The Italy of Asia

From the December 2000 Trumpet Print Edition

Japan seems at risk of becoming the Italy of Asia in the political sense. Over the past decade, eight prime ministers have come and gone in Japan, and its present leader, Yoshiro Mori, barely survived a no-confidence vote in parliament last month.

The long-term stability this country enjoyed for 45 years following its defeat by the Allies in World War ii seems to have eluded Japan during the past ten years. With its economy still in the doldrums, although tentative signs of recovery are periodically reported, Japan’s series of governments over the past decade have refused to face the hard decision of economic restructuring. Big public spending programs in Japan have given the country the highest public debt in the developed world. Government after government in Japan has been hit by numerous scandals, many of which have forced the resignation of the incumbent leader at the time.

Having survived the no-confidence motion, Prime Minister Mori will not be resting on his laurels, as he is aware that his leadership enjoys only a 20 percent support from the Japanese public. Agitating in the wings, Koichi Kato, a fellow member of Prime Minister Mori’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is calling for strong medicine to correct Japan’s present political and economic malaise.

Of greater concern are those militants who—spurred on by China’s growth and North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric, and chafing at Japanese subservience to U.S. foreign policy—call for a more militant and nationalist approach to reviving Japan’s fortunes. Japan’s sensitivity to perceived threats from its neighbors across the China Sea motivated the present government to consider upgrading its surveillance of the Chinese and Southeast Asian coasts by seeking to purchase two sophisticated long-range reconnaissance aircraft for its coast guard.

Earlier this year the government announced a formal review of the pacifist constitution imposed on Japan following World War ii. The formal recognition last year of the imperial flag and anthem (links with pre-war Japan) were additional signs that this nation is preparing to move out of its pacifist role of the past half-century. Japan is preparing to shoulder a defense burden that will enable it to not only defend its home islands but also its vital interests abroad.

As the New York bureau chief of a Japanese news agency recently stated, “Japan enjoys watching confusion as long as it does not affect Japan.” Like Germany, Japan craves order. The instability of the past decade is building a tension in Japan which may seek its release in the revival of a defense industry as a means of reviving its economy.

Watch for another change of government in Japan and for a more aggressive approach by future ad-ministrations forced not only to consider hard decisions for economic restructuring, but also to face up to building a security and defense capability commensurate with the size of the world’s second-largest national economy.