Japan is groping in the dark politically, economically and diplomatically. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform initiative is deadlocked; there is even a sense that it might end up as an empty slogan. Prospects for the postal deregulation bills, a top item on his reform agenda, are at best uncertain even as the Diet session draws to a close.

The leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has no stomach for attacking political corruption in its midst, as epitomized by its weak-kneed response to the campaign-finance scandal involving Lower House member Muneo Suzuki. The LDP seems utterly unable to put its own house in order.

Japan’s ailing economy is a drag on global growth. A ministerial meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based club of industrial nations, reportedly has expressed concern about delays in write-offs of nonperforming loans and antideflationary efforts.

Diplomatically, the bungling of the Shenyang incident on May 8 has undermined the national interest and wounded national pride. Chinese police guards entered the premises of the Japanese Consulate General in violation of an international treaty providing for the inviolability of foreign diplomatic missions. But Japan remained defensive from beginning to end.

All of this and more shows that Japan’s governing system is not functioning as it should. The political parties, the government and the bureaucracy are visibly demoralized.

Gloom grips Japan today, much as Watergate depressed America more than a quarter-century ago. Americans lost confidence and pride in government as President Richard Nixon resigned following his impeachment by the House of Representatives. The Vietnam War — the first war America had lost in its history — also deeply traumatized Americans.

Yet America’s recovery from the Nixon shock and the Vietnam debacle provides a vital message: Japan should put its past failures behind it and engineer a recovery of its own.

What’s most lacking in Japanese society at the beginning of the 21st century is an aspiration to build a new society. As yet, Japanese leaders — not just politicians but corporate managers, senior bureaucrats and diplomats — have no clear vision of a new Japan.

In particular, political leaders must set clear goals for the nation and do their best to achieve them with a sense of mission and passion. They must act in a spirit of noblesse oblige, rising above the immediate and narrow interests of everyday politics. Such leaders seem to be few and far between.

In the worlds of politics and diplomacy, passivism seems to be the order of the day, with everyone trying not to “rock the boat.” In the Shenyang incident, for instance, Japan yielded to China’s initiative, leaving a blot on Tokyo’s diplomatic record.

Behind the Shenyang fiasco is the “play it safe” mentality of politicians and the Foreign Ministry anxious to keep Sino-Japanese relations on an even keel in this 30th year of normalization.

The LDP, meanwhile, has balked at an opposition motion calling for Suzuki’s resignation from the Diet. What’s more, the party leadership is reluctant to probe allegations that former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka had misused her secretary’s salaries. Tanaka has denied the allegations.

Here, too, the ruling party is trying to maintain the status quo. It does not want to create friction. Its propensity for tranquillity belies a desire to cover up scandals and to preserve the cozy ties that bind it and its friends.

Politics is a process of compromise, and so, too, is diplomacy. But there are limits to compromise. Making a dubious deal at the sacrifice of political ethics and national interests, for example, is something that should never be done.

In the second half of the 20th century Japan created its own brand of “socialist society” — a society seeking equality of results, not opportunity. The groundwork was laid by the national mobilization law of 1938 and by the post-World War II occupation that continued for seven years from 1945. During those 14 years everything in Japan, including politics, business, education and journalism, were tightly regulated.

After the war ended, the abolition of elite education and the demise of self-responsibility led to the spread of irresponsible egalitarianism throughout Japanese society. The Japanese believed that such was the democracy wrought by the U.S. occupation.

Japan spent lavishly on a wide array of public works projects, building highways, civic halls and other deluxe public facilities even in depopulated rural areas. Now public finances are in shambles, with the central and local governments having piled up nearly 700 trillion yen in deficits.

Education is also a mess. The quality of Japanese universities has declined to the point that they receive little attention abroad. Students, it is said, do not study very hard. Professors are held in low esteem.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 galvanized into action aspiring leaders in government, business, academia and other circles. They had a common goal: to modernize Japan to the levels of Western industrial powers. And they made enormous efforts to reach that goal.

Rapid modernization was the only way Japan could survive in Asia dominated by competing colonial forces. To that end, Meiji leaders sought to eliminate the remnants of feudalism and create Western-style social structures. They orchestrated nation-building efforts with clear objectives, such as establishing a Parliament, a civil service system and an education system, building up the military and promoting industry.

If they were alive today, how would they see today’s politicians and bureaucrats? Certainly they would be appalled at the spate of corruption scandals in government and politics. No doubt they would give this warning: Real reform of Japan must begin with a dismantling of the cozy relationships that permeate Japanese society.

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