Abe must bring both vision, pragmatism to the job

by Yasuhiro Nakasone

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News photo
Yasuhiro Nakasone SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO
Japan stands at the junction of a vertical axis, characterized by developments in its domestic politics from the end of World War II to the present day, and a horizontal axis, marked by changes in the international environment, particularly in Asia. Japan's next leader must present a broad vision, underscored by realistic policies, that puts the nation's past, present and future into perspective.In the "lost decade" of the 1990s, the economy stagnated, collapsed, crime increased, the LDP disintegrated and the government changed frequently. For the past five years, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi maintained a stable and vigorous administration, eliminating the image of Japan as a "nation adrift."Koizumi took office pledging to "smash" the LDP, which was showing increasing signs of fatigue. He succeeded somewhat in destroying vested interests but did almost nothing to build a new nation. In other words, he largely failed to develop a new vision of Japan and chart a new course for it to follow. The challenge for the incoming Abe administration is to pick up where Koizumi left off: tackle the work of reconstruction.The Koizumi administration devoted a great deal of energy to specific projects such as the privatization of the postal service and highway corporations. In the process it neglected to address the central challenge of governance: re-establishing Japan's identity by overcoming the "aftereffects" of the postwar Occupation. The nation's leader must explain to the people in clear-cut language what kind of country Japan should become in the 21st century.Specifically, that challenge may be summarized as follows: – Revision of the Constitution and establishment of a national voting system for that purpose, and revision of the Fundamental Law of Education.

(2) Formulation of fiscal reform guidelines that leave the door open to tax increases, including a rise in the consumption tax.

(3) Reorientation of foreign policy toward Asian neighbors, which is in a state of paralysis.

Beyond that, Japan needs to transform itself from an economy-centered nation to one that places greater emphasis on education and culture.

These are difficult tasks, and Abe must address them as national undertakings. Another important task for him — important politically — is to lead the LDP to victory in next summer’s Upper House election.

Abe has stated that he will deal head-on with the issues of revising the Constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education. However, as prime minister he will likely face considerable political risks in pushing forward these agendas, given public sensitivity to constitutional and educational reform as well as opposition from within the Diet.

Japan’s future depends crucially on how these issues are handled. If Abe approaches them with courage, public support for his administration may well increase, possibly contributing to an LDP victory in the Upper House election.

In the area of foreign policy, normalizing Japan’s frayed relations with China and South Korea will be an urgent priority for the Abe administration. The Japan-U.S. relationship remains the linchpin of Japanese foreign policy. The alliance has strengthened under Koizumi, but diplomacy toward Asian neighbors has floundered. Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, key players in our Asian diplomacy, must be restructured on a sustainable basis so as to promote prosperity in all of East Asia, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The international situation has vastly changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The disintegration of the tripolar structure of the United States, the Soviet Union and the Third World has triggered moves toward national self-reliance as various nations, including European Union states and Russia, have tried to strengthen themselves through the promotion of nationalism and the establishment of national identity.

The U.S., in its global campaign against terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has pursued a national strategy of spreading U.S.-inspired political systems and lifestyles around the world.

Japan, which seems to have lost its sense of direction in the 1990s, moved toward a new period of nationalism under the Koizumi administration. The problem is that a resurgence of nationalism in Japan is bound to clash with the nationalisms of its Asian neighbors. As politicians trumpet nationalism, people tend to follow unhealthy nationalism. As a result, politicians become more responsive to such popular sentiments. This will create a mood of confrontation between the government leaders of the countries involved, as illustrated by Japan’s present relations with China and South Korea.

During the past several years I have repeatedly warned against extreme nationalism. Nipping it in the bud is the duty of political leaders. I strongly hope that the Abe administration will ease Japan’s strained relations with China and South Korea. If that is accomplished, the situation in East Asia will begin to improve, and plans to create an “East Asian Community” will come a step closer to reality.

The question is how much restraint the political leaders of the three nations will be able to exercise to forestall an explosion of nationalism. In Japan’s case, it is important to deal properly with the Yasukuni issue (prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine).

Encouragingly, Abe seems as though he is trying to “depoliticize” this issue by keeping it off the political agenda. He has enough time to do so. I suggest that Japan initiate unofficial contacts with China and South Korea in order to hold a trilateral summit as soon as possible.

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