Sometimes journalists ask themselves questions that appear to border on the absurd. Here goes one of them.

Why is there no Japanese Barack Obama?

Obama’s message of “Change we can believe in” would seem likely to appeal to Japanese people in the same way that it, apparently, is appealing to many Americans.

It takes a sense of crisis — both real and perceived as real — to get most nations to be seriously interested in fundamental change. If Obama is truly in the mold of charismatic leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, then it may be thanks to incisive crises in American life today that will allow him to claim victory in the presidential election of 2008.

After all, Lincoln had his Civil War and FDR his Great Depression. George W. Bush has given the U.S. its longest-running war and a national economy teetering on the very edge of calamity. This, more than anything, has set the stage for an advocate of “Change we can believe in.”

Well, you might say, Japan is not involved in a major way in hostilities, and the economy is cruising on auto-pilot — without a head of the Bank of Japan to direct it, although this will hopefully be a temporary absence.

With the exception of the dynamic years early in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and the decade of national restoration following the end of World War II in 1945, Japanese people have steered away from any sort of leadership that appeared genuinely committed to social and political change.

The reformist policies of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, pursued with great rhetorical vigor from 2001 until 2006, were reformist in name only. The design behind them was to strengthen, rather than renovate, the edifice of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that has been at the center of Japanese politics since its formation in 1955.

Crises in Japan? Peace; annual, if modest, economic growth; some of the world’s most successful and admired companies — who needs an Obama here?

But there are, in fact, at least four major crises facing Japan today, and this should be prompting Japanese people to embrace change.

Crisis 1: An economy that has, for more than 20 years, resisted reorientation from being export-driven (relying on an undervalued yen and the open markets of the West) to one where domestic demand fuels its engines. One of the trendy bywords of the 1980s was naiju kakudai (the expansion of domestic demand). The then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone demonstrated his commitment to encouraging the purchasing of imports by ostentatiously buying an expensive silk necktie. In doing so, he displayed an unintended but deep cynicism toward expanding domestic demand in a meaningful way. The LDP-led government never sincerely intended to expand domestic demand.

The result: a Japan in 2008 caught in the doldrums, floating in an ocean of national debt with neither compass nor map.

Crisis 2: A foreign policy stuck in a Cold War mindset, unable to free itself from blind obeisance to American guidance, even when the American guides have long lost their own sense of direction.

Riddled with war guilt

Much of this crisis is tied to the issue of war guilt. Successive Japanese governments have, since the early 1990s, made half-hearted attempts to apologize for Japanese wartime atrocities in the Asia-Pacific region. Very few people outside Japan have trusted the sincerity of these apologies. The Japanese people, I believe, are still riddled with guilt over the atrocious misdeeds of their leaders during the war; yet because of their inability to come to terms politically with this guilt, they huddle under America’s wide-spreading wing to escape the necessity of standing on their own and taking responsibility for it.

Time for “Change we can believe in” if there ever was one.

Crisis 3: The double whammy of too many old people and not enough babies. It has been estimated that, in a decade from now, one in four Japanese will be 65 or older. They will require an increased level of social services catering to their needs. Japan’s welfare system, particularly in the healthcare area, is heavily overburdened. There is a massive shortage in care facilities for the elderly, and those that do exist are very expensive.

With a dwindling young workforce, who is going to pay to look after these people? Or do we just expect them to lie down and, if they are capable of doing it themselves, roll over.

Crisis 4: The educational system, from primary through to graduate school, was based on a Meiji Era model designed to train hardworking technicians for industry and public service (and, back then, for the military as well). Fostering creative, independent thinking was not an essential part of this training. It still isn’t. Sure, the atmosphere at Japanese schools and universities is freer than it used to be. But students are not encouraged to question and challenge authority. If they were to do this in school, god forbid, what might they do when they leave it?

Certainly in Japanese society, in virtually any area of work or activity students might choose to enter, it is still considered improper, indecorous and downright impudent to assert your talent and claim that you, individually, can change things for the better by virtue of that talent.

So long as Japanese society prevents its young people from assuming positions of power and influence, and discourages them from challenging established procedures, significant change in foreign relations, economic policy, welfare institutions and educational reform will be hampered.

Are Japanese people so afraid of change? What are they protecting? Not their hallowed traditions, which they have often junked without a second thought. Not the machine of their political system, which is barely able to creak along due to a surfeit of semi-competent politician-mechanics and a dearth of creative designers and inventive thinkers.

It is not that Japanese people are afraid of the processes of change, it is that they have been so suppressed by the forces of reaction running this country’s institutions that they have forgotten how to instigate those processes.

If an Obamalike figure did, suddenly, make an appearance on the Japanese stage, the “management” would make sure that, by the time his moment in the limelight came, he would be so old and tired that he would just repeat the lines handed to him, take a bow and, weary, retire to a back room.

This, however, does not change the fact that Japan needs an Obama as much as the United States does. If not more so.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.