So what's wrong with Japan? It may all be summed up in the title, "The Japan That Can't Decide", of a new book by Kevin Maher. This work distills the wisdom of his 30 years' experience working for the US State Department, most recently as its Director of the Office of Japanese Affairs.
It is of course a gross exaggeration to suggest that Japan is incapable of making decisions. In reality, Japan has a complex consensus-building culture. This means that when decisions are made, they are solid and will usually be implemented reliably.
But it also means that decision-making is often very slow with all the time it takes to reach a consensus. For example, it took many years for the Japanese government to decide how to handle its financial crisis which exploded over 20 years ago. This procrastination has now left permanent scars on the Japanese economy.
Consensus-decision-making can also mean that decisions are never made because a consensus is never reached. The second runway at Tokyo's Narita airport has a house in the middle of it, which means that large aircraft cannot use this runway. So instead of decisions being made on behalf of the majority of the population, they can be blocked by small vested interests. In other democracies, the house owner would have been financially compensated and the problem solved.
Japan's decision-making style can also mean that no-one wants to make a decision, and everyone is trying to avoid accepting responsibility. During the first 5-6 days following Japan's triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, the government's position was that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), not the government, was fully responsible for the nuclear crisis. In reality, the problem was plainly one of national proportions, and beyond the capacity of TEPCO. Much good time was lost as the country was wallowing in indecision. And now much time is being lost in a slow and inefficient cleanup operation.
Much is spoken of Japan's "groupism". But we should not confuse groupism with nationalism. In Japan, the group can be very small, and in government the biggest group identity is the ministry, not the nation as a whole. Thus, Japan's government is even more stove-piped than others -- meaning that ministries don't share information, and inordinate amounts of time are spent in turf wars rather than making decisions.
Another issue suffering from indecision is the agreement to relocate part of the US military personnel and facilities away from Okinawa, which still has not been implemented. This was agreed between Tokyo and Washington, but many Okinawans would prefer to be rid of the base entirely. Now the issue is just hanging in the air. This issue was not helped by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's flip-flopping over the base.
Japan needs to be realistic about the importance of Okinawa, and convince the Okinawans to swallow the base. Okinawa is perfectly located being closer to the North Korean capital of Pyonyang than Tokyo, and being closer to Hanoi than to the Hokkaido capital of Sapporo. It is critical to peace and security in North East Asia. But if implementation of this agreement keeps dragging on, the US Congress will refuse to finance the relocation, leaving everyone and everything where they are now.
More fundamentally, Japan needs to get more realistic about the security situation in North East as China greatly strengthens its military, and North Korea could become even more volatile with its prospective change of leadership. China itself is virtually hemmed in by the US allies of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, and is concerned about "area denial". Taking over Okinawa would open up the East China Sea for China.
Japan needs to face up to the security threat posed by China. This means increasing its military budget from its puny one per cent of GDP in order to maintain its military superiority by getting a 5th generation aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines and cruise missile capability.
The worst thing that Japan could do, through its indecision and dilly-dallying over the Okinawa base, is to send a message to the Chinese that there are problems in the US/Japan Alliance. The Alliance is much bigger than Okinawa.
The area in which Japan is most capable of making decisions is in firing its prime ministers. The present incumbent, Naoto Kan, has agreed to resign soon under pressure from his Party. Japan's political energies are now more focused on the leadership position than the current substantive challenges facing the country (like the rise of China, the value of the yen, or solving the triple crisis), with perennial spoiler Ichiro Ozawa once again throwing his hat in the ring.
Overall, Japan needs to change its mindset to become more realistic and to learn how to make decisions concerning the challenges its faces.
There was an old saying that Japan is a country with a first world economy and third world politics. With the rise of the emerging world, some third world countries now have better politics than Japan. The good people of Japan deserve better than this!
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