Planes, Trains, and Rocket Ships: The Threat of Japanese Technology in U.S.-Japanese Relations

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM
Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jessamyn R. Abel, Pennsylvania State University
Technology figured prominently in U.S.-Japan relations throughout the postwar period, simultaneously informing and shaped by American perceptions of possible dangers emanating from Japan.  Two shifting areas of concern that informed American policy toward Japan from the Occupation to the end of the Cold War overlapped during the early 1960s to create a flashpoint for disagreement and debate. 

First, with the geographical shift of the source of an Asian security threat from Japan to China, the Occupation-era interest in eliminating any possibility of a renewed Japanese military menace declined in favor of broad recognition and development of Japan’s potential as a technological partner in peaceful pursuits.  The growing sense of a Communist danger in Asia moved American policy toward facilitating Japanese development to ensure that Japan would remain aligned with the “free world.”  By the early 1960s, American diplomats were taking pains to reassure Japanese leaders of the American nuclear umbrella while encouraging “peaceful” technological development in areas such as space exploration.  Second, this promotion of Japanese technological development was almost simultaneous with an emerging sense of Japanese technology as a formidable challenge to American dominance in trade and industry, creating a tension between diplomatic interests and domestic demands for protection of threatened industries. 

This paper traces these changing threat perceptions, the policies they precipitated, and their impact on the direction of Japanese technological development to argue that American efforts to prevent the resurgence of one kind of adversary helped to produce another.  Ultimately, American policy encouraged paths on which Japanese industries later created a world-wide image of a new kind of superpower, based not on powerful weapons, but on superior technological production that made people’s lives easier, more efficient, and more fun.

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