It is a political season. Barack Obama was recently re-elected president of the United States, China has anointed Xi Jinping as its new leader, and Japanese politicians are jockeying for position in advance of a general election to be held on Dec. 16.
In January, President Obama will give an inaugural address, accompanied by all of the pomp and circumstance that can be mustered, to present his agenda and call upon all citizens to unite behind shared American values. Most inaugural addresses fail to live up to their hype but they generally do lay out a policy road-map and offer at least fleeting inspiration. The best — John F. Kennedy’s call to Americans “to ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” — live on in the hearts and minds of the people for generations.
Incoming Japanese prime ministers also give inaugural addresses, not that anyone notices. Their addresses are as forgettable, and as disposable, as most Japanese prime ministers themselves. In any case, Japan does not have a tradition of great speech-making. Japanese tend to be suspicious of bold pronouncements and smooth talkers. The most talented and effective people in Japanese organizations are often those who operate best behind the scenes, not in the spotlight. Americans sometimes confuse eloquence with judgment and verbal dexterity with competence; Japanese tend not to have that problem.
In this turbulent era, however, perhaps a clear, detailed and honest speech that presents both a vision for the future and an agenda for action might help shake the citizenry out of their lethargy and inspire them to accept the deep reforms needed to ensure that Japan’s future is as bright as its past. So, as long as I’m dreaming, here’s the inaugural address I’d like to hear from the next prime minister.
My fellow Japanese . . . We Japanese are humble. Humility is a laudable, and underappreciated, virtue. However, our humility sometimes causes us to lose sight of our strengths.
At this challenging time in our history, let’s take a moment to reflect on our qualities and our accomplishments. Not out of pride or boastfulness; rather, the act of remembering who we are and what we have achieved might give us the confidence to realize that we have the “right stuff” to create a bright future for ourselves and our progeny.
Above all else, we Japanese are endlessly resilient. Knock us down and we get up, calmly dust ourselves off, and build something new and better. Even after two decades of economic and political mismanagement, not one but two devastating earthquakes, a historic nuclear disaster, and even a large, homegrown terrorist attack in the heart of our capital city, Japan, by most objective measures, thrives.
Our people are prosperous and have the longest life spans in the world. Our schools and universities graduate highly educated and talented young people year after year. Our companies develop innovative technologies and products. Our streets are safe and clean. Our civil servants are honest and hard-working. We provide world-class health care to almost all of our people. Our citizens are ever more engaged and civic-minded, whether though cleanup and rebuilding efforts in Tohoku or advocating against nuclear power — itself a wonderful example of peaceful free expression, whatever your stance on the issue. Our cultural scene — from manga and anime to literature, from fashion to cuisine to architecture — is vibrant and creative. I could go on and on.
We Japanese have a lot to be proud of. But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The challenges we face are immense and yet we seemingly lack the collective will to act decisively. We suffer from malaise and cynicism. Our failure to act betrays both past generations of Japanese — who worked and sacrificed to raise us to towering heights of prosperity — and our children, whom we condemn to lives of limited opportunities and low expectations. Shame on us.
This must change, and, under my administration, it will. I won’t promise that our transformation will be completed overnight. It will take years to put us back on the right track. For one thing, demographics don’t lie and, for Japan, they are cruel. But I do promise to make measurable progress over my complete, four-year term. That’s right, I am removing the revolving door from the prime minister’s office.
So let’s get down to brass tacks. Here’s what my administration will do to revitalize our country.
First, our policies will be designed principally to promote the interests of the young. Our senior citizens deserve our care, respect and appreciation. But a nation of the elderly, by the elderly and for the elderly will soon perish from the Earth.
This government will not, for example, spend even one more yen to rebuild towns which were on their last legs even before the Great East Japan Earthquake. Instead, our focus in the disaster region, and throughout the country, will be to build places where young people want to live, work and raise families.
We will also not permit a dwindling number of aging farmers to dictate trade policy. Japan as a whole will benefit enormously from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other opportunities for more open international trade. With our educated and innovative people and well-capitalized companies, expanded trade will be an engine for economic growth and lead to the creation of millions of new, well-paid, knowledge-based jobs for our young graduates. If the price of the TPP is scrapping our outdated agricultural policies, the trade-off is well worth it.
And we will need to take painful steps to control our pension and health care costs. We will not rule out all tax increases to fund benefits, but our priority will be to keep taxes low enough to enable families to thrive and businesses to grow.
Some may think that this “young first” agenda is impossible, that Japan’s “silver” citizens are too numerous, too rich and too influential at the ballot box to accept any infringements on their settled ways. This is wrong and it is insulting. Our elders have not lived selfish lives. They built this country not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. Our senior citizens have our backs and will support our reforms.
Second, this government will take serious, tangible steps to enable our country to fully utilize our biggest wasted natural resource: Japanese women. We rightly spend enormous sums to educate women and girls. The result is a huge pool of highly educated and talented women. Indeed, female Japanese college graduates put many of our men to shame. These women are more adventurous, and more willing to learn foreign languages and study and work overseas, than our young men. Yet the return on our investment in women is paltry. This makes no sense.
Our workplaces need to be more welcoming of women and more willing to promote them to positions of authority. We must also make it easier for women with children to work outside the home by expanding day care centers and, as many of our economic rivals have already done, liberalizing visa policies to allow foreign maids and nannies to work in Japan and relieve our women of some of their domestic duties.
I am hereby directing all government ministries to immediately and substantially increase their hiring of career-track female officials and to promote more women to management and executive positions. To set an example, no less than one-quarter of all Cabinet ministers in my administration will be women. I expect private industry and local governments will follow our lead and hire and promote more women. If we do not see concrete progress soon, however, we will consider other, more forceful measures, including quantitative targets for hiring and promoting women, to encourage our transition to a society that takes full advantage of all of our human resources, not just half of them.
We expect that policies favoring the young and women will lead to more productivity — and more babies. But, given the huge demographic hole we have dug for ourselves, it will not be enough.
This leads to our third major policy change: immigration reform. While we will never be an immigrant nation like the United States or Australia, there are important areas, such as domestic workers, as previously mentioned, where we can open our doors to more immigrants without substantial impact on social cohesion. Indeed, once more immigrants are here, we will quickly come to realize the value of the diversity they bring to our society.
We have more work to do to build a national consensus on which sectors to open to increased immigration. However, I vow that, once we decide upon a course, there will be no more ad hoc, half-way measures that satisfy no one and accomplish nothing. For example, it is abundantly clear that Japan will need many more caregivers for our elders in the years to come and that the domestic supply will never meet the demand. There are hundreds of thousands of competent, caring foreign workers who can fill these roles. If we open our doors to these caregivers, our elders will get better care at a lower cost. Insisting, as we have, that these people pass a difficult licensing exam — in Japanese, no less! — as a condition to remain in the country is foolish. We will put a stop to this and other illogical and self-defeating conditions.
Another no-brainer: We will support our universities’ efforts to increase the enrolment of foreign students by expanding our visa programs to enable foreign graduates of Japanese universities to work long-term here after they graduate. This will also have the positive effect of increasing the size, skills and global-mindedness of our workforce.
Fourth, we will improve the English skills of our people. English is a key to success in international business but Japan lags embarrassingly behind our peers in English ability. We are committed to comprehensive, bottom-up reform of our English education system, but this will take time. Therefore, we will also take immediate, top-down steps to promote English.
First, I am issuing an order to all government ministries requiring them to give preferential treatment, in hiring and promotion, to those with English or other foreign language skills and significant experience working or studying abroad. Second, we will institute policies to encourage companies to adopt similar measures, such as giving preferential treatment in bidding for government contracts to companies that show measurable improvements in their employees’ English skills.
In South Korea, mothers encourage their children to learn English and study and work overseas because they know that such skills and experiences are indispensable ingredients for success in the 21st century. We must convince Japanese mothers to adopt the same mind-set.
Our fifth reform is to re-engineer government to emphasize individual empowerment over smothering regulation. Japan has made steady progress in reducing the government’s footprint over the economy but the pace of change is too slow and the default position is too often to preserve the status quo, even when the status quo is disastrous.
Painful as it is, destruction — including the destruction of jobs, companies, even whole industries — is sometimes necessary, and can unleash the creativity of our people. So let’s allow even more of our big companies to fail. Let’s encourage foreign investors to buy sluggish Japanese businesses and re-invent them. Let’s make it easier for entrepreneurs to start companies and rejoice together not only in their successes but even in their failures, since failure now can lead to success later.
I recently met an ambitious young college student who had been president of a company while still in high school in Hokkaido. At his high school and others throughout the country, teachers inculcate their students in entrepreneurship by having them establish real companies, design and build real products, and implement real marketing and sales plans. This is precisely what Japan needs more of. Our future will be determined largely by whether Japan can produce and nurture enough of these kid entrepreneurs.
Sixth, we will make research and development in the field of energy a top national priority. Our R&D will be both on the conservation and generation sides of the ledger. We have, so far, handled the sudden loss of nearly one-third of our electricity generation capacity with remarkable adeptness. This is attributable to the cohesion and public-spiritedness of the Japanese people and the emphasis we have always placed on conservation. I dare say no other country in the world could have handled this severe adjustment so smoothly.
But we will continue to need power, and lots of it, well into the future. So we will increase our use of intelligent technology to reduce electricity consumption. And we will develop wind, solar, wave, biofuel and other alternative sources of energy. We have heard the voices of the people and are committed to phasing out all our current and prior generations of nuclear power plants by 2040. Over this same period, we will work with industry to seek to develop new nuclear power technologies that are truly safe no matter what nature or man throws at them. There are already a number of potentially safe nuclear technologies on the drawing boards, such as pebble bed and thorium. Japan has many of the best engineers in the world. We should be in the forefront of developing new energy technologies, nuclear among them.
Finally, Japan is a proud part of Asia and we will continue to pursue strong business and cultural relationships with all of our neighbors here, while continuing to promote relations with our trading partners and friends in the United States, Europe, South America and elsewhere.
As with all relationships, there will inevitably be sincere disagreements between Japan and our Asian partners, as we have experienced recently in nearby seas. We are committed to openly discussing all points of contention in a spirit of mutual respect and friendship. We ask our neighbors to join Japan in our absolute rejection of the use or encouragement of hate speech, provocative acts and violence in international relations.
The challenges we Japanese face are great. Special interests and political factions will try to stop serious reforms dead in their tracks. When they can’t stop reforms, they will try to water them down, leaving a meaningless mush in their wake. My administration will fight tooth and nail against these forces of narrowness and regression. We vow to serve the whole of the Japanese people. In order to end the paralyzing political bickering that has consumed us for far too long, we respectfully ask the other parties to sign on to our common-sense agenda and join us in a grand coalition to finally do the work of the people instead of the politicians and bureaucrats.
My administration cannot do it alone. Fellow citizens, we need your vocal support. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.
Glenn Newman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an attorney and former long-term resident of — and frequent business traveler to — Japan. Light Gist offers a less serious take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send your comments and story ideas to email@example.com.