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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Japan gropes for leadership


Japan, as well as the Japanese, are fighting and struggling. They are running against the wind of the rising yen-dollar exchange rate, which tends to affect exports. And the economy struggles in the almost bottomless pit of government deficits, which are likely to worsen as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

On top of these economic strains, tension is mounting in the political arena. The headquarters for supervising the emergency measures since March 11 seems to be in a state of confusion, if not disintegration as some newspapers describe.

Major political parties have not so far been able to advance long-term visions to give the people national goals for the next decade and beyond. Disintegration or lack of unity and determination within both the government party and the opposition as well as the frequent changes in prime ministers have deepened the sense of mistrust among the general public toward the established political parties.

Everywhere, one hears grumbling and complaints, and sees frustration and disenchantment. Despite this gloomy picture, the Japanese people have not, so far, given voice to strong protest. Even university students, who must run from one job-seeking meeting to another as early as two years before graduation, appear resigned to accepting employers' egoistic practices.

Why is society so calm and why does it seem, at least on the surface, resigned to the shikataganai (we must live with the situation) way of thinking?

The answer is paradoxical. The Japanese are seriously, and with the utmost inner force, fighting against themselves. They are inwardly struggling with conflicts in their minds. What are these conflicts?

First, there are the individual fights against fear and anxiety. If openly confessed, these fights are likely to increase and deepen social anxiety as a whole. The Japanese are well aware of the danger of another great quake, which, according to "scientific" prediction, is likely to visit an area somewhere between Nagoya and Tokyo.

The Japanese, particularly those living in urban areas, must consider this great catastrophe and prepare for it either by putting anti-earthquake devices in their homes or reconsidering their insurance policy. They are determined to survive any disaster or to mitigate the potentially grave consequences of one, but they are well aware that the spread of rumors and open debate are likely to increase peoples' anxiety and fears. So, they tend to contain concerns within themselves and, by doing so, try to prevent the spread of social unease and individual anxiety.

Another front line on the psychological battlefield is the conflict between trust and mistrust of political leaders, and the overall management of the public service sector, particularly electricity supply.

People have indeed deepened their sense of mistrust toward politicians and industrial leaders who run the public service sector. Citizens have long since voiced mistrust of yuchaku (connivance among industries, politicians and bureaucrats). They have also cried for an end to amakudari ("descent" of retiring high government officials into private-sector positions).

Mistrust runs wide and deep. Yet, at the bottom of many peoples' minds is the vague hope and rather solid sentiment that the majority of those engaged in public services maintain a certain sense of mission and are trying to serve the interests of society as a whole.

People are, in fact, struggling between trust and mistrust in their hearts. Here again, they are instinctively aware that if they go completely in the direction of mistrust, they are likely to end up mistrusting themselves.

After all, was it not the people who elected the politicians, and weren't the neighbors of the nuclear power plants "consulted"?

In addition, enterprises engaged in public or semi-public services have been encouraged since the Koizumi government, which commanded enormous popular support, to "inject" a private enterprise spirit into their work, namely, price competition and market force principles that tend to emphasize efficiency and profitability, as opposed to cautious risk-avoiding management.

People are increasingly aware, thanks to the earthquake, of their own political and economic responsibility; yet they are not ready to gather forces and resources for a new direction under a new vision, because they are busy struggling and fighting within themselves.

Viewed in a larger historical context, one can say that Japan, as a whole, is struggling. Japan has realized one of the safest and most efficient societies in the world by devoting energy and diligence to safety and efficiency. The Japanese are inwardly proud of these achievements, but the earthquake appears to have warned Japan that human efforts to build a safe and efficient society have, in themselves, made the society very vulnerable to natural and human disasters. Thus the Japanese are struggling in the shadow of doubt.

How long this internal war continues remains to be seen. As in most cases, internal war starts when prospects for the future appear uncertain.

That's why most Japanese hope against hope for the advent of strong political leadership, but here again their internal struggle goes on, because while voicing the need for strong leadership, they secretly harbor grave doubts about whether they really wish to realize it.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).


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