AMSTERDAM – Amid the horrifying news from Japan, the establishment of new standards of political leadership there is easy to miss — in part because the Japanese media follow old habits of automatically criticizing how officials are dealing with the calamity, and many foreign reporters who lack perspective simply copy that critical tone. But compared to the aftermath of the catastrophic Kobe earthquake of 1995, when the authorities appeared to wash their hands of the victims’ miseries, the difference could hardly be greater.
This time, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan government is making an all-out effort, with unprecedented intensive involvement of his Cabinet and newly formed specialized task forces. The prime minister himself is regularly televised with relevant officials wearing the work fatigues common among Japanese engineers.
In 1995, Kobe citizens extricated from the rubble were looked after if they belonged to corporations or religious groups. Those who did not were expected to fend mostly for themselves. This reflected a ‘feudal’ like corporatist approach, in which the direct relationship between the citizen and the state played no role. This widely condemned governmental neglect of the Kobe earthquake victims was among the major sources of public indignation that helped popularize the reform movement from which Kan emerged.
Unfortunately, today’s Japanese media are overlooking that historical context. For example, the newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun recently lamented the shortcomings of the Kan government’s response, emphasizing the poor lines of command running from the Cabinet to officials carrying out rescue and supply operations. But it failed to point out that the feebleness of such coordination, linked to an absence of Cabinet-centered policymaking, was precisely the main weakness of Japan’s political system that the founders of the DPJ set out to overcome.
When the DPJ came to power in September 2009 it ended half-a-century of de facto one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. But even more significantly, its intentions addressed a cardinal question for Japan: Who should rule, bureaucratic mandarins or elected officials?
The LDP, formed in 1955, had not done much actual ruling after helping to coordinate postwar reconstruction, which extended without debate into an unofficial but very real national policy of, in principle, unlimited expansion of industrial capacity. Other possible priorities hardly ever entered political discussions.
The need for a political steering wheel in the hands of elected politicians was highlighted in 1993, when two major political figures bolted from the LDP with their followers. By doing so, they catalyzed the reformist political movement that resulted in the DPJ, the first credible opposition party that — unlike the Socialists who engaged in mere ritualistic opposition — was prepared to win elections and actually govern rather than merely maintain the facade of government that had become the norm under the LDP.
Lowering the prestige of the government right now is the fact that Kan has not shown any talent for turning himself into a TV personality who can project a grand image of leadership. But his government is dealing without question as best it can in the face of four simultaneous crises, its efforts encumbered by huge logistic problems that no post-World War II Japanese government has ever faced before.
The efforts of Kan’s government are obviously hampered by a rigid and much fragmented bureaucratic infrastructure. The DPJ has had scant time to make up for what the LDP has long neglected. Its 17 months in power before the current catastrophe have been a saga of struggle with career officials in many parts of the bureaucracy, including the judiciary, fighting for the survival of the world they have always known. Other countries could learn much from the DPJ’s attempt to alter a status quo of political arrangements that has had half a century to form and consolidate.
But it was the United States that first undermined the DPJ administration, by testing the new government’s loyalty with an unfeasible plan — originally the brainchild of the George W. Bush-era U.S. defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld — to build a new base for the U.S. Marines stationed on Okinawa. The first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, miscalculated in believing that a face-to-face meeting with the new American president to discuss long-term matters affecting East Asia could settle the issue. He was steadily rebuffed by the American government. As Hatoyama could not keep his promise to safeguard the interests of the Okinawan people, he followed up with a customary resignation.
Japan’s main newspapers have mostly backed the status quo as well. Indeed, they now appear to have forgotten their role in hampering the DPJ’s effort to create an effective political coordinating body for the country. A half-century of reporting on internal LDP rivalries unrelated to actual policy has turned Japan’s reporters into the world’s greatest connoisseurs of political factionalism. It has also left them almost incapable of recognizing actual policy initiatives when they see them.
The rest of the world, however, has marveled at the admirable, dignified manner in which ordinary Japanese are dealing with terrible adversity. I am repeatedly asked why there is no looting or signs of explosive anger. The term “stoicism” appears over and over in media coverage of Japan’s calamity.
But, in my half-century of close acquaintance with Japanese life, I have never thought of the Japanese as stoic. Rather, the Japanese behave as they do because they are decent people. Being considerate, they do not burden each other by building themselves up as heroes in their own personal tragedies. They certainly deserve the better government that the DPJ is trying to give them.
Karel van Wolferen, author of “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” is emeritus professor of comparative political and economic institutions at the University of Amsterdam. © 2011 Project Syndicate