With tension building over Iraq as the United States steps up military preparations, North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling threatens stability in Northeast Asia. War fears are clouding economic prospects worldwide.

Here in Japan, the deflation-stricken economy is showing signs of paralysis. Political leadership is of crucial importance in times of crisis such as these.

U.S. President George W. Bush, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, faces a severe test of leadership. He wants to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the dictator of what he sees as an “evil” state. But many nations of the world, particularly European nations, are opposed to Bush’s unilateralist ways.

America now appears isolated in the court of world opinion, with major powers such as France, Germany, Russia and China all trying to stop its rush to war. It looks like French President Jacques Chirac and other “dovish” world leaders are forsaking Bush. Only a handful of prominent leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, are siding with Bush.

The question is how future historians will judge Bush’s handling of the Iraqi crisis. By the same token, how will they evaluate his dealings with North Korea? The question for Koizumi is primarily economic: Will he go down in history as a successful deflation fighter?

At the moment, Koizumi is receiving little credit for his antideflation drive. A March 12 front-page story in the Yomiuri Shimbun called for a “major policy change,” saying in effect that his economic policy has failed. This criticism, which will likely be echoed by other leading dailies, seems well-grounded, as evidenced by the continuing slump.

Of course, it is unfair to blame him for all the economic ills that plague the nation. There is no denying, however, that his leadership has left much to be desired, economically and otherwise. But again his lackluster showing in other realms of public policy is not entirely his fault.

It can be said that the quality of a nation’s leader reflects the state of the nation, and vice versa. Japan’s political leaders seem to have diminished steadily in stature over the past half century.

Working as a political reporter and analyst during this period, I have seen more than 20 prime ministers come and go. The greatest of these men was Shigeru Yoshida, who steered the nation through the difficult times following the end of World War II. Ranking next, in my opinion, is Hayato Ikeda and Eisaku Sato, both disciples of Yoshida. Ikeda laid the groundwork for double-digit economic growth. Sato regained sovereignty over Okinawa.

Yasuhiro Nakasone, who pursued proactive diplomacy, can also be ranked among the great prime ministers of postwar Japan. He served for five years, the third longest after Sato and Yoshida. Ikeda is fourth in the length of service.

Prime ministers and their prospective successors in the early postwar years had clear visions for Japan, perhaps in part because the nation itself was a work in process. After Nakasone, however, the quality of political leadership seems to have declined. One reason may be the collapse of the economic bubble, which has fostered a sense of drift throughout Japanese society. Another possible reason is public cynicism toward politics, particularly political parties.

Over the past dozen years, parties large and small have experienced repeated splits and mergers. In the process, the political world seems to have lost the sense of direction. There seem to be few leaders, both in the ruling and opposition parties, who can rival the great men of yesteryear.

That may be part of the reason a sense of despair is creeping into political analysis. Observers are asking these days, half-jokingly: Where is Japan among the scores of nations of the world?

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