Let change be contagious

Mr. Barack Obama won the keys to the White House by instilling expectations of change and optimism in the minds of the American public, as conveyed by his slogan “Yes, we can.” His Jan. 20 inauguration as the United States’ 44th president should be a source of great inspiration to the people and government of Japan as well.

The global economic slowdown has dealt a severe blow to Japan’s economy and the haphazard management of Prime Minister Taro Aso’s administration has resulted in political stagnation. Japan should use the advent of a new U.S. administration as an opportunity to both reinvigorate itself and to play a more meaningful role in the international community by deepening its cooperation with the U.S. while simultaneously upholding its principles.

It has been said that the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi succeeded in strengthening Japan’s relations with the U.S. However, one could charge that ties improved mainly because Japan blindly followed U.S. policies, in particular those related to the fight against terrorism.

When Japan decided to send Self-Defense Forces units to Iraq, it risked violating its war-renouncing Constitution, which was a consequence of Japan’s destructive wars in the 1930s and ’40s. Even though it has long been clear that weapons of mass destruction did not exist in Iraq as Washington had alleged, the Japanese government has yet to review its decision to become involved in Iraq.

With a new president at the U.S. helm, it is important that Japan shed its habit of passively following the course set by Washington. The basic approach should be to seek deeper ties with the U.S. and to achieve joint goals by proposing or taking actions based on Japan’s constitutional principles and philosophy.

The U.S.’ use of military force in Afghanistan is failing to stabilize the country and promote its reconstruction. It is time for Japan to give full play to its principle of trying to solve international conflict and disputes through creative approaches that don’t rely on military force. Japan, however, should not use this basic principle as an excuse for doing nothing.

If Japan merely obeys the will of the U.S. and ignores its own principles, it will not only arouse suspicion among neighboring countries but also invite disrespect from the U.S. Any country that slights its own principles will not be trusted.

Mr. Obama emphasizes rebuilding partnerships to enhance the security and well-being of the U.S. and other nations. A stronger partnership with the U.S. may mean Japan will face difficult decisions, but Japan should use such opportunities to develop original solutions to the problems at hand.

For example, Mr. Obama, who is said to favor increasing the use of military force against terrorists in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, may call on Japan to make contributions to help stabilize the situation there. Japan can help by working out long-range programs aimed at improving people’s livelihoods through assistance and investment in agriculture, medical services, education and other areas in cooperation with Japanese civilians already in Afghanistan.

The biggest problem that Japan and the U.S. now face is the worldwide economic slowdown. It is imperative that both learn the lessons of the 1930s. Trade barriers set by individual countries to protect their own industries deepened and prolonged the Great Depression. Japan cannot afford to take an inward-looking attitude. It should do its best to revive the Doha round of trade talks and to avoid policies that would encourage protectionist moves in the U.S. Congress.

As Japan struggles to increase internal demand to stimulate the economy, it can learn from Mr. Obama’s ambitious plan to invest $150 billion over 10 years to develop and promote the use of renewable energy sources and to create up to 5 million jobs. Although there are funding problems, Japan should strive to develop its own programs to promote green industry. If the so-called Green New Deal is pushed worldwide, it will not only put the world economy back on a growth path but also help to reduce emissions that are contributing to global warming.

Under Mr. Bush’s leadership the reputation of the U.S. plummeted to record lows around the world. But when the American people think they need a change they make it happen, and it is this aspect of America that makes it such an inspiration to the rest of the world. Since 2009 is an election year in Japan, voters and lawmakers should use it as an opportunity to develop their own long-range visions of Japan and begin efforts to realize them.