Japan's growing pains

16:49, November 15, 2010      

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By Luis Vega

As the airline pilot announced our proximity to Japan a sudden shiver shocked me. It felt as if the airborne metal vessel was penetrating an invisible magnetic field surrounding the vulnerable island below. The historical image of the nuclear cloud over Hiroshima unexpectedly came to mind as a jolt. I thought of a spiritual shield of thousands of souls encircling it acting as heavenly protectors. The feeling shook me hard and at the same time gave me calmed comfort. That instant I knew my first trip to Asia (2007) was going to be a memorable journey I would never forget.

On my first day, I was a guest of Masao Kunihiro, one of Japan's political icons, to lunch at the International House of Japan, an exclusive private club dedicated to promoting cultural exchange between Japanese diplomats, business people, intellectuals, artists and foreign counterparts. Mutual friends arranged the meeting. He heard of me. I had no idea who he was until we sat side by side that clear Tokyo afternoon. We started assessing each other immediately, listening, and learning across cultures and generations.

"You know I met Fidel Castro in person as well as the leader of North Korea — not the current one — his father. What's your opinion of Castro?" were his opening remarks once the conversation got going. Kunihiro had been a member of the Upper House of the Diet (Japan's Congress), created a political party, worked for NHK and Nihon TV as news anchor, published numerous books on Japanese politics and culture, yet remains a man open to new ideas and people. Perhaps my Caribbean island accent brought back fond memories of 'El Comandante.'

"The United States has the Statue of Liberty, France the Eiffel Tower, Latin America has Fidel Castro. I do not agree with his communist ideas but admire his courage and resistance. He is a survivor," I answered. His easy smile telegraphed we had just become friends — that we connected. My response communicated personal respect in spite of political disagreement. It was diplomatic and sincere and true.

Kunihiro was accessible, funny, instructive, candid and warm. Unbeknownst to me at the time his articulated questions presaged imminent political change brewing underneath the passive image of modern Japan. He represents an older generation of Japanese politicians and intellectuals who lived through and survived World War II. A teenage witness of Hiroshima, his generation was the one upon whose backs a defeated Japan was reborn, rebuilt, reinvented and transformed.

From his words I ascertained that like Mexico in 1994, the Dominican Republic in 1996, Venezuela in 1999 and Iraq in 2005, Japan was on the verge of an unprecedented process of democratization - not forced from outside but growing within. It was one whose results were difficult to predict or prevent, but the undercurrents of which were ready to surface shifting Japan's political tectonic plates like a Pacific earthquake. Change and openness was implicit in every conversation.

Democratization would culminate two years later in 2009 when the Democratic Party finally wrestled power from the Liberal Democratic Party after 50 years of almost one-party rule. It is this radical change from conservative right to liberal left that has invited Japan's current international tension with neighbors and allies. Political change does not translate into automatic improvement. Change for change's sake often brings inexperience to office with unfortunate consequences.

In 2007, Mr. Kunihiro was not alone in his desire for social progress and democratization. Fellow citizens yearned for the same opportunity to peacefully transform Japan by taking over the government through elections. Although not many were candid enough to openly say it. From my conversations with news directors, journalists and government officials, I inferred the nation was politically ripe to handle change but only if they choose the right candidate.

Japan today is a divided country fighting internal colliding visions of what it is, should be and will stand for in the world. The country is wrapped in a battle between idealism and reality, ivory tower theorists and hands-on veterans, liberals and conservatives, yet not between young and old. In contrast to the United States, Japan's is not a generational clash rather an ideological one. While Japanese pop culture leans toward adolescence, national politics remain gray and mature.

Most Asian politics are dominated by older men with shared political history but perhaps different sets of values. Confident enough in their maturity to try new approaches to old problems rejuvenated by possibility, as if on "Political Viagra." Deng Xiaoping was 72 years old when he launched the "Beijing Spring" movement allowing open criticism of Mao's "Cultural Revolution," opened China to the West and radically reformed its economy. These were young ideas coming from an old man.

Japan is learning the hard way it's easier to change Prime Ministers than political parties because national institutions, their staff, often remain constant and trained to resist alteration to the status quo. In such traditional political organizations nobody risks personal careers pushing innovation. They think creatively yet repress their thoughts, which forces essential change to be promoted and executed from the top by a seasoned trusted insider. In Asia the envoy to the future is an emissary from the past.

Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, from the conservative LDP, has been its most popular effective leader in modern times. In spite of coming from the traditional party in power he modernized Japanese politics using personal charisma to push through revolutionary reforms many resisted. He did it with a genius combination of youthful nationalism and a closer alliance to the United States in defense matters. It was change without changing political parties.

It was a success of political contradiction. "Kabuki Politics" performed still exclusively by men on a global media stage. All Koizumi successors, such as Abe Shinzo, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso and the first opposition Prime Minister from the Democratic Party Yukio Hatoyama (2009) lasted in office a year or less. This is because Japan's electorate feels restless of elected officials failing to solve the nation's mounting problems. Asian politics are intrinsically insular, difficult - not impossible - to penetrate by those outside organic and excluding national cliques.

Many Japanese feel their current leadership's inexperience exacerbates problems. This is especially true after electing Hatoyama based on unrealistic campaign promises and high expectations of historical change that once elected, he simply could not deliver. The nation's liberal media that helped get him elected played a key role in his fast undoing in less than a year. In Japanese society peer pressure and ostracism are recurring elements particularly in politics.

Hatoyama rallied his base with the implicit agreement he would remove a controversial American military base in Okinawa (he did not) and end Japan's eight-year refueling mission in Afghanistan supporting US military presence (he did). He wanted Japan less America-centric, more Asia-centric, undoing Koizumi's successful formula. When North Korea allegedly sunk a South Korean navy ship, it made the shift unrealistic and Hatoyama looked politically naive, hesitant and untested.

He rose to power following the machinations of astute political operator Ichiro Ozawa, who controlled the strings of power with bare knuckles and panache. Ozawa and Hatoyama were a power couple, one macho and street savvy, while the other had a blue blood pedigree. This was a marriage of opposites that worked until the Prime Minister decided to alter the accepted perception that Japan's foreign policy is determined by insiders behind closed doors. An uncovered campaign finance scandal led Hatoyama to resign quickly.

Asian politics are dominated by personal relationships because culturally these are closed realms populated by dynastic families that span centuries and the few outsiders allowed in their kingdom. Under the exotic robes of modernity, high technology and wealth lie ancient civilizations reemerging dominant in a new millennium almost intact. These are not immigrant families who rose to power through continuous territorial conflicts but indigenous royalty still exerting total control of their ancestral lands.

During my most recent visit to Tokyo in 2009 I had the opportunity to revisit friends inside the Diet, share tea, converse, exchange ideas about current events impacting Japan, the United States and the world. It was my second visit since 2007 and much had happened there since. My unofficial visit was in the midst of the Toyota recall crisis when one of the nation's top signature industries was taking a daily beating in American media that resonated around the world.

It was an unexpected event for a corporation not used to confrontation and a nation debating the closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. Some critics in the United States and Japan saw in the timing of both controversies more than a simple coincidence. A country dependent on exports cannot be perceived as not supportive of its main client and survive economically. There was a rational concern that politics tinted the Toyota recall debate inside and outside government.

In 1940, America imposed on Japan an embargo of steel, iron, aviation fuel and oil a year later in response to the Japanese invasions of China, the Soviet Union and Mongolia. The embargo crippled Japan's economy, triggered the cowardly Pearl Harbor attack and its lethal nuclear response in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Disguising war under an economic mantle is a common political recourse, whether it is Havana or Tehran. Economic embargoes are undeclared wars.

"But why did Japan, with a 10th of our industrial power, launch a sneak attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, an act of state terror that must ignite a war to death it could not win? Were they insane? No, the Japanese were desperate," writes former Republican presidential candidate, Patrick Buchanan, in his article "Why did Japan Attack US?" "To understand why Japan lashed out, we must go back to World War I. Japan had been our ally. But when she tried to collect the booty at Versailles, she ran into and obdurate (president) Woodrow Wilson."

Which is why Japan's current foreign policy conflicts with China over Diaoyu Islands (Japanese call it Senkaku Islands) and with Russia over Kunashiri Islands is raising warning signs in the region, among allies and its own national opposition that all want to see a return of stability, economic growth and political competence to the island-nation. Although not traumatized by the trauma of nuclear, war a scarred, wiser Japan knows and deserves better.

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

(Editor:张心意)

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