Japan’s failing leadership leaving country adrift
September 4th, 2012
06:10 PM ET

Japan’s failing leadership leaving country adrift

By Bruce Stronach, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stronach is dean of Temple University, Japan campus. The views expressed are his own.

If you are an American complaining about the Congressional partisan impasse of the past two years, or if you are a Briton worried about Scottish devolution and the fragility of the current coalition government, take heart. It could be worse; you could be Japanese.

In just under six years, Japan has had six prime ministers from two different major parties that have involved at various times four different smaller parties as coalition partners. This fall they are facing the possibility of another election at an unknown date after the sitting prime minister was censured by the upper house. Both of the two major parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which has formed the Japanese government for 52 of the 60 years since the end of the U.S. occupation, and the governing party since September 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), will hold leadership elections.

Consider the following: the LDP worked with the DPJ to pass an important tax and social welfare bill and then turned around and joined other opposition parties in support of censuring the prime minister for submitting the bills in the first place. The conservative mayor of Tokyo wants to force the government’s hand in its dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands by purchasing them from their Japanese owner for the city of Tokyo. Yet another political party is being formed by a young rabble rouser from Osaka adding to the approximately 12 national parties that already exist. All this is taking place at a time when the domestic economy is struggling with tremendous debt; economic problems and the rapidly declining youth population is endangering the national social welfare system; and national energy policy has been thrown into turmoil by the questioning of nuclear power generation following the events of March 2011.

Japan is a socially conservative nation; change is not undertaken lightly and the status quo is usually preferred to the alternative up to – and often past – that point where change is unavoidable. The two attributes that bind the people of this society are stability and predictability. Japanese people generally don’t like change, surprises, the unknown, or risk. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that there is a growing concern in Japan about the future of the nation due, in part, to a political system that has become dysfunctional. Japan has always had a rotating door for prime ministers – they have had almost as many in the postwar period, more than 30, as Italy. But, with the exception of three years in the mid-1990s, all governments between 1952 and 2009 were LDP governments and therefore it usually made little difference who was  prime minister because the LDP committees, in collaboration with the bureaucracy, made policy, not prime ministers or their cabinets. The stability of the old postwar system is rapidly giving way to dysfunction because changes in government, whether intra-party changes or changes in the party in power, do bring real policy change, which in turn increases the extent to which wrangling for power occurs within parties and between parties. Political posturing has taken precedence over compromise and policies are rarely enacted as central party control over the parliamentary majority breaks down. Many politicians have said that politicians should make policy, not bureaucrats, but if politicians cannot compromise to the extent needed to implement  policy, that simply creates a situation where no one is making policy and bureaucrats are left to administer the status quo.

The political environment is not the only aspect of Japanese society that is changing. Japan was able to remain essentially an inward looking country during its peak period of growth because in retrospect, exports never accounted for as much of that growth as was trumpeted at the time and, more importantly, Japanese trade did tend to be a one-way flow, from inside out. That meant that there was never much true internationalization or globalization of Japanese society during the boom years. However, today, globalization is a reality and societies that don’t learn to accommodate internally the variegated aspects of globalization – and indeed learn to thrive on it – are doomed to fail.

With the current stresses and concerns within Japan, many people fear that recent flare ups of long-standing territorial disputes with Russia, South Korea, and China will tempt the Japanese to seek relief in nationalism as a means of unifying the country and deflecting attention from its domestic woes. But there will not be a resurgence of pre-war militaristic, aggressive nationalism. While most Japanese hold a deep belief that these territories are Japanese, there are few outside the loud but sparse right wing groups that will take to the streets, stone embassies or rip the flag off the Chinese ambassador’s car…as the Chinese did to the Japanese ambassador. Nationalism in Japan has for some time existed as a socio-cultural phenomenon where defining oneself as a member of the nation is far more important than defining oneself as an integral part of the state.

For many years following the end of the U.S. occupation there was a great deal of skepticism as to whether Japan could become a true democracy. As the LDP grew in power and was re-elected time after time, many saw this as proof that due to its history, Japan lacked the democracy gene. I begged to differ then and I think that my opinion has been validated. Japan should be a model for other states in creating a truly democratic society from roots that had little democratic nurturing.

But there is also no doubt that in a truly multi-party era, Japanese politicians have to re-think their responsibilities to the nation, not to the party. The real question for Japan today is not the control of the Japanese state over disputed territories; it is the question of what it means to be a member of the Japanese nation in a rapidly changing, volatile, global world.  That is a difficult question for a people who do not like change. It is even more difficult for a nation without effective political leadership.

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Topics: Asia • Japan

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    What the J apanese need is a nationalistic party far less willing to carry out orders from Washington D.C. and ready to tackle their economic problems. The J apanese also have the potential to play a vital role in the North Pacific. This will help restore a balance of power in that part of the world.

    September 5, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • Patrick

      Quite true Marine5484, quite true!

      September 5, 2012 at 3:06 am |
      • Old Man Clark

        On the other hand, muzzies are the best at stealing, lying, ignorance, stupidity...

        September 5, 2012 at 3:55 am |
      • Marine 5484

        Yup, you are so right Old Man Clark, any contact with them and you want to vomit,

        September 5, 2012 at 3:57 am |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        I am so glad Old Man Clark and Marine 5484 said it, I think these people are disadvantaged within their DNA.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:58 am |
      • Quigley

        I am in total agreement with all of you. Well stated!

        September 5, 2012 at 3:59 am |
  2. Lyndsie Graham

    Stupidity must run in their genes. They thrive on doing the most inane things.

    September 5, 2012 at 4:01 am |
    • krm1007©™

      I, too, have met a few muzzies in my days. I would not give them the time of day.

      September 5, 2012 at 4:02 am |
      • Joe Collins

        Wow, you guys are so right on. Thanks for explaining the source of all the world's problems.

        September 5, 2012 at 4:03 am |
  3. Marine 5484

    Personally, I think all muslims are troubled – no brains.

    September 5, 2012 at 4:05 am |
    • J. Foster Dulles

      These guys are so dumb, I do not understand how they remember to breathe!

      September 5, 2012 at 4:06 am |
  4. Patrick

    The Celts know perseverance more than most.

    September 5, 2012 at 4:07 am |
  5. kimie

    Jason Miks , he is right,everything right. I entirely agree with him.

    September 5, 2012 at 5:48 am |

    lol, all these comments are obviously by the same person and not even on the same topic as the article. Really weird.
    No moderators?

    September 5, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Henry

      In facy IELTS-LEVEL-UP, it is the same person making all these comments trying to make a Tea Partying jerk out of Patrick! I call this bozo Phunnie boy. As for J apan, I totally agree with Marine5484 for saying that J apan needs to become more self-assertive and quit catering to Washington's every whim! Don't you agree, too?

      September 5, 2012 at 11:12 am |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        "In facy" ? lolololololol

        September 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Conformity and harmony are the national traits of the J apanese. For decades their economy and work ethics had been the envies of the world. After having lost its ranking to China as the world's second largest economy, J apan faces political turmoil, huge debts, the aftermath of the Fukushima and an aging population. So the country's chauvinists have all reason to display nationalism to distract the population from their grievances.

    September 5, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Henry

      In fact j. von hettlingen, J apan went to war precisely to keep this from happening back in the 1930's. They wanted to create the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere but eventually failed in 1945 by being defeated by the U.S.

      September 5, 2012 at 11:16 am |
      • Henry

        Just ignore anything Henry previously said because it has no idea what it is talking saying.
        What are you talking about?

        September 5, 2012 at 12:38 pm |

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