Quality of governance in 2012

Even though the new year has started, it is impossible for people in Japan to put 2011 behind them. The effects of the March 11 triple disasters — the magnitude-9 earthquake followed by the massive tsunami that devastated the Tohoku coastal area, plus the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant — will continue to impact Japan.

Japan faces many more problems, including continuing deflation, hollowing out of Japanese industries caused by the strong yen, the severe conditions of state finances and the weakening of the social security system at home, sovereign debt crises in Europe, and an unstable situation in Northeast Asia in the wake of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death.

In 2012, Japan’s resilience as a state or its ability to squarely deal with and overcome difficult problems will be tested. Given the performance of the government and lawmakers in 2011, the prospect does not look bright. People need to closely watch the moves by government and political leaders and take concrete actions if necessary using various means available in a democracy.

In the massive quake and tsunami, many people in northeast Japan have lost loved ones, jobs or property or all. In Fukushima Prefecture, radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear crisis has made a large area of land inhabitable, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate. Great sorrows, uneasiness and even anger are still with these disaster victims.

The government’s and lawmakers’ responses were far from satisfactory. It was only in November that the Diet passed the third supplementary budget for fiscal 2011 to fund reconstruction from the March 11 disasters. This has shown that government leaders and lawmakers as a whole lack empathy with people who are suffering and the ability to take new approaches quickly as needed.

The reconstruction efforts in the disaster-hit areas are slow in coming. Although bureaucracy is important because of its experience and expertise in administration, government leaders and lawmakers should realize that they will not be able to accomplish their duties just by repeating in 2012 the traditional way of doing things established by bureaucracy. As the nation faces many difficult problems, political leaders need to present a clear vision for the future Japan based on explicit principles. In place of slogans, political leaders should employ rational language to present their ideas and develop the ability to persuade people.

Through their experience in 2011, people have learned that political leaders do not hesitate to deceive people — consciously or unconsciously — for short-term political gain. Government officials have repeated opaque explanations about the effects on people’s health from radioactive substances released in the Fukushima nuclear accidents. Prime Minster Yoshihiko Noda even declared that the nuclear crisis has been “resolved” — a statement many people will certainly refuse to take at face value.

People also have seen politicians make important decisions not based on principles, and break important principles, without having informed public discussions.

Mr. Noda decided to take part in the talks on the Transpacific Partnership free-trade scheme, which covers a wide-ranging fields including financial and insurance services, agricultural trade, investment and labor. Although the scheme may greatly change and destabilize Japanese society, Mr. Noda cannot present a strong case for the TPP in a persuasive manner — indicating that his decision is not based on a principle but is just a political expediency, perhaps just to please the United State.

This year the TPP talks involving Japan may start. National interests will fiercely clash, but it is unclear whether the government has the ability to determine what Japan’s key interests are, whether it has a clear strategy to protect and promote them, and whether it has sufficient negotiating capabilities.

The government’s decision to weaken the weapons export ban is a case of bending — without informed discussion — a principle Japan has long followed in the spirit of the war-renouncing Constitution. Unprincipled politics will eventually weaken and damage the Japanese state since it is shortsighted without wisdom.

In 2011, people saw the government refuse to honestly look at reality. It has refused to see that the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture is already bankrupt because of strong opposition by Okinawans.

This year, government and political leaders must squarely tackle reality — the pressing problems Japan is suffering from — including the widening gap between the rich and the poor, uneasiness due to the weakening social welfare system, the unstable employment situation, etc. If they cannot present quick remedies, they must show a path — which may be long — that will eventually lead to solving or alleviating the problems.

They must fully realize the danger that frustrated people may support politicians who rely on intoxicating rhetoric and do not mind breaking democratic principles. To prevent such a situation from arising, leaders must present policy measures that are both rational and convincing. People on their part need to carefully weigh the quality of politicians.