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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012

Cast your ballots carefully


LONDON — Disillusionment with politicians and established political parties has been growing in democratic countries for some time. Politicians are increasingly seen as venal. Some are incompetent and ignorant. Many are often arrogant and conceited. But we cannot do without them.

Anyone with experience of autocratic regimes knows that it is better to live in a country, where we can choose freely the politicians to run our government even if the politicians we elect leave much to be desired.

Long established parties may well need reform and renewal. But new parties, which base their appeal on extreme positions or populist pressures, can threaten the continuance of our democratic systems.

Politicians are motivated in much the same way as people in other walks of life. Some regard politics as a career that, especially in Japan, has become almost a hereditary profession. Career politicians reckon that politics will provide them with a steady income and lots of perks. Japanese politicians are well remunerated by international standards.

But the most important motive for many politicians is the wish to have and to exercise power. Many end up frustrated. Power is often elusive and its exercise is rightly limited in democratic societies where the rule of law prevails.

Politicians need civil servants to carry out their wishes. A good civil servant will try to carry out agreed policies, but if the policies are not generally acceptable to the people at large, it may not be possible to implement them at least not in full. Effective democratic government requires the consent or at least acquiescence of the governed.

Some politicians are also motivated by ideology. Sometimes this is a personal ideology; more often the ideology is that of a particular political party. The search for power may weaken ideology and even the most devoted ideologues can succumb to opportunism. Ideology seems a fairly remote consideration for many Japanese politicians.

Politicians in their search for advancement need a special ability for communication and persuasion. In Britain a politician must be able not only to keep in touch with his supporters and reflect their views. He or she also needs in our confrontational form of politics to be able to debate effectively with his opponents and by swift repartee to score points. Japanese politicians are not renowned as good communicators.

We expect our politicians to work not only in their own party's interest but also in the national interest. This is where the main problem lies. The politician with his eyes on the next election, rather like the chairman and chief executive of a company with his eyes on the share price and the next company report, may well be unable or unwilling to advocate or adopt policies which will support the longer term national interest.

In foreign policy issues there are politicians, especially on the right in both Britain and Japan, who seem to think that our countries can prosper without working together with our continental neighbors. But the problems facing Britain and Japan are different.

We British are fortunate in being members of the European Union, which is formed by democratically elected governments determined that there shall be no return to the internecine fighting which destroyed so many people in the first half of the 20th century. Yet some British politicians with an unrealistic nostalgia for an imperial past want to see Britain once again as an independent great power with a special relationship with the United States. They are living in "cloud cuckoo land." "Independence" in an increasingly globalized world is a chimera. Britain must cooperate with the rest of Europe or further decline.

Japan faces different problems, but it cannot prosper without finding some accommodation with both China and South Korea. Its failure to solve the problems over U.S. bases means that its relations with the ally on whom it must depend also need attention. Yet some Japanese politicians seem to think that banging the nationalist drum and lambasting Chinese claims to the Senkaku Islands and South Korean claims to Takeshima will win them votes and bolster Japan's case internationally.

These nationalist politicians also seem to think that there are votes to be won by other nationalist gestures such as paying official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where class-A war criminals are enshrined. These actions are provocative and offensive to Japan's friends in the rest of the democratic world.

Most of those who survived Japanese aggression and maltreatment during the war have passed on and most of those who are still living in Britain believe in reconciliation and recognize that few Japanese living today bear any responsibility for the tragic events of 1941-45. The Japanese leaders who insisted on fighting on after Japan was clearly defeated were criminally responsible for the death of millions of their Japanese fellow citizens and the destruction of Japanese cities.

I have been distressed to read that some of these nationalist politicians have declared that the Nanking massacre is a Chinese fabrication. The Chinese Communist Party bears responsibility for many crimes, especially against China's indigenous population under the rule of Mao Zedong, who has been rightly described as a monster. But alas the Nanking massacre did occur when Japanese troops ran amok in Nanking in 1937. Neutral observers have confirmed the massacre, although the number of those killed is unclear.

Japanese should take note of the views, among other knowledgeable Japanese, of Shigeharu Matsumoto, a figure of international fame who established the International House of Japan in Tokyo and who was a distinguished Japanese correspondent in China before the war. He "bore a sense of profound shame about what his countrymen had perpetrated in Nanjing," according to a recent book about him by Kaimai Jun titled "Bearing Witness" in the English translation (published by LTCB International Library Trust and International House of Japan, 2012)

I hope that Japanese voters in the forthcoming general election will not choose to be represented by such misguided nationalist politicians who will only further damage Japan's national interests and prestige.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.


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