The most notable feature of Japan’s economic growth since World War II is the rapid development of manufacturing, with progress in quantitative growth, quality, variety, and efficiency. Emphasis has shifted from light to heavy industries and to a higher degree of processing. Thus, some of the older industries, including lumber and wood processing and the manufacture of textiles and foodstuffs, have declined considerably in relative importance.
Japan is one of the world’s principal shipbuilders and automakers and is a major producer of such basic products as crude steel, synthetic rubber, aluminum, sulfuric acid, plastics, cement, pulp and paper, a variety of chemicals and petrochemicals, and textiles. It has some of the world’s largest and most-advanced industrial plants. In the late 20th century the most spectacular growth was in the production of motor vehicles, iron and steel, machinery (including robots), and precision equipment (notably cameras). Subsequently the country became noted for advanced electronic products, including computers and microelectronics, telecommunications equipment, and consumer goods.
A principal reason for Japan’s postwar industrial performance was the high level and rapid growth of capital investment, especially in the 1960s and ’70s. A boom in equipment investment provided the iron-and-steel and machine-building industries with a rapidly growing home market, allowed for a spectacular increase in productive capacity and in the scale of operations, and led to a rapid replacement of old machinery. This in turn resulted in considerable improvement in productivity throughout the economy and enabled manufacturing industries to grow, despite an acute shortage of skilled labour and rising wages. The extensive use of technological innovations and the implementation of superior production systems gave many sectors of Japanese manufacturing a formidable advantage over their rivals, and as a result the country’s exports soared. Another strategy, which was pursued in part to reduce trade friction with foreign competitors and also to cut costs as the yen appreciated in value, was to set up overseas facilities in parts of Asia, North America, and Europe. This approach was carried out with particular success by manufacturers of automobiles and advanced electronic products.
The existence of close-knit corporate groups, in what is called the keiretsu system, has played an important role in the successful structural adjustments Japanese industry made to changing economic circumstances. Through extensive crossholding of company stocks, keiretsu groups collaborated on long-range strategies aimed at garnering market share without regard to short-term profit and managed the risks of manufacturing, distribution, and sales. Such actions were made possible by the gradual relaxation and increasingly flexible interpretation of the country’s antimonopoly laws enacted after World War II that had broken up the old zaibatsu conglomerates. However, the system has weakened over time, as changes in the financial environment made Japanese industry more willing to enter tie-ups, mergers, and takeovers that cross traditional keiretsu boundaries.