Japan’s leaders just can’t seem to put the 19th century behind them.
It may be 2012, and the world surrounding this island nation of 126 million is changing at a blistering pace, but Japanese officialdom seems oddly stuck in the late 1800s. Back then, reformers adopted the slogan “rich nation, strong army.” This rabid nationalism culminated, of course, in World War II and a crushing defeat.
Fast-forward a hundred years or so. Here is the hauntingly similar motto Shinzo Abe, very possibly Japan’s next prime minister, is going with: “Build a strong and prosperous Japan.” I don’t claim to know what’s in Abe’s heart or that of his Liberal Democratic Party, but such views are emblematic of the rightward lurch in Japanese politics. The implications for Asia and Barack Obama’s second presidential term are enormous.
Abe is one of the three most important politicians in Japan (Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda isn’t among them). The others are Shintaro Ishihara, 80, and Toru Hashimoto, 43. In a striking bit of generational serendipity, both men largely agree on where to take their nation. It’s too bad that, like Abe, they have the wrong direction in mind. They want to take Japan inward, not outward into a dynamic global environment that is ripe with opportunities.
Abe, 58, straddles the generations between Ishihara and Hashimoto. All three are hellbent on drawing a nationalistic line in the sand between Japan and the rest of Asia. Their views aren’t in sync on every challenge facing Japan. Where their ideologies overlap is a more confrontational stance in a region where China is overshadowing Japan.
Many Japanese support this pivot to the right. China, let’s face it, hasn’t distinguished itself as a reasonable stakeholder in the so-called Pacific Century. Its territorial claims to a bewildering number of islands, atolls and rocks in the sea are antagonizing Filipinos, Koreans, Taiwanese and Vietnamese.
Japan is anxious to recover the clout drained by 20-plus years of economic stagnation. It irks Japan that President Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron or Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff would dare set foot in Asia without visiting Tokyo. Or that “Japanization” has become a catchphrase among economists warning about the evils of falling prices and political gridlock.
It’s true, too, that Japan doesn’t get enough attention for what it does right: industrial quality that ranks among the best anywhere; negligible crime; universal literacy; an enviable environmental record; one of the narrowest rich-poor divides; generous aid programs for developing nations; one of the longest lifespans; and a commitment to world peace.
The answer for Japan isn’t to do away with this last attribute. It isn’t to ramp up its military or pursuing a more muscular and unilateralist foreign policy. Nor is giving Abe a second chance at being prime minister. Ever wonder why the reform drive of Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, fizzled? Koizumi fleshed out a plan to revitalize Japan’s economy and politics and then erred by entrusting it to Abe in September 2006.
Abe put that plan in his desk drawer and opted for creating a “Beautiful Japan.” It meant revamping the education system to encourage nationalism, upgrading the defense agency to ministry status and myriad statements and actions that annoyed China and South Korea, which Japan colonized during World War II. It turned out Abe lacked the stomach for the job — literally. He resigned within 12 months, citing stress-related abdominal problems. Is Abe really the best the opposition LDP can do?
The same goes for why the public would support Ishihara’s bid for national office. He quit his post as Tokyo governor after almost bringing Asia to blows by recommending the purchase of a small chain of islands that are closer to China than to the main islands of Japan. That decision has Obama officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, worried about military confrontation.
Ishihara may be more witless that Abe. He favors acquiring nuclear weapons and has tossed enough insults at women, foreigners in Tokyo and gays to fill a small library. This one- man gaffe machine may join forces with Hashimoto, Osaka’s youthful mayor. Among Hashimoto’s big priorities is insisting that teachers stand and sing during the national anthem, creating a Restoration Politics Institute to train aspiring leaders, firing city workers with tattoos and denying that Japanese troops took Korean sex slaves during the war.
Japan has a daunting and well-known catalog of challenges, from long-term economic stagnation and deflation to rebuilding the part of the country devastated by the tsunami to political dysfunction that entails a revolving door for prime ministers.
Whoever becomes the next leader, he (in Japan, it will inevitably be a he) must tackle each problem with an urgency few of his predecessors displayed. Sadly, the three politicians most likely to have that responsibility seem more interested in flexing muscles than building them. What they don’t understand is that the way for Japan to thrive in the 21st century isn’t by reviving the ideas of the 19th.
Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.