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The Japan problem, again ...

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In 1989, Karel Van Wolferen wrote a book entitled “The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation”.  More than 20 years later, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are finding that Japanese power is just as enigmatic as ever.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)  won the national election in August 2009 on a populist agenda which included breaking the 2006 agreement between the Japanese and US governments regarding the US military base in Okinawa.  In the face of strong US resistance, Hatoyama has twice told Obama “trust me”, meaning that he will solve the issue politically, and allow the previously agreed plans to hold.  Hatoyama has twice breached this trust, and now promises to solve the issue by May 2010.

Van Wolferen’s book is still worth a read for those trying to understand Japanese politics.  It caused quite a stir at the time.  It was predictably disparaged by the Japanese who are convinced that foreigners can never understand the complexity and uniqueness of Japan.  The virulence of the criticism suggests that his analysis was indeed on the mark.  As he has argued, “Japanese are uncomfortable with the idea that they might actually be understood”.  Indeed, anyone who has spent any time in Japan would be aware that the Japanese themselves have a very meager understanding of their own politics and society – and the Japanese elite are very happy to keep it that way.

In van Wolferen’s view, Japan did not have a supreme institution with ultimate jurisdiction over others.  The buck did not stop anywhere, it just kept circulating.  Power was carefully balanced between semiautonomous groups that share power.  The sharers of power in the Japanese System were bureaucrats, political cliques, industrialists, agricultural cooperatives, police, press and gangsters.

In this system, business leaders expanded their market share with support from bureaucrats and banks.  In return, they bankrolled politicians, who were happy to rubber stamp policy determined by bureaucrats.  To keep the system stable, companies provided stable business orders for their subcontracting component suppliers and stable employment by not firing workers when times got tough.  An important element in the system was infrastructure spending on road, airports, dams, bridges and the like.  Its main purpose was not to fulfill infrastructure needs, but to support local construction business and jobs, and ultimately local politicians.  In short, much of it is wasted. 

Overall, the system was in balance.  No-one was too powerful.  But ultimately, no-one was leading. 

This meant that there not only was there no centre of power, but the private and public sectors were blurred.  Former senior bureaucrats were given jobs by the industries and banks they once helped.  And some bureaucrats reappeared as politicians.  There was also a highly complex of personal relations which also held the system together,

Foreign policy was basically dictated by the US-Japan Alliance.  It was initially designed to protect Japan against communism in the USSR and China.  But its relevance is perhaps stronger now than ever in light of North Korea’s unpredictable behaviour, the growing military strength of China, continuing mistrust of Japan in East Asia, and the very important side-benefit of the US help in tackling East Asia’s many natural disasters (tsunamis, typhoons and earthquakes).  But the US, through the Alliance, implicitly discouraged a strong central role for the Japanese government.

This system worked for a long while.  But a system without leadership proved incapable of getting the economy out of crisis, incapable of responding to the rise of China, and incapable of redefining its relationship with the US.

The DPJ was voted in on a platform of reinventing Japan, of changing this Japanese system, even though most of its politicians are former members of the Liberal Democratic Party which had been in power for over 50 years.  They were going to wrest power back from the bureaucrats.  They were going to serve the interests of Japan’s citizens, not construction companies.  They were going create a more equal relationship with the US.  They were going to lead the creation of an East Asian Community.

How are they doing?  In short, the DPJ's record is a mixture of confusion and promise. 

They inherited an economic crisis, so reorienting economic policy has been difficult.  Government stimulus has been necessary, even though public debt is 200 per cent of GDP.  Minimizing unemployment has meant pressuring companies to hold on to workers.  But they have shown some leadership on examining and cutting the budget, and reducing bureaucrat's power.

Hatoyama has shown leadership in promoting his ideas for an East Asian Community.  Although it is only a long term aspiration, it is not clear what it would entail, and mixed messages have been sent to the Americans about whether they would be in or out.  He has been trying to cosy up to China, but also befriending India as the perfect China hedge.

Immense confusion has been created with the Americans over the future of US military presence in Okinawa.  The DPJ's populist platform of renegotiating the 2006 agreement with the Americans has been taken seriously by local politicians and the public in Okinawa, as well as the Socialist Democratic Party (a small but important DPJ coalition partner).  Hatoyama is trying to sit tight until the forthcoming upper house elections, but the Americans were pushing for a clear confirmation of their support of the past agreement. 

The US has now backed off, and is willing to wait.  Hatoyama has promised to give a clear answer by May.

Perhaps the greatest confusion is being caused by the relationship between Hatoyama and the "Shadow Shogun" Ichiro Ozawa, who is Secretary General of the DPJ.  Hatoyama is weak, and has been controlled by Ozawa.  His finance minister Fuji resigned, ostensibly for health reasons, but in reality because feuding with Ozawa.

Hatoyama has been involved in a financial scandal involving pocket money from his wealthy mother ("mothergate").  Ozawa has just been struck by another financial scandal.  Although he survived (one of his assistants became the fall-guy), he is irretrievably tainted.  But Hatoyama has stood by his man.  He needs him for his political leadership and election organizing abilities.  Hatoyama’s own popularity is now plummeting.

Hatoyama may have to dishonor the previous government's agreement, which took very many years to negotiate, with the Americans on the US presence in Okinawa.  But would they be capable of finding another appropriate site?  Would they try and push the Okinawa-based Americans out of the country?

As Van Wolferen notes, relatively strong central ruling bodies are necessary to deal with other countries.  Fundamentally, this is a major problem for Japan’s foreign policy.  While US domestic policy is chaotic with its fractious Congress, the President and his administration have quite clear authority for its foreign relations.  Same for China.  Beijing may not control all of China’s territory, but it clearly leads foreign policy.  It is not so long ago that the lack of central power allowed military groups the opportunity to hijack Japan and embark on a course that led to the madness of a suicidal attack on Pearl Harbour.

As China’s economy is set to overtake Japan’s in total size, many comparisons are made between the two countries.  Sure, China’s population is 10 times that of Japan, and its GDP per capita only one-tenth.  But perhaps the most important difference between the two countries is in the capacities to project and wield power on the world stage.



The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation, Karel Van Wolferen.


The Japan Problem, Karel Van Wolferen.  Foreign Affairs.  Winter 1986/87.  www.foreignaffairs.com

The Japan Problem Revisited, Karel Van Wolferen.  Foreign Affairs.  Fall 1990.  www.foreignaffairs.com