive confusion such a society lives through.

I am going to make a comparison between two very sensitive transition situations: Post-World War II Japan and and post-January 14 Tunisia. I think the lessons we can learn from the Japanese case are very important for safeguarding a successful transition of the first Arab Spring country. A transition, if it succeeds, will very likely cause a wave of change over many other countries, especially in democracy-free Arab lands. The keys of success of the Japanese transition process have permitted this almost completely destroyed and defeated East Asian country to overcome its harsh problems and deep humiliation and rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes of two catastrophic atomic bombs.

What is striking in post-WWII Japan, especially for a Tunisian Arab like me, is that Japanese people did not stop at the level of blaming their war enemies, the Americans, for their disastrous fate. They went further by looking courageously into their share of responsibility in their tragedy. The Japanese placed responsibility on their own pre-war policies taken by the so-called ˜militarist' regime, an oppressive authoritarian government they had previously endorsed.

Recall that after surrender brought the hostilities of World War II to a close, Japan found itself with casualties of six million deaths representing one-third of the urban population. 200,000 thousand innocent lives were burned alive by the atomic bombs dropped in on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Despite the fact that Japanese had the clear and firm feeling that only democracy can guarantee a lasting and eagerly aspired peace, political, economic, and social life in post-WWII Japan was not free from turmoils, difficulties, and sometimes dangerous threats.

Protest in downtown Tunis, October 22, 2012. Photo credit: Tunisia Live

Protest in downtown Tunis, October 22, 2012. Photo credit: Tunisia Live

Like the Tunisians after the revolution, the Japanese had to write a new postwar constitution. This process took two years and the new Constitution has clearly emphasized eternal and inviolated fundamental Human Rights and banned all discrimination. A constitutional court was then established. This process proceeded during a period characterized by an intellectually confused and politically divided postwar Japan. Similar to Tunisia now, at that time the Japanese polity was experiencing a deep political cleavage. After the war, two hostile political groups were sorted out: the Conservatives and the Reformists/Progressives, whose confrontation was always very heated. This is exactly what is going on currently in Tunisia, where the confrontation between the two major political parties, the Religious/Conservatives and the Secularists/Reformists, has rarely calmed down since most the abolition of most political constraints in the aftermath of January 14, 2011.

Similarities between Tunisia and Japan can be found as well in the resurgence of trade unions after both country’s upheavals. After the war, Japanese labor leaders built up a rapidly flourishing assertive labor movement. Unions were mostly controlled by communist-oriented leaders who showed more interest in political agitation than bargaining with the managers of the firms. They constantly went on strikes, and frequently held public parades and demonstrations. Astonishingly, similar to several post-January 14 incidents in Tunisia, they even seized plants and ran them itself.

The Japanese economy after the war was, however, far worse than post-January 14 Tunisia. The economy had been suffering from very huge and threatening difficulties in the days after the surrender. The war has indeed dropped the industrial production to the seventh of what it had been in 1941, leaving thousands without jobs. The reform programs that the post-war governments had to implement forced them to live beyond their means, contributing to an unbearable rise in the cost of living. This increasing budget deficit of the post-revolution governments was the case in both cases.

These striking similarities between Tunisia and Japan show to a certain extent that the odds that follow any upheaval can be even found in the history of a country very well-known for its very calm and disciplined society. However, I believe that it is very crucial for any society experiencing a major change to know the safeguards that can guarantee the success of its turmoiled transition. The Japanese experience can, I think, provide very useful lessons for Tunisians. Here are some of these lessons:

Even though the Japanese political class was deeply divided and the confrontation between the Conservatives and the Progressives was very heated, in an environment characterized by a fragile and close-to-collapse economy, all Japanese agreed upon few things. These few things were of crucial importance to the success of their transition.

The first key to success was economic. The Japanese agreed that economic recovery must take precedence over all concerns. This consensus represented the main reason behind the miraculous quick recovery of the Japanese economy and its amazing boom in the 1960s. Japanese rationalism and hard work will allow this humiliated country to become the second largest economy in the world less than three decades after the war.

Confrontation between labor unionists and the police during the annual "spring struggle" over wages in 1958. Photo credit: Edwin O. Reischauer

Confrontation between Japanese labor unionists and the police during the annual “spring struggle” over wages in 1958. Photo credit: Edwin O. Reischauer

The second key to success upon which Japanese agreed was political. The Japanese realized that authoritarian rule of any sort must be avoided if catastrophes such as those caused by the militarist regime just before and during the war, were to be prevented from happening again. Democracy was an ideal on which all could unite.

A third, and by no means no less important, point was the willingness of the Americans, the occupation forces of the time, to accelerate and smooth the transitional process in Japan.

For Tunisia, it is clear that the West, especially the Americans, are showing enthusiasm to assist the transition towards democracy in the first Arab Spring country, maybe the last hope for this Spring to succeed. This was especially apparent in the economic and financial fields through donations and loan guarantees in the international financial markets. However, unlike its Japanese counterpart, the transitional process in Tunisia is still stepping forward very slowly. The political elite seems unaware of the dangerous consequences of this behavior.

Moreover, the economy is obviously taking a secondary place. Except in their populist rhetoric, Tunisian politicians, whether in government or in opposition, are still not showing a serious interest in the deep problems the economy is suffering from, or in developing realistic ways to cope with them. All Tunisians remember that the electoral campaign of October 2011 looked more a struggle between believers and non-believers rather than a debate over economic plans and strategies to improve the economy in the poor regions, the cradle of the revolution.

On the political side, the slowness of the transition-towards-democracy process and its accompanying growing economic troubles, has noticeably harmed citizens' faith in the whole process. Recently, there are many voices who started openly showing nostalgia for the ousted authoritarian but more stable pre-January 14 regime. A few other voices even call for a military coup.

I do not agree with opinions, which I find very shallow and lacking wisdom, that prophesy the Somalization of Tunisia. I believe that the Tunisian citizenry, well-educated and having a long history of civilization at its background, will be capable to find its way to safe shores. The path toward a stable, liberal, and democratic state is already smoothed by an apolitical national army. However, this enthusiastically aspired-to goal will still depend on the maturity of the Tunisian political elite, either in power or in opposition. Unfortunately, this elite is still imprisoned in the jail of its inherited ideological quarrels and tendency toward childish actions.

Brahim Guizani is an assistant professor at the University of Tunis and an alumnus of the Tohoku University in Japan. He would like to thank his friend Hitomi Oikawa for her kind collaboration for the writing of this article. This piece represents the author’s own opinions and not the views of Tunisia Live as a publication.

  • Here is a fact about Japan, regarding jobs and products produced.

    There was a person named Deming who came over to Japan from the United States. Businesses and companies in the US would not listen to Deming’s
    ideas about something called “quality control,” or alternately called “quality
    improvement.” Somehow he came to Japan in the years about 1950 to ?1960’s or 70’s

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming . WWII ended 1945.

    Before Deming came to Japan, Japanese products were known the world over, or at least in the US, as “cheap junk,” tiny type stuff, inexpensive, sort of “junk” type items, and from Japan, very cheap.

    Unlike the people in the US, the Japanese listened seriously to Deming. I guess most of the time he was giving presentations to companies. That was the beginning of Japan starting to get a reputation for something other than cheap junk.

    Over the years, the products from Japan changed from cheap junk to high quality cars and electronics, sold all over the world, eventually of a quality higher than the West. In our current times, the Japanese reputation for quality has slipped down a little from what it was, because the companies in other countries realized they had better work to catch up to the quality of Japanese products.

    These are some facts – related to the history of Japanese goods sold in the world. Deming’s work certainly increased the number of jobs in Japan, and over time, it increased the salary of those jobs, issues that are of great importance to some Tunisians, as I see from articles on the internet about the sad self-immolations a few years ago and recently. This is how I started to read about Tunisia, and about what came to be called the “Arab Spring,” all through articles on the internet.

    • Brahim Guizani

      Very interesting. Thank you WideBridge.
      Brahim Guizani, the author of this article.

  • thamry721

    @WideBridge I totally agree with your opinion! Moreover, the think big philosophy of the US industry back in the days did not use to think about what customers really wanted in the first place. Customers had to adjust their way of life in accordance with ignorant entrepreneurs. Hence, Edward Demings exported his brave ideas to Japan. On the other hand, Tunisians are not as industrious as the Japanese. We should bear in mind, that Tunisians have a long tradition of elaborate criticism, blaming others for their bad luck. Instead of thinking about businesses, ideas and how they can overcome hard times, still these people are waiting for a wonder to turn up. It is a completely different mentality, even though Tunisians are generally are bunch of well educated people. It is a shame that Tunisians don’t think about self employment, turning their knowledge into business opportunities.

    • @Thamry721
      You bring up extremely important issues, so important, issues that I would like to talk more about. I haven’t formulated clear ideas on these issues, except for one or two things. Furthermore, I am switching over from an old laptop to a new one, and just this morning I have discovered I have some kind of major problem using the new laptop. That is in addition to other delays I have had in trying to get things to work on the new laptop. And for some reason, the old laptop has got unbelievably slow.
      Do you want to talk more about these Tunisian issues? Do you want to do it using email – is the email from my recent post accessible to you? You can use that. Or would you like to have a bit of discussion in this discussion thread? Or would you like to let the conversation just happen whenever it does?

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