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LOS ANGELES — Japan is once again at a historical tipping point, what could be called a political ground zero. Japan has been at ground zero two other times in its modern history and both times the outcome was not pretty.

The first time was in the 1860s when the Tokugawa government was crumbling under the weight of bad economics and foreign pressure to open up to the world. That political revolution ushered in the Meiji Era government, which was dedicated to expelling the barbarians and restoring the Emperor. At that time, it opted to follow the Prussian model of government.

The second time Tokyo hit political ground zero was in the 1930s, when it was again on the verge of economic collapse and the military decided to take over the government and form an alliance with Nazi Germany. Fascism was the politics of choice. In both of these cases the collapse of political leadership led to a swing to the right and a go-it-alone brand of Japanese rearmament.

Could it happen again? Everyone I know says, “No way.” Perhaps it can’t, but all of the makings of a third modern political revolution with a traditional swing to the right are in place — a collapsed economy, the search for political heroes (read Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara) and quick fixes, the desire for an independent military capability, and an undercurrent of anti-Americanism spiced with a confrontational posture toward Japan’s historical rival, China.

Is Koizumi the man to cause such a swing? Who knows, but his upcoming foreign-policy travels sure make it seem like that is where he is headed. And if his efforts fail as miserably as is anticipated, this could drive Japan further into a crisis mode.

* The Zero Economy: It seems like interest rates and everything else in Japan add up to zero. Government bonds have been downgraded and rated lower than Botswana’s by Moody Investor Service. This is also the economy in which the main Japanese stock index hit a 19-year low last week.

Tokyo has new inward foreign direct-investment levels of near zero (actually 0.3 percent as a share of gross domestic product in 1999). It is also the economy that ranked 26th in global competitiveness and 28th in globalization according to think-tank estimates. It is also the economy with around $30 trillion in public and private debt and $2 trillion in bad loans — mostly in real estate, construction, wholesale and retail. How could Koizumi convince anyone he meets in his travels that Japan is serious about helping the global economy?

* A Karaoke Military: Japan’s defense posture is all pictures and background music. Its defense expenditure (equivalent to $34 billion or 0.90 percent of GDP) is only 1/6th of the U.S. expenditure, and as a percent of GDP is lower than that of Papua New Guinea and nearly the same as Latvia’s and Nepal’s.

Japan’s differences with Washington over environmental policy, Israel, terrorism, military cooperation and the role of the United Nations in world affairs are also forcing Washington to undertake a major reassessment of relations with Tokyo.

U.S. President George W. Bush once commented that he liked Koizumi the first minute he looked into his eyes. What Bush saw in those eyes was not the genius of an astute economic reformer, but the cunning of genuine hawk, a conservative focused on restoring Japanese national pride and military effectiveness. Just what Asia needs!

Sure, Bush has perception problems, but this vision of getting Japan to stand up for freedom has not only distorted Washington’s priorities with Tokyo, but let Tokyo off the hook on economic reform. Even so, for over a year now, and especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States has been doing everything it can to accelerate this shift in Japan toward a stronger military involvement in global affairs.

Altering the Constitution’s Article 9 no-war clause is high on the political reform list, but Tokyo won’t even challenge North Korean spy ships in its own territorial waters.

There is also evidence that government administrative reform has improved the leadership and crisis management authority of the Prime Minister’s Office, and now new parliamentary laws have been passed strengthening the capabilities and responsibilities of the Self-Defense Forces.

So where is the beef on counterterrorism legislation? The three original antiterrorism bills, including revision of the Self-Defense Forces law that meshes it with domestic laws during a contingency, were put into a continuing deliberation mode that will be picked up in the extraordinary Diet session that might start in October.

The bills were criticized widely for a lack of clarity, and the government was not even ready to explain let alone defend them in the regular Diet session. The bills were written in great haste and had many vague expressions and apparent gaps.

The problem is that there are two other bills still unwritten, one on public protection, which spells out how personal liberties and local government authority will be curtailed during an emergency. There is a team of drafters in the Prime Minister’s Office trying to ready this bill at least in outline by the fall. The other legislation involves U.S. military forces during an emergency, but it is not on the agenda yet. The contentious parts of the public protection bill are likely to die in the Diet.

* Zeroing Out: Koizumi is attending the New York City ceremonies being held Wednesday at the site of the World Trade Center Twin Towers because he really wants to be perceived as a leader in the fight against global terrorism. But once again, it is too little too late.

Koizumi headed the Tokyo’s Donors Conference of allies to support Afghanistan recovery, but only 30 percent of the $1.8 billion pledged has been delivered. He will give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York criticizing Bush’s plans to attack Iraq, but Bush has already changed course because of everyone else’s criticism.

Koizumi will then to go to visit Pyongyang. Never supportive of Bush’s “axis of evil” comment, Koizumi will try to settle the abduction issue, perhaps normalize relations and settle past accounts from Japan’s period of colonial rule. He may even try to get assurances for an extension of the North Korean missile test moratorium beyond January 2003. But he probably won’t discuss the most important issue — inspections for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Prospects are that Koizumi will return home with zero to show for his ill-conceived travels. It was misguided leadership like this, at home and abroad, that led Japan down the wrong path in the 1930s, and there is good evidence to suggest that Koizumi might be leading Japan in the same direction.

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