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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Another political circus act flops in Tokyo

LOS ANGELES — The prime minister of Japan has just resigned. Big deal.

That's the reaction most everywhere — and particularly in the United States. Yes, the important neonational dailies — Wall Street Journal, New York Times — plopped the story on Page One, where it belonged, but it was dutiful play at best.

Japan, although still the world's second-largest economy, is no longer what it once was geopolitically: The land of the rising sun is now overshadowed by China, and further diminished by its own political ineptitude.

Collapse on center stage makes Yukio Hatoyama the fourth Japanese prime minister in the last four years to resign. What a circus!

In the 1990s so many Japanese politicians whizzed through the PM door that you could barely keep count. The Clinton White House was known to quip: "We're just figuring out how to pronounce the new PM's name and then he's gone."

Hatoyama was the latest of the "blue blood" PMs cast in the star role by virtue of family eminence. His grandfather was a founder of the Liberal Democratic Party, the long-standing ruling party with a stranglehold over Japanese national politics. As generational paradox would have it, Hatoyama, leading the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, decimated the LDP last year.

It's too bad that blue blood is no guarantee of true blood. Like the royal family in Britain, blue blood can run dysfunctionally thin — and sometimes pathetically anemic.

Junichiro Koizumi remains the only politician in the last two decades to serve out a successful five-year maximum term. No blue blood himself, Koizumi understood that leadership required a steadiness of conviction, persuasiveness and decisiveness. Hatoyama wavered more than an exhausted office worker after a midnight bout with sake.

Few Americans may care one way or the other about this or that unpronounceable Tokyo politician. But Tokyo, together with Washington, can balance China if it were to get out of hand. Japan, in effect, is East Asia's "unsinkable aircraft carrier," in the memorable phrase of Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japan's legendary prime minister of the high-flying 1980s, now 93.

The Japanese are a deeply patient people, but they are human beings, not Oriental statuettes, and their patience with their broken political system cannot possibly be endless.

The danger, of course, is a deep convulsion within Japan that leads to domestic political instability.

Impossible you say? Ever hear of "The Land of the Smiles"? Look at what has happened with Thailand, heretofore such a superficially admirable and preternaturally polite democracy.

A politically unstable Japan would destabilize East Asia. China, with its history of feral enmity with Japan, would be shaken. Japan's enemies — think of North Korea — might foolishly try to take advantage. Taiwan might fear new mainland pressure.

Americans have no comparable concerns. Asia seems far, far away, and with campy Canada and otherwise mellow Mexico on its borders, the popular attitude is: Why worry?!

But America's friends in Asia are deeply worried about Japan — and that should concern us. The resentful ruckus among the Japanese public over the U.S. military base in Okinawa struck many as shortsighted. China may be "peacefully rising," as it proclaims over and over again, but in terms of sheer geopolitical power, only countervailing power can guarantee that China won't wake up some day and decide to continue its rise in a far more menacing way. Japan's failure to get its political house in order thus might have significant consequences.

Only India has the potential to stand up to China and provide the counterweight from the East; only Japan and the U.S. can do so from the West. Southeast Asia, if it too could ever get its regional act together, could play a huge role, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations remains a paper tiger.

Believe it or not, Japan still matters, but it is being undermined not as much by China's rise as by its own political pratfalls. It's a sad sight to see this world economic power, otherwise brilliant society and invaluable U.S. ally writhe in leadership ineptitude.

American journalist Tom Plate was recently in Singapore and Malaysia to launch Book One ("Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew") of the Giants of Asia series (Marshall Cavendish Asia, Ltd.) and to continue work on Book Two ("Conversations With Mohamad Mahathir"). © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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