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There is growing opinion at home and abroad that Japan lacks national leadership. When the former ruler of a neighboring country suggested recently that Japan had no true leader, there was no public outrage in Japan.

Perhaps Takashi Hara, prime minister in the early 20th century, was the last politician who could be called a true national leader. After Hara, Japan was ruled by a succession of prime ministers who represented political parties, the military and the bureaucracy. Among them, only Shigeru Yoshida, Hayato Ikeda and Yasuhiro Nakasone deserved to be called a “national leader.” Hideki Tojo, who plunged Japan into the Pacific War, could be better described as a guide to hell.

Why does Japan lack political leaders? In my opinion, that is because politicians fail to view things from the perspective of international competition.

This thought hit me when I read a report submitted in January by an advisory panel to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi regarding Japanese goals for the 21st century. The report contained many glittering recommendations but failed to view things from the perspective of international competition.

Obuchi himself has seldom mentioned international competition in his remarks to the Diet. Obviously, the advisory panel wrote a report in a way that would please the prime minister, or he sought a report that would suit his needs. The report ignored national security issues and defense strategies.

In the 21st century, Japan will face severe international competition in every field. The country will have little trouble coping with business rivalries, especially in trade, but will have difficulty dealing with competition in national security and defense strategies. Among Japan’s neighbors, South and North Korea are difficult to deal with. Japan, which has diplomatic relations and generally friendly ties with South Korea, must be careful in its relations with Seoul because of the unhappy history involving the two countries. Japan should never disregard North Korea, but bilateral relations are far from friendly.

Far more important than ties with South and North Korea are Japan’s relations with China. Japan must aid China’s economic development, while always keeping in mind its wartime aggression toward that country. A major challenge for Japanese diplomacy is helping China, a friendly neighbor, win international recognition, even as this country continues its cooperation with the United States. Japanese political leaders face extraordinarily difficult tasks, and they must clearly recognize this. Some pro-Taiwan Japanese harbor malice toward and fear of China. Should Japan show hostility toward China, the latter could respond in kind, bringing catastrophic consequences for the two nations.

Japanese leaders should avoid such a foolish, suicidal move and should resolve to establish friendly relations with China in a peaceful East Asia. U.S. foreign-affairs expert Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others, has proposed policy measures to improve U.S.-China relations. Obuchi’s advisory panel, in recommending Japanese goals for the 21st century, failed to take up similar subjects. Perhaps the group, appointed by “Prime Minister Vacuum” (Obuchi’s nickname for his lack of action), visualized Japan in a vacuum when writing the report.

The future of Japan, a nation that lacks resources, depends on how it will deal with international competition. It is up to Japanese leaders to work out and implement proper policy measures in this regard.

Regrettably, all Japanese prime ministers, including Obuchi, have lacked the leadership needed to survive international competition. It is not easy to determine why this is so.

One problem is that international relations have been influenced by either war or peace, and nothing in between.

After the mid-1930s, war was stressed, and military competition was the greatest international concern. Since the end of World War II, however, Japan has enjoyed a long period of peace and has avoided all conflicts and even competition with other nations. During the postwar Occupation, Japan was not even allowed to develop its own diplomatic policies. After it gained independence, Japan received U.S. military protection under the umbrella of the bilateral security treaty. Politicians and public alike were interested only in domestic issues and remained generally unconcerned about international relations.

The situation remains little changed today. As far as I know, Diet debate between the prime minister and opposition leaders has not dealt with international competition. If Japanese politicians have little interest in international competition, Japan is unlikely to have a bright future. I am waiting for politicians with true leadership skills.

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