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Friday, June 16, 2006

Is Japan set to stumble after Koizumi?


LOS ANGELES -- China is like the relatively new baby on the block that the neighbors fawn over, mostly ignoring any negatives, acting as if it's the perfect child as the other children are unceremoniously pushed into the background. Overlooked, the others occasionally fling their rattles out of the playpen to get some measure of the attention they had been getting. This is the growing neglected feeling in Japan today.

You don't have to be rooted in Japan to understand the Japanese malaise. At the recent annual fundraising dinner of the Asia Society Southern California at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, a Japanese diplomat quietly muttered to me about how the Asia Society has practically been kidnapped by the Chinese. "It's all about China these days," he complained. "It's like Japan doesn't even exist any more."

Japan not only exists, but it's now economically resurgent. The years of domestic torpor are long gone; markets are popping and domestic reforms are happening. People tend to forget that even with all of China's phenomenal growth, Japan still has the world's second-largest economy. China is coming on strong, but it's not there yet.

Japan's current prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is not your typical Japanese politician. Instead of consensus, he prefers confrontation; instead of the oh-so slow Japanese style, he's all for the go-go. It is remarkable how this unorthodox and extremely strong-willed character has stuck a blowtorch to the frozen tundra of domestic politics. His place in Asia's history is secure. But he will be gone in September, by his own graceful and oft-repeated vow not to extend his presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party and his premiership beyond two terms.

Who's next in line? Alas, the most charismatic of the available successors is also the least desirable from a number of perspectives. He is Shinzo Abe, the Cabinet secretary -- sharp and strong-willed like Koizumi though softer spoken. Like Koizumi, he is a hawk on the war-shrine-visitation psychodrama. Every visit the stubborn prime minister has paid to Yasukuni Shrine has handed China's own hawks a diplomatic sledgehammer with which to pummel Japan's image and remind all of Asia anew of how cruel the Japanese army was over 60 years ago.

Thus a slow-moving consensus is growing in Tokyo (and in Washington) that the better move would be to sidetrack the Abe bandwagon for a few years and turn to a transition figure to get Asia beyond the shrine-visitation issue so that Japan-China relations can be smoothed over. Even though Abe recently clouded the question of whether he would proceed with shrine visitations with deliberate ambiguity, public sentiment seems to be moving toward the need for an older, quieter, more diplomatic transition figure. Right now that looks to be veteran lawmaker Yasuo Fukuda, 69, an advocate of improved ties with China and South Korea. Current polling suggests the Japanese regard him as a capable diplomat.

A Fukuda prime ministership could put Japan in a serious dilemma, however. Koizumi has managed to give his country's domestic reforms substantial forward momentum. Anyone substantially less flamboyant and steely-eyed than he could wind up presiding over a Japan that would be slowing down to a crawl again.

Everyone would blame Koizumi's successor if that happened, yet the fault would lie with Koizumi. By digging in his heels on shrine visits, he created unfavorable conditions for a successor of his ilk to come to power. This is a pity. Another slowdown in this geographically tiny country of 127.4 million over-achievers would be significant.

All eyes may be on China these days, but you'd better keep a watch out for some kind of whistling rattle from Japan.

Veteran journalist and UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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