Friends of Japan abroad understand why Japanese politicians often assume a low profile in international relations. When they don’t — as when paying much-publicized official visits to Yasukuni Shrine or taking a recalcitrant position on whaling — they attract criticism.

Japan has nevertheless managed since World War II to produce a number of prime ministers with personality who knew how to get on with foreign politicians, and to ensure that due account is taken of Japanese interests and that Japan exercises its rightful role in the world.

Japanese prime ministers of international acclaim over the past 60 years have included Shigeru Yoshida, Eisaku Sato, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi. Others such as Hayato Ikeda, Nobusuke Kishi, Kakuei Tanaka and Takeo Fukuda, did achieve some international recognition, but their impact was limited.

Japan has had three prime ministers since Koizumi resigned in 2006. None of them has made a significant impact on the international scene. Shinzo Abe started well by mending fences with China, but what else did he achieve? Not much.

Yasuo Fukuda presided at a Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido that produced the usual cliches. G8 chairmanship status in itself could have given him the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the financial and economic crisis this autumn, but he took no initiative and the leadership was seized by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Some may have hoped that Taro Aso would make Japan more visible, but the nationalist baggage that he carries makes it doubtful that he will be given much of a hearing internationally, unless he has some constructive proposals to make. He seems preoccupied with trying to delay a general election in Japan and producing some halfhearted measures to kick-start the Japanese economy in ways that will not upset the pork-barrel factions in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

At the same time, Aso appears to have managed to offend important constituencies such as the elderly and the medical profession. It’s clear that the economic reforms that Japan still needs will not get anywhere while he is prime minister. Japan seems likely to remain without much international influence for some time to come.

Few foreigners expect that the main Japanese opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) under Ichiro Ozawa, would be any more effective. So far, the opposition’s policies seem to be neither imaginative nor adapted to meet the real needs of Japan today.

A recent article about politics in Japan in the London Economist was titled “Can this place be governed?”

Yes, it can if effective and imaginative leaders can be found. Japanese parliamentary democracy has flaws, but so does British parliamentary democracy, although the flaws in the two systems are rather different and result from differences in history and tradition.

Britain has developed a two-party system, although a third party, Liberal Democrats, could still play a balancing role if the results of the next general election were indecisive. Power has moved back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives since the war, and Labour cannot be certain that it will hang on to power at the next election.

In Japan the LDP has held power with only one brief interruption for over half a century. The Socialists produced two prime ministers, Tetsu Katayama and Tomiichi Murayama, but the former only held the post for nine months during the Allied occupation of Japan and the latter was the nominal leader of a government controlled by the LDP. Japan may now look as if it is developing a two-party system, but there are few ideological differences between the declared policies of the LDP and the DPJ. Many DPJ leaders are renegades from the LDP. The DPJ claims to oppose the LDP’s pork-barrel politics and to favor effective economic reforms, but would they really be able and willing to reform the Japanese political and economic process if they were to win a majority in the Lower House at the next election? The image of the Japanese political scene is blurred not least because of the genuine difficulties in effecting systemic changes.

In Britain many look on the present British government as a Cabinet of political pygmies, but the opposition front bench hardly qualifies as political giants. Perhaps as we get older and see more of our politicians, disillusion sets in as it did no doubt with previous generations.

In Japan it’s easy to look back with nostalgia to the leaders of the Meiji Restoration who managed to drag Japan into playing a significant world role at the beginning of the 20th century and ensure that Japan developed a modern and effective economy. But great leaders such as Hirobumi Ito and Aritomo Yamagata failed to foresee how modern Japan would try to assert a dominant role in Asia and nearly destroy itself after coming into conflict with the United States and Britain.

It would be good for Japan if individuals with personality, imagination, charisma and determination could emerge and provide Japan with effective new leaders. But the Japanese social system, as it has been developed by teachers, bureaucrats and businessmen, does not favor the emergence of such leaders who inevitably are “nails to be struck down.”

Out of the turbulence and poverty of the immediate postwar years, men like Akio Morita, Shoichiro Honda and Konosuke Matsushita emerged and thrived. I hope it will not be necessary for the trauma of these years to be repeated before Japan again produces leaders of such caliber.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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