Funabashi Yoichi of Asahi Shimbun fame has a strongly worded piece here on the need for Japan to seize this moment and move closer to China in order to revitalize the Japanese economy. In reality what he is advocating is not so much a strategic choice to be made but the need for a more proactive approach to be taken to what is already a significant trend for many businesses in Japan. Certainly there is still much work to be done, including trade and other economic agreements, plans for diversifying Japan’s economic relations, and a sharper government industrial policy, including better utilization of some of the latent knowledge and creativity holed up in Japan’s university system. Ultimately Funabashi’s piece serves more as a warning against Japan becoming more insular in light of the earthquake and tsunami – although I am not particularly convinced that this is a legitimate concern. After the country catches its breath there are likely to be many pressures to further internationalize Japan’s connection with the outside world, energy policy being one such obvious example. I certainly do not get the impression in any intuitive sense that this is a pressing worry, either.
But what I really want to take up here is this general trend of pieces coming out pontificating on “what Japan has to do now.” Of course it is natural that concerned Japan watchers and Japanese experts themselves would want to do this given the trauma of the disaster as well as the pre-existing problems with which Japan already had to contend. Generally most of these pieces are with merit and point to essential discussions that need to be had. This is not the issue and indeed I, like many, need no encouragement to pontificate on almost anything. More problematic however, I feel, is that most of them also attempt to pin Japan’s future fate on what happens in the immediate future, claiming that now, in Funabashi’s words, is the “moment of truth.”
While fully appreciating the urgency of the full range of challenging issues that Japan faces currently, I don’t happen to believe we are quite at that crossroads yet. The issues are pressing, but not so pressing that a “punt” needs to be taken on how Japan approaches the issue of its revival, to the degree that it needs such a revival. It seems to me that a well-thought out, deliberate approach to adapting to the (still evolving) transformation in the geo-economic and geo-political global orders is still prudent (as well as to dealing with the inherent problems of post-industrial society that Japan is at the forefront of dealing with). As it is, this has always been ”Japan’s national style” – to go with the flow of the times（時勢に従う), if you will. Beyond that, the fact of the matter is that the true “moment of truth” is not a temporal idea but ultimately a political one – the “moment of truth” will be faced at the time Japan’s political system yields any sort of period of stability and some degree of consensus or cooperation. The choices a Japanese government makes then will likely be far more meaningful than the choices that the current emaciated Kan government makes now. That is not to say that PM Kan cannot do necessary and important things now – if he is able to achieve anything despite the current political situation, then that will be no small mercy. But I am not so sure that we need to be, or should be, pinning our hopes on the next six to nine months.
The obvious rejoinder here would be that there have been so many false dawns in Japan and that we cannot be sure that such stability will ever arise. Certainly it seems that Japan’s politicians have been playing a spirited game of cat and mouse with the electorate over the last 18 years. I suspect changes in the generational make-up of the elite will probably be required before the mouse can truly be pinned down in this case, so anything that accelerates this would be welcome. In that sense it is somewhat reassuring to see the likes of Edano Yukio, Kono Taro, Hosono Goshi, and Maehara Seiji becoming somewhat more prominent over time. Seeing the younger members of both the LDP and the DPJ joining together to discuss how to achieve the express purpose (jp) of accelerating generational change and influence in politics is also promising.1
There is also a historical dimension to this – if we are looking towards a “third opening” of Japan then it is worth bearing in mind the events of the previous two openings. Both were preceded by periods of internal turmoil even more severe than what we see now. The Bakumatsu period preceding the Meiji period was certainly no picnic and that lasted for 15 years until some semblance of stability was achieved. While the US was heavily involved in Japan’s politics both during the occupation and immediately post-occupation, the process itself was far less in the US’ control than is often perceived. In the meantime the battle raged between the different groups until the LDP was formed – and even then I would be reluctant to argue for recognizable stability being established until after Kishi Nobusuke’s resignation in 1960.
From this historical view – ie from when the rot set in to when a “consensus” emerged – 15 years appears to be par for the course. While many may point to 1991 as the start of Japan’s malaise I suspect that it was perhaps only in 1997/98 after Kobe, Aum, Japan re-entering recession and the Asian Financial Crisis,2 that many recognized that this was indeed “rot” and not something that could be fixed with a coat of varnish. So, 2012/13 is the year to pay attention? Of course, grand historical narratives should be taken with a grain of salt – they are useful for reflection but not deterministic, needless to say.
Nevertheless, I would caution against assuming that without wide ranging and drastic reform starting now, in 2011, that Japan will somehow limp away into oblivion/obscurity. Then again, I would also caution against assuming endemic problems in one part of Japanese society means that all aspects of society are fatally flawed and “need to change” – a favourite narrative of the Western press in particular. I think the triple disaster has brought into sharp relief those problems that need to be urgently addressed, the societal attributes that need to be treated as precious and valuable, and perhaps most importantly, those that are still in the process of evolving along their own path.
1 This group established itself on May 17, and needless to say gave itself the sharp, snappy name 国難対処のために行動する『民主・自民』中堅若手議員連合 ( rough translation: The DPJ-LDP Young(er) Diet Members Association for Dealing with the National Crisis – 民自連 (minji-ren for short). The group was restricted to those who had been elected five times or less as a general principle. The LDP members had excluded those with PM experience or those that were considered LDP “veterans,” while the DPJ members were seen to be those who wanted to distance themselves from both PM Kan as well as Ozawa.
2 And I guess internationally the US had bounced back economically and China achieved more international legitimacy to go with its growing economic power on the back of improved US-China ties in Clinton’s second term, providing a unsympathetic external background for evaluating Japan’s own condition/ ability to “keep pace with the times.”