An Asian century, illustrated

Asia is producing a huge amount of talent. One reason for that is the sheer size of its population: China has nearly 1.4 billion people, India 1.3 billion and Southeast Asia more than 600 million. Those numbers, combined with the region's ascendant economies, have created fertile ground for the emergence of people who stand out on the global stage. The following graphs and charts illustrate Asia's evolving place in the world.

Global 500 largest companies

  • Asia
  • Others

Chart based on Fortune Global 500 rankings of world's largest companies; rectangles represent individual companies, grouped by country; size of rectangle corresponds to size of dollar sales; click on rectangle for data on individual company, click again to return to main image; click play button to see changes from 1995; click pause button to see breakdown for given year; names of companies, countries, regions match those on Fortune list

Asia's rise is propelling more and more companies from the region into the global big leagues. In 1995, the Fortune Global 500 list of the world's largest companies by sales, compiled by the U.S. magazine, included 162 Asian businesses. Of those 162, 148 were Japanese. A big reason for their outsize presence was the muscular yen, which had strengthened past 80 to the dollar, amplifying their earnings in dollar terms. The top four Japanese players were all trading houses such as Mitsubishi Corp. Of the Asian companies on the list that year, only 14 were not Japanese.

The rankings had changed dramatically by 2015. The number of Asian companies in the top 500 jumped almost 20% to 190, and the number of Japanese companies dwindled to 54. Among the Japanese names, only one made the top 10, with Toyota Motor grabbing the ninth spot. Meanwhile, the number of non-Japanese Asian companies on the list swelled to 136, of which 98 were Chinese. The top 10 list included three Chinese players, two of which were state-run oil companies. The long list also contained South Korean, Taiwanese, Indian and Southeast Asian companies, and their strength is driving the growth of the Asian economy as a whole.

Breakdown of global GDP

  • Asia
  • Europe
  • U.S.
  • Others

Data through 1979 from British economist Angus Maddison; all later data based on statistics from International Monetary Fund; Asia includes 26 countries/regions from East, South, Southeast Asia; Europe covers 54 countries; place cursor on graph to see each region's share of GDP in given year

Home to the world's two most-populous countries, China and India, Asia has long accounted for a majority of the global population. A study by British economist Angus Maddison found that Japan and other Asian countries accounted for 57% of the world's gross domestic product in 1820. Following the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the West came to dominate the global economy. Shortly after the end of World War II, in 1950, Asia's share of global GDP had slumped to 17%, compared with Europe's 39% and the U.S.'s 27%.

After the war, Japan became the first Asian nation to conspicuously rev up its economic engine. By the 1980s, the newly industrializing economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore began to expand. Later, Malaysia and Thailand followed their lead. From the second half of the 1990s, it was China and India's turn to shift into economic high gear.

As a result of that collective acceleration, Asia overtook the U.S. in terms of GDP in 2009 and is estimated to pull ahead of Europe in 2015. Asia's share of the global economy now stands at 31%, and that figure will top 50% again by 2050, according to some projections.

Changes in population size, GDP growth, GDP size in Asian countries

  • Japan
  • China
  • South Korea
  • India
  • Six major Southeast Asian countries

Graph tracks changes in real GDP growth (in percent), populations (in billions) of major Asian, Southeast Asian countries; horizontal axis measures total population, vertical axis measures GDP growth rate; size of circle corresponds to size of nominal GDP; click play button to see changes from 1980; click pause to see breakdown for given year

The changes in the Fortune Global 500 rankings are mirrored in the macroeconomic data. In 1980, Japan's GDP, at $1.09 trillion, was greater than the combined $728.3 billion for China, India and six major Southeast Asian nations -- Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. In 1990, Japan's GDP had grown to $3.1 trillion, while that of China, India and the Southeast Asian nations had increased to $1.09 trillion. The latter group had reached the level Japan had been at in 1980, but Japan had zoomed even further ahead on the back of its asset-inflated bubble in the late 1980s.

Following the collapse of that bubble, however, Japan entered a prolonged period of economic stagnation. The group of other Asian countries began posting rapid economic growth in the 1990s, narrowing the gap with Japan. In 2006, China, India and the Southeast Asian nations finally overtook Japan. And in 2009, China replaced Japan as the world's second-largest economy.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the combined GDP of China, India and the Southeast Asian nations will reach $23.95 trillion in 2020, about five times that of Japan, which is estimated to reach $4.75 trillion. Further influencing the divide in economic growth is the fact that Japan's population is declining, while those of other Asian countries, including India, are growing rapidly.