Japan, in a phrase, is in political paralysis. As a Japanese diplomat put it: "Japan has been marginalized. And we did it to ourselves."
With its politics in disarray, the consequences for the Land of the Rising Sun are dire: It is drifting aimlessly; has lost much of its influence in Asia, especially to China; and has become a listless ally of the United States.
The unanswered question is whether this is a temporary slump, Japan having recovered from troubled periods like this before, or a long-term trough with no recovery in sight.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Hawaii recently en route to a round of Asia-Pacific meetings, met here with Japan Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on regional security issues, calling the U.S.-Japan core alliance "absolutely imperative."
Richard Halloran, a former editorial page editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and contributor to The Honolulu Advertiser, recently returned from Tokyo and offers some insights into Japan’s political malaise.
TOKYO » Japan is suffering from a political paralysis that has led to a loss of influence in Asia, especially to China, and a shortfall as an ally of the United States, on which the Japanese depend for their security.
"Japan has been marginalized," said a Japanese diplomat, "and we did it to ourselves."
The despair seems pervasive. A young employee of a small business said: "Japan is a country with a great culture but our politics are really weak." A retired editor agreed: "It’s hard to live in Japan today."
An American scholar who specializes in Japanese studies lamented: "Japan today is its own worst enemy. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in Washington want to bypass Japan but a ‘partner’ must want to participate."
A Japanese political scientist, Hirotaka Watanabe of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, sought to be optimistic, writing: "Japan’s image in the world is not that bad." But he added: "It is time for Japan to play a more active role in the alliance."
Watanabe published his thoughts on the Internet but few others were willing to go on the record about this dismal situation. Officers at U.S. Forces Japan, the headquarters for the 36,600 troops posted in Japan, declined to discuss how the political paralysis affected military readiness, even on background.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a subtle reference to Japan’s paralysis after meeting with Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in Honolulu last month, saying the U.S.-Japan "core alliance" was "absolutely imperative." But she cautioned that the U.S. and Japan must "make sure that it keeps up with the demands that it faces."
In response, Maehara was non-committal, saying only "we should like to engage in deeper consultations" on security issues.
Perhaps the most vivid evidence of Japan’s impotent politics has been the parade of hapless prime ministers over the last 17 years following Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, the last of the "deshi" or proteges of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the towering leader of Japan’s postwar recovery.
In that period, Japan has had 12 prime ministers, only one of whom, Junichiro Koizumi, served for any length of time, more than five years. The other 11, some of whom came to office with no experience or interest in foreign or security policy, served for an average of a year, hardly enough time to forge an international posture.
By contrast, the U.S. has had three presidents in that time — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — while Britain has had four prime ministers –John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. China has had two general secretaries of the Communist Party, in effect the nation’s leader — Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Polls reflect the gloom in Japanese politics. Before a vote in September in which Prime Minister Naoto Kan was re-elected, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest circulation newspaper, asked readers why they supported Kan. Replies: Economic policy, 4.5 percent. Foreign policy, 1.3 percent. Political reform, 9.3 percent. And, tellingly: "There’s no other appropriate person: 46.5 percent."
A government official who favored the Democratic Party of Japan, which captured a majority in the lower house of the national legislature, or Diet, in August 2009, said he was pleased that Kan was chosen but soon was disappointed because "Prime Minister Kan doesn’t know what he wants to do."
Kan’s government has been criticized by many Japanese voters for failing to stand up to China. A Chinese trawler collided with two different patrol boats of Japan’s Maritime Safety Agency, or coast guard, in the sea near the disputed Senkaku Islands southwest of Japan in September. A Chinese captain was arrested but soon released without punishment.
Last week, portions of a video taken by a Japanese crew were leaked where it seemed likely to inflame public opinion. U.S. naval officers said privately it shows that one Chinese ship, coming up from astern the Japanese vessel, deliberately turned left to slam into the right rear of the Japanese ship.
Japanese press reports said 52 copies of the video began circulating and getting 100,000 hits within the first 24 hours of its appearance. It quickly found its way to You tube.