I wish more people understood Japan better. I wish I understood Japan better.

It’s not that Japanese people are so utterly inscrutable; that’s an almost racist proposition.

And it’s not that Japan itself is so impossibly mysterious; other countries and cultures (which will remain nameless) come much more readily to mind as inscrutable.

Understanding Japan, however we come to understand it, is vitally important. The country remains one of the world’s economic powerhouses, and its exceptional culture of literature and movies has injected deep roots into humanity’s consciousness.

We should never forget, either, that Japan is the only nation on which nuclear weapons have been dropped. What’s more, its foreign policy is adjusting to new circumstances, however slowly, as China rises and the West (and the rest) has to change with this obvious reality.

Underestimating Japan, as China’s rise proceeds apace, would be a huge mistake. Notice a recent news story, in The New York Times reporting the surge in American auto-buying of smaller cars that offer notably superior gas mileage. The story pictured three models as the leaders: two were Japanese. Of course.

It’s almost as if Japan Inc. rolls on even as Japan’s political establishment nearly comes to a dead stop. Such disconnects — between an economic powerhouse and a political midget — add up to an almost perfect storm.

Virtually all observers agree, therefore, that Japan is getting ready to install a new prime minister — once again! Yes, Japan tends to go through leaders like Hollywood stars go through spouses or doctors through nurses.

The Oriental Economist — the invaluable English-language monthly out of New York that’s practically a political intelligence digest about Japan — concludes, as if banging down a gavel: “Yasuo Fukuda’s days as prime minister are numbered. His clumsy handling of both the Bank of Japan (BOJ) transition and the gasoline tax has sealed his fate.

“This is partly because his missteps come at a crucial time for the Japanese economy, and partly because his repeated miscalculations and gaffes show he is simply not up to the job.”

There’s another reason for Fukuda’s decline: He is not — remotely — Junichiro Koizumi, the most recently successful Japanese prime minister. Koizumi retired after a brilliant five-year run in the fall of 2006, and, wisely, has stayed retired. Like a successful Vegas gambler, he knows the only way you leave the wagering table a winner is to leave with a lot more chips than you sat down with. But stay long enough at the political-poker table, and before you know it, you’ll be down to your last yen.

Before he niftily departed center stage, Koizumi set a new high standard for public expectations of what constitutes a first-rate Japanese prime minister. Telegenic looks, in this age of TV politics, are essential. Fukuda, though he may be a nice man and even a superior human being to Koizumi, projects the image of every tired, ineffectual and miscast prime minister ever inflicted on the proud and needy Japanese.

For the rest of the world, Japan is easier to do business with when its leader knows what he is doing. Koizumi sought to re-sculpture the interior of the Japanese economy. While all too firmly nationalistic, he was also a campaigner for acceptance of less government in those areas where the profit motive would be strong enough to fuel private enterprise. My liberal friends in America would regard that economic philosophy as Republican or even rightwing.

But in Japan such a challenge to the status quo is more likely to be viewed as a kind of leftism. Koizumi’s big economic thing was privatization of the leathered Japanese postal service. Now, more of the same elsewhere in the economy is seen as just the tonic the country needs. And more and more people are looking for Koizumi to sprinkle the last of his political magic.

You have to believe that he is too smart to want to stride back onto the playing field for a second run as prime minister when his legacy is already secure. But behind the scenes he can be working to create a new political coalition in the Diet that could serve as a true force for change.

Koizumi, made prime minister by the Liberal Democratic Party, was never a great fan of the LDP. In fact, critics say that the long-ruling LDP is not very liberal and not very democratic and when you come to think of it, more a shaky coalition of self-interested blocks than a coherent party.

Before he left office, Koizumi had shaken up the party, which is to genuine political change what calcium is to an old drainage pipe. Now, in post-prime ministerial sainthood, he may just have enough clout to bring a Third Force into Japan’s calcified politics. Here’s hoping he gives it his best shot.

Professor Tom Plate teaches issues of the media and politics of contemporary Asia at the University of California, Los Angeles. © 2008 Tom Plate.

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