Japan’s Great Generation

My father-in-law, Makoto Saito, passed away in February at age 78. Thinking
about his life has led me to write this column in praise of his generation.
His generation came of age during the horrors of World War II. But these
young adults at the end of the war went on to build a great nation through
long hours of diligent hard work. I think it is important, especially for
the younger generation, to reflect on what these men and women accomplished.

Today it is difficult to imagine what my father-in-law faced when the
war ended in 1945. As an engineering student, he had been exempted from the
draft, but still experienced the war in a very personal way in the final
months when the factory where he was sent after the universities were closed
was shelled by American battleships and strafed by American planes. With the
war over, young adults like him faced life in a devastated nation. With his
father gone, several younger siblings still in school, a bride and within a
few years three young children, he had a very heavy burden of responsibility
on his shoulders from his early 20s. Making a career in the oil industry,
the family moved from city to city as he worked on the engineering design of
new oil refineries, and then managed them when completed. The hours were
very long; holidays were few; and company housing cramped.

But rather than living in despair, this generation met all the
challenges it faced. Life was difficult, but a vision of the future was
always there: diligent hard work would produce a better future for both the
country and one?s own family. And they were right. From 1950 through 1973,
the economy grew at an annual average rate after adjustment for inflation of
almost 10 percent, a quarter-century record of growth that no other country
has duplicated, not even the other rapidly growing Asian nations. Even after
Japan had largely caught up with the advanced nations, the economy continued
to grow from the mid-1970s to 1991 at an average rate of almost four percent—a higher rate than any of the other industrialized nations.

These dry numbers do not do justice to the changes in people?s lives. In
today?s world of ubiquitous cell phones, it is hard to remember that as
recently as the 1960s, getting a phone often involved a waiting period of
more than a year, and that people still used telegrams to communicate with
friends who had no phones. When I arrived in Japan in 1971, the last steam
engines were just being retired from service on the railroads, and the
Shinkansen extended only from Tokyo to Osaka. Travel abroad, especially just
for tourist reasons, was only a dream for most people until the 1980s.
My father-in-law?s industry was part of this great transformation of
the Japanese economy. In the early postwar period, the country ran largely
on coal and charcoal. Few automobiles existed. As he worked on developing
oil refineries, the Japanese economy underwent a vast transformation toward
using oil. His work—and that of thousands of other managers, engineers and
laborers in the industry—enabled the motorization of Japan, with explosive
growth of automobile ownership. In the short period between 1960 and 1970,
the domestic production of petroleum products increased more than six times.
In that same decade, the number of automobiles in use increased by an
explosive 15 times.

I am sure that my father-in-law would have laughed with disbelief if
anyone had told him back in 1945 that within his lifetime he would: own an
automobile; own a television; have air-conditioning in his house and car;
fly abroad by plane; travel extensively in the United States; and have a
daughter living abroad married to a foreigner. But it all happened, and he
lived the later years of his life in a degree of comfort and personal
fulfillment that could not have been imagined in the midst of the
devastation of the war.

We tend to think of “history” as something that is produced by famous
people. But the story of what happened to Japan is very much a collective
effort. Everyone, from corporate leaders to engineers like my father-in-law
to assembly-line workers were vitally important in the transformation of the
nation. Many of them have fascinating stories to tell of their lives. To
those readers in their 70s and 80s, I would like to say that I remain amazed
at what you accomplished. Younger readers, especially those under 30, should
listen to the stories of this generation.

This column has often been used to analyze the various problems facing
Japan today, and to criticize some of the policies of the government. The
past decade has certainly brought many problems. But all of us need to
recognize how successful Japan has been in the past half century. That
success came from of the hope, determination and diligence of people like my
father-in-law. He will always have my greatest respect. If the younger
generations today can face the current problems with a similar attitude,
then Japan need not fear for its future.