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In a nation shaken to its core, Japan’s leaders offer more of the same

by Roger Pulvers

Second Of Three Parts

Roger Pulvers leaves Counterpoint at the end of this month after writing the column weekly since April 3, 2005. In his last three Counterpoints he has set out to consider in turn Japan in the past, present and future. This is his penultimate contribution.

The present began at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011. I was standing in front of the Cabinet Office building in the central Tokyo district of Nagatacho. I had arrived at 2:35 p.m. for a 3 p.m. consultation and was waiting outside.

Suddenly the ground began to roll. I looked toward the skyscrapers in nearby Kasumigaseki. They were pitching to and fro, their lines crisscrossing like toppling buildings in the paintings of the German artist George Grosz.

There I was at the very center of Japanese power, directly across the street from the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, and the world was being shaken to its foundations. Was this a reminder of the rudimentary and fragile nature of capitalism, as Grosz had suggested?

It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the true horror of what is now known as the Great East Japan Earthquake and the terrible tsunami it triggered came to be known. Then the ongoing nuclear disaster struck. In a sense, I hadn’t been far out in the symbolic association I’d made: The catastrophe in the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu did initiate a movement that could change the direction of development this country takes in the 21st century.

What we are witnessing in the present policies of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is the final backlash, a bold attempt by the old guard to prop up their dated model. You may as well hold a skeleton erect with thin poles, clothe it and tell everyone this is a specimen of a living, breathing human being.

What is this model that is being “resurrected”?

It is the one adopted by the young LDP in the mid-1950s, based on a rapid growth in national output through the stimulation of exports — and the unquestioning entanglement of security with the United States. This linkage grew out of an association developed during the 1950-53 Korean War, when Japan provided a support platform for U.S. action in the conflict.

Just as World War II finally pulled the United States out of the Great Depression, so the Korean War provided the stimulus to re-establish Japan’s industrial and commercial base that was left in ruins in 1945. With China after the communist takeover in 1949 seen as a permanent threat to American interests in Asia, it was natural that Washington would seek to transform Japan into a bastion of capitalism whose security would be dependent upon the U.S., making it the pivot point of its Asia-Pacific strategy. In return, the U.S. would encourage Japan to develop and prosper.

The Japanese people were still beholden in defeat to the U.S.; and, the meekest and most obliging of partners, they had the societal cohesion and ethic of diligence to effect the transition and put the nation fully back to work. Everyone bowed heads and stuck noses to the grindstone, leaving the running of the country to those “who knew better.”

I remember, in 1969, speaking about social policy at an inn in Kyoto with a senior adviser to the LDP. He had just come back from a study tour of Scandinavia, and I asked him if Japan would be adopting some of the social welfare institutions of that European region.

“There’s no way we will ever do that,” he chuckled. “We Japanese don’t need that kind of socialism. The Japanese government ensures prosperity at the top, and this filters down equally throughout the society.”

Back then, and for many decades to come, the Japanese were led to believe that they were somehow all part of a middle class, universally sharing an equal stake in society. And, so long as real income was growing at its heady pace in the 1960s, it certainly looked that way.

Innovations in sectors such as automobiles, electronics, transportation and industrial design turned the “Made in Japan” label from one signifying cheap imitation to one guaranteeing the highest quality and standards of design. Dozens of nuclear power plants were built across the nation to provide what was considered cheap and reliable energy to a country lacking in natural resources.

But this model failed to take one thing into account: A society needs to reinvent itself precisely at those times when it is at its peak of efficacy.

Instead of encouraging investors to use superfluous funds to purchase California golf courses and Australian real estate, as it did in the 1980s, the government should have been heavily taxing windfall profits and plowing the national riches into education, health and welfare for the benefit of present and future generations.

The model of “enrich the top and the rest will take care of itself” failed, and it is continuing to fail. The reason why the younger generation today is characterized by social lethargy, political inactivity and a general lack of drive is that they see no reason to be motivated.

Why work your guts out for a company that doesn’t reward insight until the person proffering it is well into middle age? Why pursue a life of total dedication to a company that your absent father chased after?

The failure of the older generation to prepare the ground for the regeneration of society is the primary cause of the malaise among the young.

And yet, despite the rise of the Chinese and the successes of the Koreans in rivaling the Japanese at their own game, the bureaucrats and politicians here have stuck to their outmoded guns. We will make this system work again, they claim. It worked in the past and it will work in the future.

There is a difference though: The ingenuity and innovation brought to bear in those now distant decades are often missing in today’s Japan.

The prime example of the old-gun mentality is the approach of the present administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. All that has to be done to reassert the primacy of Japanese industry around the world — according to this approach — is ensure the lowering of the value of the yen to make Japanese products more competitive.

And all that has to be done to restart the engine of prosperity is restore confidence in the value of the stock market.

The rest will follow, as it did after July 1956, when the old Economy Planning Agency of Japan announced that “the postwar era is over,” meaning that the Japanese economy was officially reset on its new course.

Today’s government policy may be creating a temporary euphoria among stockholders and captains of export-oriented industry, but the overall effect of it is to exacerbate the inequalities that have been incorporated into the system in the past two so-called lost decades.

There is real poverty in this country, and Abe’s lowering of welfare payments to those in need will only increase the suffering. The education system requires structural and curricular reform, yet the prime minister is stressing moral codes comprised of tacky cliches.

And, above all, the lessons of March 11, 2011 have not only not been learned: They are being summarily ignored.

If that catastrophe taught us one thing it is that, of all nations, Japan requires alternative and renewable sources of energy. Nuclear energy in a country plagued by earthquakes and tsunamis, and with over a 100 active volcanoes, presents an existential threat to the land and its people.

While standing in Nagatacho and watching the skyscrapers pitch like the thick masts of ships, and by learning, some hours later, of the disaster that had befallen the country, I came to realize that this was a chance for the Japanese to refocus on their genuine needs in the coming decades.

However, by turning their backs on those needs, and negating the realities — the outright danger of nuclear power generation, the crumbling edifice of social equality and the absence of incentive to achieve and innovate in the younger generation — the Japanese have opted, in the reinstatement of an LDP government by landslide just last December, for a political choice that spells degeneration and decline in the future.

That degeneration and decline — and what the Japanese can do to arrest it — form the theme of my final Counterpoint next week.