Commentary / Japan

Is hope really on the horizon in Japan?

by Yuki Tatsumi

On Oct. 22, Emperor Naruhito officially announced his ascendance to the throne. Although the new imperial era—Reiwa—technically began on May 1 after Emperor Akihito abdicated, the proclamation ceremony was an occasion where the imperial succession was publicly announced. The country concludes a six month celebration of the beginning the new imperial era with a parade on Nov. 10.

Looking back on the Heisei Era (1989-2019), one cannot help but think about the dramatic change the country has gone through. Japan tumbled from being the world’s second-biggest economy into a period of economic stagnation that it is still trying to end.

The end of the Cold War did not bring the peace dividends that Japan had hoped for. In fact, with North Korea’s missile and nuclear ambitions expanding and China increasingly growing assertive, Japan now finds itself in a much more insecure environment.

The Heisei Era also tested the resilience of Japanese society and its people. During the 30-year era, the country experienced multiple large-scale natural disasters, the biggest of which occurred on March 11, 2011 when the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit the Tohoku region hard. In other words, despite the aspirations that led to the choice of the era’s name, which means “peace everywhere,” at the last imperial succession in 1989, the last 30 years turned out to be anything but a peaceful period for Japan.

When the new imperial era Reiwa was announced in April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his hope that the new era would be period of hope for Japan. Looking ahead, however, a series of external and internal challenges await the nation and the years ahead looking anything but hopeful.

Externally, Japan finds itself in an increasingly insecure environment. North Korea continues its provocative behavior, including shocking Japan when it test-fired its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, Pukguksong-3, on Oct. 3. Pyongyang’s determination to continue to develop its ballistic missile capability was confirmed again when North Korea fired two “projectiles” that are considered to be ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Oct. 31.

Although Japan has made a decision to introduce additional assets for ballistic missile defense, the repeated missile tests by North Korea have triggered a discussion in Japan on whether its current plan for the missile defense is sufficient.

Despite the growing threat posed by North Korea, Japan finds itself with less international support. Tokyo’s relationship with Seoul has reached its lowest point since the conclusion of the 1965 normalization treaty. And ties could grow even chillier if the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement expires on Nov. 23.

Abe met South Korea Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon on Oct. 24 and agreed that the current state of Japan-South Korea relations should not be left as they are, and Abe met briefly with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Thailand. Unfortunately, however, there is no clear path for improvement as the two countries stand far apart on the issue of compensation for Korean wartime laborers.

Japan is also increasingly uneasy about the attitude of the United States as North Korea continues its provocations. As the denuclearlization talk between the U.S. and North Korea remains deadlocked, U.S. President Donald Trump has been peculiarly silent on Pyongyang’s missile tests, including the most recent ones last month. His silence has been interpreted by many that he does not want to spoil any chance of reaching a “deal” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

With impeachment troubles at home and the 2020 presidential campaign getting underway, Trump’s silence could mean he is simply too distracted by the political issues he faces at home and not interested enough to direct his attention to this issue. Or worse, the U.S. president could be dismissing North Korea’s behavior because it has refrained from conducting a new nuclear test. Either way, his silence on North Korea’s provocative behavior is a source of great concern for Japan.

Even though Japan’s relationship with China seems to be improving, such change appears to be taking place mainly in the economic realm and therefore has not translated into a change in China’s assertive behavior in the East China Sea, where it continues to pressure Japan’s defense efforts in southwestern part of the country.

In late July, the Defense Ministry announced that the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighter jets against airspace incursions by Chinese aircraft 179 times in the April-June period this year, the second highest number on record. Furthermore, China also seems to be deepening its security cooperation with Russia, which continues to test Japan’s defense capabilities from the north. Having long been outspent by China on defense, the military balance between the two nations continues on a trendline favoring Beijing.

In addition to these external challenges, Japan faces a serious domestic issue that it has yet to find an answer to: aging. According to the government’s white paper on the low birth rate and the annual report on aging, Japan’s population began to decline in 2011 and the trend has yet to be reversed.

Reports estimate that Japanese population will fall to 80.8 million by 2065, and the working-age population (15-64 years old) is estimated to shrink to 45.3 million. Meanwhile, the elderly population (65 years old and above) will make up nearly 40 percent of the total population by then.

In fact, one of Abe’s focal points in his economic and social policies has been how to cope with the shrinking population while maintaining a vibrant economy. “A society that women can shine,” “A society that all 100 million people reaches their full potential”—these are all mottos that the prime minister has used while pushing economic and social policies aimed at triggering structural change in the labor market that will enable people to work longer by offering more flexibility in how people work. However, these changes have yet to take root in society and have failed to achieve the impact he had hoped for.

At the dawn of the new era, how Japan will cope with these challenges at home and abroad remains an open question. Even less certain is the caliber of the political leadership that will navigate these challenges when Abe’s term ends in less than two years.

Yuki Tatsumi is codirector of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

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