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Japan’s National Policy in Transition -1-

Lecture by Sadaaki Numata, Executive Director,
Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership
Japan Cultural Center of Hawaii, Honolulu
August 22, 2007

1. Introduction


A senior Australian diplomat once told a young recruit, “A diplomatic career is like an iceberg; the glittering part shows, the rest is below the surface.”


In August 1972, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka came to Hawaii for his meeting with President Nixon in Kuilima. When the Prime Minister was leaving the hotel in Honolulu in a motorcade for the heliport, I was sitting in the car, a bit nervous about my first job as the official interpreter for the Prime Minister. Two of my senior colleagues riding with me, one of whom was the other official interpreter, kept chatting outside the car, until suddenly the motorcade left … without us! When we finally arrived at the heliport after what seemed like umpteen stops at traffic lights and boarded the helicopter, we found the Prime Minister impatiently banging his knee with his fan, and the senior officials around him very worried that one of them might have to stand in if neither of the official interpreters showed up. In a diplomatic career, there is a lot below the surface, like running for dear life to jump into the car when you are in a motorcade.


For the past fifteen years or so, I have been involved, as spokesman or ambassador, in projecting Japan abroad. Today, in a freer capacity because I retired from the Foreign Service at the end of March, I will try to put the recent developments in Japan in perspective, with the caveat that I am speaking entirely personally, and what I say in no way represents the view of the Japanese government nor that of the Japan Foundation.

2. Japan’s images

(1) I have been encouraged to see some signs of positive perception about Japan in the world and in the United States.

Earlier this year, the BBC World Service published a poll of 28,000 people across 27 countries, asking them to rate 12 countries as having a positive or negative influence. Japan and Canada came on top, each being given a positive rating by 54% of the respondents.


According to the 2007 U.S. Image of Japan Study conducted by Gallup, the perception of Japan as a dependable ally remains at a very high level, with 74% of the general public and 91% of opinion leaders. Those who have a positive evaluation of the current level of cooperation between Japan and the U.S. mark the highest percentage ever (67% of the general public and 86% of the opinion leaders). The percentage of the respondents who think Japan shares common values with the U.S. remains as high as last year (83% of the general public and 94% of the opinion leaders).


The primary two factors contributing to the positive image of Japan, according to the Gallup study, are Japan’s strong economy and high technology as well as its tradition and culture (including new culture such as animation, fashion and cuisine). I would add a third element, which is the constancy of Japan’s stabilizing influence in Asia and the world. Let me try to trace the evolution of this role of Japan since the 1990s and place the current developments in Japan in that context.

3.Constants and variables

(1) For most of the 1990s, I was directly exposed to the international media. Their focus with respect to Japan was on the following questions:

How and when was Japan going to extricate itself from its economic doldrums resulting from the bursting of the bubble?


What kind of realignment might emerge among the political parties after the collapse of the one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party that had lasted 40 years? Would there be a two-party system?


What is the significance of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in the absence of the Soviet threat? What kind of a strategic role was Japan going to play in Asia in the post-Cold War era?


What kind of a role was Japan going to play for global peace and security? Under what circumstances will the JSDF be dispatched abroad?

(2) These questions are still relevant today. In the answers to these questions, there are some constants as well as variables. The most important constant is that for the past few decades, Japan has been playing an important stabilizing role in Asia, and will continue to do so for some time to come. Let me try to break this down into components and see what the constants and variables are.
(a) Security

What has been constant is Japan’s dedication to peace based on the abhorrence of war arising from the trauma of defeat in WWII. Strictly restraining itself to the possession of the minimum capability for self-defense and adhering to the three non-nuclear principles (not possessing, not manufacturing, and not allowing the introduction into Japan of nuclear weapons), Japan has never resorted to the threat or use of force since the end of WWII. Japan’s alliance with the United States, a global maritime power with its forward deployed forces, has been a key factor in maintaining the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region.


After the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat, there have been intensive consultations between the Japanese and U.S. governments to redefine the significance of the Japan-U.S. security alliance. They have come to the conclusion that the alliance continues to be essential for preserving the strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific region, without which it would be impossible to manage potential flash points such as North Korea or the Taiwan Strait. Steps are being taken to enhance their defense cooperation, including ballistic missile defense and the realignment of the U.S. Forces in Japan.


The variable is how far the debate in Japan may proceed on the possible revision of Article 9 of the Constitution and the right of collective self -defense to enable further effective functioning of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.


There is also evolving what I might call an “alliance in the broad sense”, that is, the cooperative efforts among Japan, the U.S., Australia, NATO and other like-minded countries to deal with non-traditional threats that have been brought into sharp focus after the 9.11 terrorist attacks. These include the threats from transnational terrorist networks, proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, security and reconstruction in strife-torn countries and regions like Afghanistan and Iraq, tsunami and other natural disasters as well as infectious diseases including AIDS and avian flu. At issue is the extent to which the JSDF can take part in activities for international peace and security.

(b) Economy

The constant is the essential role that Japan has been playing, as the No.2 economy in the world and the most advanced market economy in Asia, for the economic development and prosperity of Asia. Not only has Japan acted as a role model and a generous donor of ODA, but also as a linchpin in the intensifying economic interdependence among East Asian countries.


During the “Lost Decade” since the collapse of the bubble in the early 1990s, the Japanese economy had gone through painful structural reforms to cope with the fierce competition in the age of globalization. We have finally come out of the long dark tunnel, as the triple negative legacies of the collapse of the bubble (bad loans in the banking sector, excess capacity and excess labor) have been cleared away. However, the pains continue to be felt in many quarters, and loom over the political landscape.

(c) Politics

The civic tradition dating back to the Edo period and the modernization undertaken since the latter half of the 19th century, including the blooming of Taisho democracy in the 1910s and 20s, provided fertile ground for parliamentary democracy to flourish in Japan under the postwar Constitution. As the oldest and most mature democracy in Asia, Japan has acted as a role model to other Asian countries in their nation-building and democratization efforts, and has represented the Asian voice in the G8 Summit.


The variable is the fluidity of the political system in the face of persistent calls for reform. Since the end of the four decades of LDP rule, the political parties in shifting alignments have vied to respond to the public’s demand for dismantling the “iron triangle” of politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders as well as moving away from pork-barreling for parochial constituency interests and wheeling and dealing driven by LDP factions. The political leaders have also been confronted with the challenge of a rapidly aging society and a declining birthrate. People over 65 accounted for 20.2% of the population in 2005, and the share is projected to rise to 28.7% in 2025. The total fertility rate fell to 1.25 in 2005. The mounting public anxiety over the future, based on the prospect of heavier burdens of social security, has become a key domestic political concern.

4. Koizumi’s legacy and Abe’s task


The Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide victory in the Lower House election of September 2005 was seen as the vindication of Prime Minister Koizumi’s audacious reform based on the principles of market economy. He managed to push through postal privatization, the center-piece of his agenda for small government, by riding rough-shod over the “forces of resistance” within his own party.


While Koizumi’s task was to repair old clothes to weather the legacies of the bursting of the bubble, Shinzo Abe, his successor, set himself the task of leading the Japanese economy toward a new phase of medium- to long-term high growth, in other words, designing new clothes for the longer haul. To this end, his intention is to build on Koizumi’s reform and enhance Japan’s growth potential through greater openness (EPAs, WTO and foreign investment), greater productivity through making the maximum use of information and communication technology and raising efficiency in the service sector.


Under the slogan “a beautiful country, Japan”, Abe has attached importance to his nationhood agenda to free the Japanese people from their “postwar” preoccupations and make a new departure with a clear sense of national identity. Shortly after he assumed office, he moved to amend the Basic Law on Education to help instill moral values and public-mindedness in the younger generations, upgrade the Defense Agency to the Defense Ministry and enable more active JSDF participation in international peace cooperation activities, and took the first step toward constitutional revision through the passage of the National Referendum Law in the Diet. His priorities also include the examination of the question of the use of the right of collective self-defense, the establishment of a National Security Council, and the reform of the public service.


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