LOS ANGELES — Japan is of gigantic importance to the United States and to the world. This nation — of 127 million people squeezed into one relatively small island — developed into the second-largest economy in the world.
Its engineering skill became legendary. Its national literacy level is exemplary. It’s a very serious place, with astonishing achievements in the arts, in design and, of course, in electronics. (Their automobiles aren’t bad, either.)
And it holds in its hands more U.S. government bonds and other critical official U.S. investments than any country in the world, including China.
But there is one bad thing about Japan: its political system. You may have noticed that they talk a lot about the need for “consensus” in Japan before any major political change or innovation can occur. One reason, among many, for all the talk is that in Japan, true political leadership is often hard to find.
During the last decade or so the country has seen more prime ministers entering and then being hurled back out on the street from the revolving door of power than people could almost count. In the high echelons of the Clinton administration, there was this running joke: “Hey, we just figured out how to pronounce the name of the new Japanese prime minister — and now he’s gone!”
For about five years, though, one giant political figure arrested this distressing development. His name was Junichiro Koizumi, and he was the Houdini of Japanese politics. This master of image-politics held together the long-running, dominant but fatally flawed Liberal Democratic Party by the perverse but amazingly effective tactic of attacking it, challenging it and at times purging it of its most dinosaur-like elements.
Koizumi could get away with this approach because his leadership functioned within a very clear public consensus. The consensus of the people of Japan was that this prime minister probably knew what he was doing.
It was a very opposite consensus that triggered the resignation of his successor as prime minister after less than a year on office. The general view on the street about Shinzo Abe — patrician, relatively young at 52 and seemingly nearly always out of it — was that the new prime minister probably did not know what he was doing.
“Abe was under extraordinary strain, and it was showing,” commented The Oriental Economist, the sharp-eyed monthly that offers a most reliable insider-look at Japan. “Usually amiable and pleasant to be around, Abe in recent days had become somewhat short-tempered and curt with aides.”
Now he is out, having resigned in abject political decline, having checked into a Tokyo hospital for fatigue and other ailments, and having virtually nothing to say about who is to become his successor. On the contrary, those in the Cabinet who were known to be closest to Abe, such as former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, would seem to have lost ground. And those who have been well removed from the Abe loop, such as semi-retired old hand Yasuo Fukuda, are suddenly back in the limelight.
The succession issue is important to the world and to the U.S. Japanese prime ministers do their friends and allies no favors when they insensitively insult neighbors by denying well-known horrors like the reality of World War II sex slaves. Japanese leaders who push the military expansion button too quickly or with excessive relish add to East Asian tensions.
And, of course, when the Japanese economy starts humming along nicely, which happened during the upbeat Koizumi years, this is on the whole helpful and healthy not only for Japan but also for Asia and the West.
Again, it is not possible to overestimate the importance of being Japan, especially with the U.S. economy looking to stall and China’s economy looking too amazingly hot to be genuinely all that solid.
In addition, under Koizumi and then under Abe, Japan had become increasingly important to the Bush administration. Tokyo had sent a token contingent of troops to Iraq: a naval presence to the Indian Ocean to add to the supply trail for U.S. troops in the region. But now all Japanese troops are out of Iraq (except for the Air Self-Defense Force’s transport aircraft and their crew), and the naval presence will probably be withdrawn when the Japanese legislation authorizing it expires Nov. 1.
Whoever succeeds Abe is, in immediate relations with the U.S., less likely to position himself as a Tony Blair type of prime minister (fawning and subservient) than as current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (friendly enough, but cool and correct).
What’s more, it may take a few years for Japan to sort out its political system. Washington may have to learn how to pronounce several new Japanese names before Japan’s political system uncovers a stabilizing politician like that swami-Shogun Koizumi.
UCLA professor Tom Plate, a board member of the Burkle Center for International Relations, is a veteran journalist and author of “Confessions of an American Media Man.” Copyright Tom Plate 2007