I have sometimes said to my wife about a prominent politician, “Poor old so and so! He must be exhausted keeping to such a hard schedule. It’s a tough life being a peripatetic politician.” My wife’s invariable response has been, “Don’t waste your sympathy on politicians. They didn’t have to accept their posts (of prime minister, foreign secretary etc.). They are not acting out of a sense of duty, but simply because they enjoy power. If the heat is too much for them, they can always retire to bed or to their families.”

She is, of course, quite right. Politicians everywhere are in the political game for power, fame or money, or in some cases all three. A few may have an element of idealism in their makeup, but this soon disappears once they have got into the political game.

There has been some talk of a “sympathy vote” going to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori because of the untimely illness of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Observers recall the sympathy vote for the Liberal Democratic Party after the death of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira in 1980. Perhaps the LDP hopes that people will vote for the party on the grounds that Obuchi’s stroke was caused by overwork. Of course, everyone must be sorry for Obuchi and his family, but it is difficult for a foreign observer to understand why such sympathy should make the electorate favor his successor, whose policies are apparently to be identical with Obuchi’s. They should vote for Mori and his party if they support his policies, and for no other reason. If the LDP’s calculations about a sympathy vote are correct, the conclusion is inescapable that personalities still count more than policies in Japan and that democracy is immature.

Sometimes it is tempting, in looking at Japanese politics from the outside, to wonder how much it matters who is up and who is down or even whether politics matters that much. Such a cynical view would be a mistake — and potentially dangerous for Japanese democracy. Senior Japanese civil servants and businessmen are capable of running their own fiefs and could probably do so more effectively without interest-group pressures. But Japan cannot do without the politicians. The problems are huge, and solutions can only be found by political leaders with both foresight and the willingness to stand up to lobby groups who put their sectional interests above those of the country as a whole.

As seen from abroad, there is a serious danger that instead of modernizing, boosting competitiveness and tackling the challenges of an aging society and a debt-ridden economy, the conservatives in Japan’s government aim to slow reforms still further, making it increasingly difficult for the nation to play a commensurate role in the world. Some may argue that reforms, having gathered their own momentum, are now unstoppable. This might be true for the long run, but delays and prevarications at this stage could set back the whole process, to the detriment of Japan’s national interests. If Mori wants to go down in history as more than just another party hack who stumbled into the job of prime minister, he needs to grasp quickly the challenge of reform.

The image of Japanese politics abroad is still that important decisions are postponed while in smoke-filled party offices the politicians concentrate on whose turn it is to play leader. Japan’s relative inability to respond to crises, whether incapacitated politicians or volcanic eruptions, also damages the country’s standing and raises doubts about its candidacy for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council.

The names of even leading Japanese politicians are unknown abroad except to those in government or the media whose job it is to know. Civil servants will now be busy in advance of July’s Kyushu-Okinawa G8 summit doing their homework on the Japanese leaders their bosses will meet. There will inevitably be pessimism about the possibility of establishing the sort of personal relationships that, although they cannot bridge large policy gaps, can smooth relationships and help in times of difficulty. Japanese civil servants will no doubt do their best to encourage their politicians to put a brave face on Japan’s troubles and attempt to cloud realities with pious platitudes. But this won’t do anything for Japan’s world image. The Japanese media would do a service to their country if they could persuade Japanese politicians of the damage being caused by their current posturings.

What more can be done? The first need is for vigilance on the part of the Japanese media and the electorate. The second is to do everything possible to ensure a good turnout in the general election that must come soon. The third is that the politicians who seek re-election should be quizzed persistently about their real policy intentions. In particular, they should be pressed to push on with essential reforms. The opponents of reform need to be forced to come clean about the reasons for their opposition. If, as is mostly the case, their opposition to reform stems from their desire to benefit their supporters in interest groups, this should be made clear to the electorate. Before the election, the position of every candidate on the main reforms needed — for example, in banking and telecommunications — should be publicly clarified. Leading daily papers should question and record candidates’ replies. Those who give vague political answers should then be exposed for their hypocrisy.

What can the foreign observer do? Not much; but the positive elements in relations should be stressed, especially in terms of cultural ties. It is important to remember that relations are not limited merely to the political plane, important though this is in the modern world.

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