An interesting new book by Edo Period literary expert Takehiko Noguchi, “Bakumatsu Kibun” (The Mood in the Last Days of the Tokugawa Shogunate), details how shogunate officials and citizens of Edo indulged themselves in lavish consumption and entertainment as they faced the demise of the government.

The author says the situation was somewhat similar to today’s Japan, where politicians, bureaucrats and the general public go about their business without a sense of crisis. Many pundits say Japan now faces great changes comparable to the Meiji Restoration, which heralded a time of national reconstruction. The present mood, however, reminds me of the pre-Meiji times of national decline.

In those days, shogunate officials were more concerned with self-protection than with the future of the nation and the threats from Western powers. People were amused by the utter confusion among high officials. In present-day Japan, politicians and bureaucrats often try to evade responsibility and protect their own interests on crucial policy issues, such as writing off banks’ bad loans and preventing mad cow disease.

Today’s television scandal shows are equivalent to the crude scandal sheets of the Edo Period. People just laugh at the caricatures of disgraced high officials and feel they have nothing to do with scandal-related problems. People appear to feel they can avoid serious trouble in times of crisis.

A series of political scandals have recently shaken Japan, including influence-peddling by lawmaker Muneo Suzuki to provide Japanese aid to construction projects in the Russian-held Northern Territories. A number of politicians have been tainted by scandals, and some lawmakers who once pointed accusing fingers at their colleagues are now facing similar accusations. Most scandals reportedly have been exposed through whistle-blowing.

In earlier times, the affairs would have been concealed through conspiracies of those involved. The fact that one scandal after another has erupted shows that while many are angered by or amused with scandals, an increasing number of people are dissatisfied with the existing political system, which is in a state of dysfunction. Optimists who point out that the end of the shogunate led to the Meiji Restoration may argue that signs of system dysfunction may precede national reconstruction. But ancient Rome just collapsed and failed to revive itself.

Some countries, such as Spain, the Netherlands and Great Britain, have failed to return to their former glory. Japan’s success in modernizing itself to compete with Western nations after the Meiji Restoration was an exception rather than the rule in world history. Today, it would be much more difficult to switch to national rebuilding at the end of an era because Japanese have not forgotten their years of glory and have no sense of crisis.

Before the end of the shogunate, Japan faced tangible threats from Western powers; Japan today faces threats from the global market economy. Meiji Era Japan prospered by ending the exclusion of foreigners and opening the country to the world. To survive, present-day Japan has no choice but to accept the market economy. Meiji Era reformers remembered the bitter lessons of the Opium War and realized they could not ignore the threat posed by Western powers, so they invited foreign experts to train the Japanese.

By comparison, Japanese leaders these days have little sense of crisis. In addition, Japanese today are much more affluent than their Edo Period ancestors who had nothing to lose; they also have networks of vested interests to form resistance forces to reform, making it extremely difficult to switch from a time of national decline to one of major reforms.

As things stand now, Japan is likely to experience a long decline. Changing history is the job of political leaders. Without leadership, it will be impossible to change the public attitude. Leaders need, more than anything else, a strong determination to change history, as well as the power of imagination and action.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi probably had such qualities when he inaugurated his government. Koizumi, however, is now preoccupied with minor issues such as the reform of seven government-backed corporations, the abolishment of Japan National Oil Corp., how to deal with forces resistant to his reform plans and the appointment of members to a third-party panel to discuss the management of four highway-related corporations.

Koizumi may say he has no choice but to fight the resistance forces that try to water down his reform plans over minor issues. If that is the case, Koizumi needs a grand strategy for his policies. He should not engage in minor skirmishes with rival groups. To change history, it would not be enough just to eradicate, one by one, networks of vested interests involving politicians, bureaucrats and local officials. A grand plan is needed — to move mountains instead of small hills.

The Koizumi Cabinet initially announced a policy to push “structural reforms without sanctuary,” but later fell into a trap laid by vested interests. The worst possible scenario for Japan would be to keep pushing structural reforms without achieving tangible results. If the present situation continues, the Japanese economy is sure to stall. Times change when the society, the economy, people’s thinking and their ways of living change.

The structure of power must change. When he became president of the Liberal Democratic Party, Koizumi set out to overhaul the LDP. These days, however, he has often compromised with resistance forces in the LDP. This is similar to the pre-Meiji idea of combining the shogunate and the Imperial Court for the sake of the shogunate’s survival.

The only way left for Koizumi to survive is to reshuffle his Cabinet on his own initiative, rebuild his administration (in which signs of discord are spreading) and revive his reform plans. Otherwise, the Koizumi administration must be replaced. My Cabinet in 1993 announced nearly 100 reform programs in the month after its inauguration. We met strong resistance from bureaucrats, but were able to implement reforms quickly since there were no lawmakers with vested interests in the ruling coalition who supported the bureaucrats.

Current opposition forces lack political strength, but a new opposition-based government is likely to take on new strength. When times change, conservatives and challengers, or the old and new forces, will be fighting for national leadership. Historic changes are often discontinuous. We must urgently shift from the end-of-an-era mood to the modern-day equivalent of the Meiji Restoration.

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