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The Political Economy of Transition: Japanese Foreign Direct Investments in the 1980s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Young-Kwan Yoon
Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea.


The issue of Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) has attracted scant attention because of its relative insignificance to the Japanese economy before the 1980s. In the 1970s only a few analysts explained the Japanese FDI behavior from a macroeconomic perspective. This paper argues that there has been a noticeable change in the nature of Japanese FDI in the 1980s, a position that supports the traditional microeconomic explanation based on the oligopolistic market theory. This convergence toward the “Western” style of FDI reflects a fundamental shift of the Japanese economy from a trade-oriented economy to one that is foreign investment—oriented. However, as the experiences of two hegemonic states (Great Britain and the United States) have shown, foreign investment is not the best economic strategy from a long-term perspective. Preliminary evidence in recent years indicates that increasing FDI affects Japan's productivity growth negatively by weakening both the production base and the various sources of Japanese competitiveness.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1990

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1 Patrick, , “The Future of the Japanese Economy: Output and Labor Productivity,” Journal of Japanese Studies 3 (Summer 1977), 219–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Trezise, , “Politics, Government, and Economic Growth in Japan,” in Patrick, Hugh and Rosovsky, Henry, eds., Asia's New Giant: How the Japanese Economy Works (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1976).Google Scholar

2 Johnson, , MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925–1975 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1982).Google Scholar For an excellent review of various explanations, see chap, 1.

3 In my opinion, particularlity seemed to prevail over generality in the earlier stage of Japanese economic development. However, as the Japanese accumulated wealth and entered the post-catch-up stage, generality began to appear more explicitly than before. For example, the power and size of industry have grown so immense that it has become more difficult for the Japanese government to influence industrial behavior. See “Mighty MITI Loses Its Grip,” New York Times, July 9, 1989, p. F1Google Scholar, and Okimoto, Daniel, Between MITI and the Market: Japanese Industrial Policy for High Technology (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989).Google Scholar Government-industry relations were affected by the gradually declining power base of the Liberal Democratic Party and the rising power of pressure groups. For a view which contends that Japan's political system has changed its nature and become more pluralistic with labor's participation, see Kume, Ikuo, “Changing Relations among the Government, Labor, and Business in Japan after the Oil Crisis,” International Organization 42 (Autumn 1989), 659–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar In business-labor relations, the lifetime employment system began to erode, and companies found it more difficult than before to seek sacrifices from their younger employees. See “Will Japan Really Change?” Business Week, May 12, 1986, p. 46. In finance-industry relations, debt financing has become less important, and big businesses depend more on foreign and domestic equity financing in the 1980s than they once did.

4 FDI can be defined as a capital movement involving continuing control by the investor. See Kindleberger, Charles P., American Business Abroad: Six Lectures on Direct Investment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), 3.Google Scholar I have not included foreign portfolio investments as a subject of discussion here, with the exception of the issue of zai-tech (sophisticated money management). This is because zai-tech, a type of portfolio investment, was made by industrial firms.

5 Yoon, , “Foreign Investment and Productivity: The British and American Cases” (Paper presented at the 1986 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, August 28–31, 1986).Google Scholar

6 Keohane and Nye defined a hegemonic state as a state “powerful enough to maintain the essential rules governing interstate relations, and willing to do so.” Keohane, Robert O. and Nye, Josephs., Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977). 44.Google Scholar

7 The Japanese Economic Planning Agency also considered the years 1980–1981 as the beginning of another stage in the history of Japanese FDI. See Economic Planning Agency, Nihon Keizai no Genjō: Dorudaka Shūseika no Nihon Keizai [The current situation of the Japanese economy: The Japanese economy adjusted for the high dollar] (Tokyo: Ōkura-shō Insatsukyoku, 1986), 199203.Google Scholar

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9 Ibid., August 1976, p. 47.


10 The accumulated FDI from the United States in 1975 is from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Survey of Current Business, February 1981, pp. 5051Google Scholar, Table 7.

11 Ozawa, Terutomo, Multinationalism, Japanese Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 22.Google Scholar

12 For a good analysis of Japanese FDI in each region by the mid-1970s, see Sekiguchi, Sueo, Japanese Direct Foreign Investment (Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun, 1979), esp. 5358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 See Sekiguchi (fn. 12), 57, Table 3–4, based on MITI, Overseas Activities of Japanese Enterprises, 1976.

14 Ozawa (fn. 11), 26.

15 Ibid., 25, 30.


16 Yoshino, M. Y., “Japanese Foreign Direct Investment,” in Frank, Isaiah, ed., The Japanese Economy in International Perspective (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 262–63.Google Scholar

17 See Krause, Lawrence B. and Sekiguchi, Sueo, “Japan and the World Economy,” in Patrick and Rosovsky (fn. 1), 392–93Google Scholar, and Sekiguchi (fn. 12), 56–58, 139–43.

18 Kojima, Kiyoshi, Direct Foreign Investment: A Japanese Model of Multinational Business Operations (New York: Praeger, 1978)Google Scholar, esp. chaps. 4, 5, and 6.

19 Ozawa (fn. 11), 70.

20 Ibid., 63. However, Japanese investors were often criticized for their reluctance to transfer even lower-grade technologies to host countries because of their fear of a boomerang effect. In addition, Japanese investments in low-tech areas were often accompanied by the export of pollution.


21 Hymer, , The International Operations of National Firms: A Study of Direct Investment (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1976)Google Scholar; Caves, , “International Corporations: The Industrial Economics of Foreign Investment,” Economica 38 (February 1971), 127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Kindleberger emphasized the importance of this approach and claimed that most of the other recent explanations were derived from Hymer's thesis. Kindleberger, Charles P., Multinational Excursions (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1984), 180.Google Scholar

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23 Roemer, , U.S.-Japanese Competition in International Markets: A Study of the Trade-Investment Cycle in Modern Capitalism, Research Series No. 22 (Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1975), 206–7Google Scholar, 210. In explaining Japan's international competitiveness, he suggested a four-stage hypothesis, which, I believe, has a high degree of explanatory power from the long-term perspective. For this hypothesis, see pp. 131–41. Unfortunately, Roemer did not explain the mechanism from a theoretical perspective.

24 Ibid., 176–77.


25 Economic Planning Agency, 2000 Nen no Nihon: Sekai Keizai, Takyoku Antei o no Dohyō [Japan in the year 2000: Guideposts to the world economy, multipolar stability] (Tokyo: Ōkura-shō, 1982), 69.Google Scholar

26 Outstanding loans of this program have increased from 62.4 billion yen in 1977 to 258 billion yen in 1983. See “Japan '85: Getting Round Protectionism by the Direct Route,” Far Eastern Economic Review, June 13, 1985, p. 83.

27 MITI, News from MITI NR-366 (89–9) (July 1989), 23.Google Scholar As shown in Table 1, the cumulative total of Japanese FDI on the basis of balance of payments statistics is smaller and reached $113.1 billion by the end of 1988.

28 Economic Planning Agency, Keizai Hakusho 1989: Heisei Keizai no Kadode to Nihon Keizai no Atarashii Chōryū [Economic white paper 1989: The start of the Heisei economy and the new trend of Japanese economy] (Tokyo: Okura-shō Insatsukyoku, 1989), 198200.Google Scholar

29 There are no available data for measuring the increasing importance of large firms. However, a rough measure like dollar amounts of FDI flow per case confirms this trend. It has increased from $2.5 million per case in 1976 to $9.6 million per case in 1988 in the electric/electronics industry, from 3.6 to 10.0 for transportation equipment, and from 2.5 to 7.7 for manufacturing as a whole. Calculated from MITI (fn. 27), 9, Table 3, and Nakatani, Keiji, “Trends in Japan's Direct Investment Abroad in FY 1986,” EXIM Review 8 (March 1988), 76103Google Scholar, at 90, Table 7.

30 “Japan in America,” Business Week, July 14, 1986, p. 46.

31 More than 90% of total sales of Japanese production in North America and Europe was for the local market in 1987. The ratio was as much as 60% in Southeast Asia. See Economic Planning Agency (fn. 28), 202, Table 3–2–10(1).

32 Ministry of Finance, “Foreign Direct Investment by Industry,” as quoted in Katsuaki, Onishi, “Kaigai Shinshutsu no Kyuzo de Keizaiwa ‘Kūdoka’ Shinaika” [No “hollowing-out” of the economy in spite of the rapid foreign expansion?], Keizai (May 1989), 4857Google Scholar, at 49, and Nakatani (fn. 29), 90.

33 Nakatani (fn. 29), 90.

34 See the survey “‘Sihon Yushutsu Koku’ ka, Ginkō no Kokusaika oyobi Kyatchi Appu” [Becoming a capital-exporting country: Internationalization of banks and catch-up], Keizai Kenkyū (July 1986), 258–75, at 271, Table 18. Data show that there is a consistency in the distribution between manufacturing investments and investments in finance and insurance. See p. 272, Table 19.

35 Abegglen, James C. and Stalk, George JrKaisha, the Japanese Corporation (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 246.Google Scholar

36 A good example is the synthetic fiber industry. See Yoshino (fn. 16), 267. Yoshino argues that this trend began around 1975.

37 Ibid., 266–68.


38 Abegglen and Stalk (fn. 35), 246.

39 Sadayuki, Sato, “Nihon Keizai mo ‘Kūdoka’ no Osore: Shindankai Mukaeru Nihon Kigyo no Takokuka” [The fear of the hollowing-out of the Japanese economy: Toward a new stage of multinationalization of Japanese business], Ekonomisto, February 4, 1986, p. 18.Google Scholar See also “Japan Picks Winners to Hurdle the Fences,” Far Eastern Economic Review, September 4, 1986, p. 61.

40 “Will Japan Really Change?” Business Week, May 12, 1986, p. 49.

41 Kojima, Kiyoshi, “Japanese-Style Direct Foreign Investment,” Japanese Economic Studies 14 (Spring 1986), 5282Google Scholar, at 56.

42 MITI, Tsūshō Hakusho [White paper on international trade] (Tokyo: Ōkura-shō Insatsukyoku, 1986), 182–83.Google Scholar See also Reich, Robert, “Japan Inc., U.S.A.: If You Can't Beat Them, ‘Joint Venture’ with Them,” New Republic, November 26, 1984, p. 20.Google Scholar

43 See Abegglen and Stalk (fn. 35), 252; Lincoln, Edward J., “Comment,” in Pugel, Thomas A. and Hawkins, Robert G., eds., Fragile Interdependence: Economic Issues in U.S.-Japan Trade and Investment (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1986), 163Google Scholar; Okimoto, Daniel I. and Inoguchi, Takashi, “Introduction,” in their The Political Economy of Japan, vol. 2, The Changing International Context (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 8.Google Scholar However, the characteristics of Japanese FDI will not necessarily remain defensive in the future. Once begun, FDI will gain momentum because of the oligopolistic competition among large firms, and the behavior of Japanese FDI will become more offensive.

44 See MITI (fn. 42), 182.

45 I have argued elsewhere from a macrohistorical perspective that social and institutional rigidity caused the excessive export of capital from Great Britain before World War I and from the United States in the 1960s and 1970s; see Yoon (fn. 5). Rigidity may be defined as a “resistance to needed change” or a “tendency of excessive risk-averseness.” As a society matures, such characteristics as originality, inventiveness, and flexibility—which enabled innovations in productive methods, technology, and managerial skill in the earlier period—tend to disappear. See also Cipolla's, Carlo M. discussion on “Conservative Mentality,” in Cipolla, , ed., The Economic Decline of Empire (London: Methuen, 1970), 711Google Scholar, and Olson, Mancur, The Rise and Decline of Nations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).Google Scholar For the relationship between state and society, see Katzenstein, Peter J., “International Relations and Domestic Structure: Foreign Economic Policies of Advanced Industrial States,” International Organization 30 (Winter 1976)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Krasner, Stephen D., Defending the National Interest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).Google Scholar

46 From 1978 to 1984 fiscal spending, as measured by the structural (high employment) budget deficit, was tightened from – 4.9% of GNP to – 1.3%. See Fred Bergsten, C. and Cline, William R., The United States-Japan Economic Problem (Washington, DC: Institute of International Economics, 1985), 2930.Google Scholar

47 This tendency of declining periodicity of major powers in the history of the international system was noticed by Doran, Charles F., “War and Power Dynamics: Economic Underpinnings,” International Studies Quarterly 27 (December 1983), 419–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar According to Doran, this phenomenon can be explained by the nature of technology and its impact on industrial and commercial change. See esp. pp. 434–35.

48 The same analogy can be applied to the case of the United States. There is an imbalance between the American mind and institutions and the country's wealth. Caught by the inertia of the past, the American government and people keep consuming more than they can afford.

49 There is no clear evidence that the recent boom in domestic demands in 1988 and 1989 was caused by institutional reforms. Rather, the boom seems to be a temporary phenomenon resulting from the appreciation of the yen and cyclical factors. See “The Consumption Boom in Japan,” Tokai Monthly Economic Letter 125 (June 1989), as quoted in Japan Update (Autumn 1989), 9–14.

50 I use this term keeping Gerschenkron's usage in mind. Such distinctive characteristics of industrial latecomers as the speed of industrialization, productive and organizational structure of industry, and etatist ideologies can be understood as the result of creative response to or application of the past route of industrial revolution of the forerunner countries. See Gerschenkron, Alexander, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 6–11, 2229.Google Scholar

51 For examples of parallel arguments, see Keynes, J. M., “Foreign Investment and National Advantage,” The Nation and the Athenaeum 35 (August 9, 1924), 584–87Google Scholar; Frankel, Marvin, “Home versus Foreign Investment: A Case against Capital Export,” Kyklos 18 (March 1965), 411–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gilpin, Robert, U.S. Power and the Multinational Corporation (New York: Basic Books, 1975)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pollard, Sidney, “Capital Exports, 1870–1914: Harmful or Beneficial?Economic History Review 38 (November 1985), 489514Google Scholar; and Kennedy, William P., Industrial Structure: Capital Markets and the Origins of British Economic Decline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).Google Scholar

52 The trend toward financially oriented management was encouraged even more by foreign portfolio investments since the 1980s. It is clear, however, that the procedure of FDI itself brings its own mechanism to bear on this trend, as we can see from the American experience of offshore production in electronics and other industries in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidence suggests that a similar mechanism is at work in the case of Japanese FDI.

53 “Employment Opportunities Follow Production Bases out of Japan,” Japan Economic Journal, July 19, 1986, p. 17.

54 See the two graphs that show the negative relationship between local production and exports (color TV in the United States and VTR in the EC market) in MITI (fn. 42), 193.

55 Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Sekai to Nihon no Kaigai Chokusetsu Tōshi [The world's and Japan's foreign direct investments], 1988, 41.Google Scholar

56 Economic Planning Agency (fn. 28), 208–10, 578: see esp. Table 3–2–12.

57 Fuji Research Institute Corporation, Fuji Economic Review (July-August 1989), 15.Google Scholar

58 MITI, International Business Affairs Division, “The 18th Survey on Japanese Business Activity Abroad,” April 27, 1989, p. 3.

59 Ministry of Finance, Bureau of International Finance Yearbook 1988 (Tokyo: Ōkura-shō, 1988), 91.Google Scholar

60 “Danger of Industrial Hollowing-Out,” Japan Economic Journal, October 18, 1986, p. 6. See also “Producing Abroad Faces Problem,” Japan Economic Journal, December 27, 1986, p. 6.

61 “Toyota's Unique Method of Production Faces Real Test in North America,” Japan Economic Journal, December 21, 1985, p. 18.

62 These ten companies are known to have annual sales of 20–40 billion yen each. See “Exporters Attempt New Businesses, Takeovers, to Combat High Yen,” Japan Economic Journal, May 24, 1986, p. 1.

63 For the increasing ratio of outsourcing, see Economic Planning Agency (fn. 28), 215. It was reported that the unemployment rate in Japan had risen to 3% in January 1987, the highest level since monthly reporting began in 1953. See “Mounting Conflict over Trade Looms for U.S. and Japan,” New York Times, March 9, 1987, p. D4.

64 Abegglen and Stalk (fn. 35), 257.

65 Economic Planning Agency, Bureau of Analysis, Kokusaiteki Senryaku o Susumeru Kigyō Kōdō [Business behavior pursuing international strategy] (Tokyo: Keizai Kikaku-cho, 1987), 281–82.Google Scholar

66 The annual growth rate for the period 1952–1973 is from Patrick, Hugh and Rosovsky, Henry, “Japan's Economic Performance: An Overview,” in Patrick and Rosovsky (fn. 1), 17.Google Scholar The rate between 1974 and 1987 was calculated from Economic Planning Agency, Keizai Hakusho 1988: Naijugata Seichō no Jizoku to Kokusai Shakai e no Kōken [Economic white paper 1988: Continuing the domestic demand-oriented growth and contributing to the international society] (Tokyo: Ōkura-shō Insatsukyoku, 1988), 440.Google Scholar

67 See Economist, February 10, 1990, p. 63; Wall Street Journal, February 15, 1990, p. 1.

68 The calculation is based on International Monetary Fund, International Financial Statistics (July 1972), 210–13Google Scholar; (January 1978), 204–7; (August 1982), 240–43; (June 1986), 286–89. (Application of the exchange rate is based on the average annual par rate/market rate, except for 1965.) See Table 1.

69 “Nihon Keizai Shimbun Survey: Corporate Heads See Hollowing-Out of Industry Due to Shift Overseas,” Japan Economic Journal, June 7, 1986, p. 1.

70 See “Hitachi Chemical to Keep Research at Home, Shift Production Overseas,” Japan Economic Journal, October 18, 1986, p. 21.

71 Reich (fn. 42), 21.

72 Economie Planning Agency (fn. 28), 124–26.

73 Magaziner, I. C. and Hout, T. M., Japanese Industrial Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 16.Google Scholar

74 Baranson, Jack, The Japanese Challenge to U.S. Industry (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1981), 100–102, 129–30Google Scholar; Okimoto, Daniel I., Sugano, Takuo, and Weinstein, Franklin B., eds., Competitive Edge: The Semiconductor Industry in the U.S. and Japan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984), 6264Google Scholar; Millstein, James E., “Decline in an Expanding Industry: Japanese Competition in Color Television,” in Zysman, John and Tyson, Laura, eds., American Industry in International Competition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 112, 114–17Google Scholar, 120–21, 136–38.

75 Baranson (fn. 74), 101. See also Millstein (fn. 74), 106–7.

76 World Developing Industry and Technology, Inc., “Sources of Competitiveness in the Japanese Color Television and Tape Recorder Industry,” a study for the U.S. Department of Labor (October 1978), 21Google Scholar, as quoted by Millstein (fn. 74), 127.

77 Baranson (fn. 74), 101. See also Millstein (fn. 74), 115, and Okimoto, Sugano, and Weinstein (fn. 74), 64.

78 Both manufacturers and purchasers of semiconductors agreed that during the mid- to late 1970s, quality levels delivered by Japanese firms were superior to those delivered by U.S. firms. See U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, International Competition in Electronics (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1983), 230.Google Scholar For a quality test of Japanese and American chips by Anderson, Richard W. of Hewlett-Packard, , see “Japan Makes Them Better,” Economist, April 26, 1980, p. 55.Google Scholar

79 Magaziner and Hout (fn. 73), 26–27.

80 “19 Inch Color TVs,” Consumer Reports (January 1981), 34.

81 Knickerbocker emphasized the dynamic aspect of oligopolistic competition leading to foreign direct investments instead of focusing on the static aspect, as did most oligopoly explanations. See Knickerbocker, F. T., Oligopolistic Reaction and Multinational Enterprise (Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, 1973)Google Scholar, esp. chaps. 2 and 3.

82 Compared with the British and American experiences, the Japanese case shows an important difference in foreign investment behavior. In the British case, foreign portfolio investments by financiers were predominant. In the American case, FDI by industrialists was predominant. In the Japanese case, however, foreign portfolio investments were still predominant in the late 1980s, and an important portion was being made by industrialists. For instance, in 1982, 34% of the total investment in foreign securities was accomplished by private nonfinancial corporation. See Economic Planning Agency, Keizai Hakusho 1986: Kokusaiteki Chöwa o Mezasu Nippon Keizai [Economic white paper 1989: Japanese economy aiming at international harmony] (Tokyo: Ōkura-shō Insatsukyoky, 1986), 565.Google Scholar This is a new phenomenon in the history of foriegn investments, one that has not yet attracted much attention.

83 See “Japan's Foreign Investment: Home Is Where the Hurt Is,” Economist, November 9, 1985, p. 94.

84 “‘Zai-tech’ Boom,” Japan Economic Journal, March 29, 1986, p. 6.


86 “Companies Increasingly Turn to ‘Zaitech’ to Combat Profit Fall,” Japan Economic Journal, June 6, 1987.

87 Japan Times, February 5, 1988.

88 Wall Street Journal, September 28, 1987, p. 25, and Japan Economic Journal, September 19, 1987, p. 6.

89 Profits from investments abroad are projected to be $400 billion by 1990. See “Setting Sun? Japan Inc.'s Rise Holds the Seeds of Its Fall,” Washington Post, June 22, 1986, p. C1.

90 Business Week (fn. 40), p. 58.

91 Hobson, , Imperialism (Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, University of Michigan Press, 1983), 85, 88.Google Scholar

92 Gilpin, , The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

93 “Setting Sun?” (fn. 89).

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