Japan's sentimental samurai spirit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 September, 2009, 12:00am

Japan's new government of Yukio Hatoyama has hardly been in power for a week, yet there are reports of squabbling among leading players that could potentially tear the Democratic Party of Japan apart before it achieves anything.

Some of this is working out how to handle power. But there is also a more deeply rooted problem - what I would call a romantic longing for Japan's old samurai spirit - that could lead the government along a dangerous road, back towards the 17th or 18th century when it should be looking ahead to the 22nd century.

One expression of inexperience involves the entrenched bureaucracy. During the long rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, bureaucrats and politicians got along infamously, the bureaucrats in charge and the politicians kept happy with lots of boondoggles. These included bullet trains to their constituencies, roads, bridges and town halls that were uneconomic but provided work for construction companies, money for the political coffers and votes from constituents grateful for such largesse.

So far, the government has shown the haughtiness of insecurity. When new ministers appeared for the first time, they had been told not to take briefings from their bureaucrats - and it showed, with many clearly uncomfortable with the issues they were supposed to be responsible for.

Wise ministers listen to their bureaucrats, knowing that the officials have wisdom and experience, but make it plain that they will make the final decisions because they have to carry the political can.

The relationship between the government and the party could prove a dangerous fault line, given the autocratic personality of Ichiro Ozawa, who has no ministerial portfolio but became party secretary general. Ozawa was the real mastermind of the DPJ victory, but had to resign as leader because of a corruption scandal involving a close aide. But Ozawa has a history of petulant behaviour in rebelling against former political friends. He had been secretary general and a rising star of the LDP in the 1980s. Hatoyama may wish that he had brought Ozawa inside the government tent, especially if or when he encounters fickle changes in the public support now surging in his favour.

There is already a rift between two pivotal ministers. Naoto Kan is finding that his powerful title of deputy prime minister and head of a new National Strategy Bureau responsible for budget decisions has led to clashes with Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii, with Kan discovering that he lacks the muscle of the powerful finance bureaucracy to support him.

There is also conflict between Fujii, maverick Financial Services Minister Shizuka Kamei and Home Minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi over the emotive issue of privatisation of Japan's giant postal system.

Kamei, who belongs to the small New People's Party whose support Hatoyama needs to secure a majority in the upper house of parliament, nailed his colours to the mast by declaring that he would introduce a bill to prevent initial public offerings by Japan Post Bank and its insurance sister. For good measure, he then trod further on Fujii's toes by promising small companies a three-year moratorium on loan payments.

The DPJ, and Hatoyama in particular, struck chords with their election promises relating to the harm and hardship of globalisation and their questioning of Japan's reliance on a pax Americana.

But what is not clear is how well these policies have been thought through. In office, Hatoyama has again suggested promoting the closer ties of an East Asian community. This is excellent in principle. But is Japan prepared to disown its historical revisionists, who were rampant in revising textbooks a couple of years ago, and accept China's and Korea's view of Japan's wartime behaviour? Hatoyama might also stop to ask what kind of relationship with Japan a resurgent China wants.

The Hatoyama government is already trying to clarify murky deals concerning US nuclear-armed vessels and access to Japan. But it would be risky for a cash-strapped Japanese government to push the US too far.

Domestically, the government risks coming up against economic realities. The economy has been hit badly with unemployment at record highs. Wages have fallen faster than in other countries because of the switch from traditional jobs for life at big companies to more flexible hiring. Japan is constrained by massive debts, by increasing health and welfare costs, with an ageing and declining population, and a low consumption tax rate of 5 per cent.

The answer to this from people like Kamei, the financial services minister, is to return to the fabled samurai spirit and kill economic reforms or more globalisation.

Undoubtedly, this wins popular sympathy. Japan has become an inward-looking society. Unlike the Meiji era, Japan of 40 years ago or in most other countries today, youngsters in Japan are not rushing abroad to study. They are staying at home, not much interested in the world.

Kazuo Ogura, a former diplomat and president of The Japan Foundation, declared that Japan's contact with international society was becoming 'soft power', meaning Haruki Murakami's literary works, manga, animation, costume play and otaku (geek) culture.

Such advocates might stop to ask whether soft power pays the increasing bills of an elderly society. The real answer to Kamei and his samurai warriors is that the fittest parts of Japan are those that have been through the refining fire of reforms, the household-name companies at the cutting edge of global industry.

Japan's domestic markets are littered with businesses protected from competition, bolstered in their inefficiency by high support prices or political favours. Farming is the leading example, with rice prices six times those of the world market, but construction, retailing and service industries are generally less efficient and more expensive in Japan than in the rest of the world. Adding a samurai spirit could take Japan back economically to the samurai age.

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Power Houses, a study of Japan Inc and internationalisation