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Fading hopes for faltering Japan

by Jeff Kingston

JAPAN TODAY, by Roger Buckley. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999, (3rd edition), 233 pp.

This is a succinct and reliable introductory survey of post-World War II Japanese history. This third edition is substantially rewritten and updated by the inclusion of recent material and analysis. The latter portions of the book are in fact entirely new and, reflecting the differences in Japan in 1985 and 1999, this edition is far more pessimistic in tone.

The original conclusion — “Japan has won its way back and more” — stands in stark contrast to Roger Buckley’s current admonition: “Yet both the Japanese state and its people must avoid the great illusion of imagining that past achievements and present benign international realities will automatically continue uncontested in the future. Decline should not be seen as merely the fate of others. It can happen here.”

The author’s shift from praising the extraordinary achievements of postwar Japan to an examination of the malaise of contemporary Japan fits the current somber mood here about the nation’s bleak prospects. His pessimism is fueled by a sense that the urgent problems facing Japan are not being addressed effectively and are thus festering to the point of intractability. It is the persistence of the attitudes, patterns and practices of the past that are barriers to overdue reforms. Future historians will probably shake their collective heads in disbelief at the policy paralysis that gripped fin-de-siecle Japan, transforming a recession into a catastrophe with global ramifications.

It is telling that one chapter opens with a plaintive assertion: “Japan matters.” It is inconceivable that a book written 10 years ago would have included such a statement, but what a difference a decade makes.

In the wake of the collapsed asset bubble, the Japanese economy has languished in the doldrums. The initial response of waiting for growth to solve the problems has not panned out, leaving banks teetering on the edge of insolvency and record levels of unemployment. Buckley writes, “Any comprehensive series of reforms would necessarily require extensive deregulation, transparency, honest bookkeeping, the breaking of cosy ties between the public and private sectors and above all else a determination to let banks alone to succeed or fail.” One deduces that the author sooner expects pigs to fly.

Nor is there much optimism about Japan assuming international responsibilities commensurate with its economic power and aspirations to global leadership. Buckley refers to minimalism as the guiding principle of Japanese foreign policy. Whether the issue is trade friction, participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations, the Persian Gulf War or accepting refugees, the Japanese government’s approach to international criticism has been to wait until the pressure became intense and then respond with the bare minimum likely to get the West temporarily to relent.

Checkbook diplomacy, according to Buckley, still remains the favored approach to dealing with international crises, hardly a sign that Japan is a nation ready for global prime time. It is difficult to reconcile Japan’s stated desire for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council with a climate in which “it is much easier to identify the reservations that continue to exist than to note the willing acceptance of fresh international responsibilities.”

Those who have benefited from the collusive relationship between conservative politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and gangsters are the guardians of Japan’s sclerotic system.

Coupled with looming problems of a rapidly aging society, low productivity outside the manufacturing sector and an inability to tap the potential of women workers, Japan appears to be limping into the 21st century, a victim of self-inflicted wounds and myopic policies.

Buckley reminds readers, however, that Japan has enjoyed an improbable postwar success precisely because of its ability to overcome the odds. So, just because positive signs and courageous leadership seem thin on the ground, a surprising turnabout cannot be ruled out.

This brief survey limns the history of the U.S. Occupation, praising Douglas MacArthur and reminding Japanese that many of the reforms initiated at that time paved the way for subsequent success. Democratization, the new Constitution and reform measures affecting land tenure, education and industry are singled out as some of the key accomplishments. However, a nationalistic media establishment has shoved these positive contributions into the background and fed the public images of the Occupation era dominated by “GIs committing multiple rape, attacking senior Japanese bureaucrats and desecrating the flag.”

The conservatives have dominated postwar Japanese politics. Foreign policy has been based on subordination to the United States in the context of the Cold War, while domestic policies focused on promoting economic growth. The left proved unsuccessful in making the security relationship with the U.S. the focus of domestic political debate and saw its fortunes dim in the face of the LDP’s “economic miracle.”

In assessing recent leaders of the LDP, Buckley shows a high regard for Yasuhiro Nakasone’s political style and his courage in facing the critical issues. In contrast, Noboru Takeshita is shorn of what little stature he has in being described as “the gray prime minister, who spoke so elliptically that even Japanese audiences required translators to explain afterward what he had been trying and deliberately failing to say.”

Takeshita is accused of pandering to rightists by absolving Japan from responsibility for its rampage through Asia, giving comfort to those who still prefer to see Japan as the liberator rather than enslaver of Asia.

As with so many other conservative leaders, corruption and influence peddling tarnished his tenure and he left office in the midst of mounting public disgust. He now manipulates the government from the sidelines, as did his predecessor, Kakuei Tanaka, the king of money politics.

Japan and the Japanese, despite rich traditions and a flourishing contemporary culture, are described as materialistic, a characterization that will certainly irritate the many Japanese who prefer to see this as a Western problem. Regrettably, “Japan in the last resort holds uncritically to a business culture. Its values look fated to remain those of the mass consumer society.”