Politics as usual can't save Japan from itself

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2011, 12:00am


The fact that Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived last week's no-confidence motion signals that the country's triple tragedy is being compounded by a fourth. After the earthquake and tsunami, and with uncertainty over nuclear power, Japanese society has responded with stoicism. But Japanese politics is an emerging tragedy.

Kan survived only by giving a vague promise to quit after the current crisis abates. He does not enjoy widespread support, but nor does any other politician.

Hope is fading that Japan might rally, reform and restart growth. The dysfunction of the Japanese political system is of concern, and not just to the country itself.

The Japanese economy still matters to Asia, and the rest of the world. Japan also matters in regional politics, and Japanese diplomacy could be an important component in the regional balance. Conversely, internal preoccupations and a revolving door of leaders will increase concerns about China's rise.

Normal politics is not working and Japanese need to think of abnormal solutions. If Kan cannot control factions in the Democratic Party of Japan, should he appeal directly to citizens? He asked for a grand alliance between his DPJ-led government and the Liberal Democratic Party but this was rejected. Should he now look beyond the current leaders to someone like former premier Junichiro Koizumi? While politicians bicker, the Imperial household has been praised for its attention to the victims of the tragedy. Might not this symbolic institution try to foster consensus?

Many may dismiss these suggestions as unrealistic. But this is an extraordinary time for Japan, akin to the aftermath of war, and demands extraordinary answers. Japanese must themselves think outside the box. Otherwise, two trends will emerge.

First, American influence on Japan is increasing and the US may find it useful to lean on Tokyo. An assertive US and a drifting Japan will make for overdependence. Japan's role in Asian regionalism will be coloured accordingly.

The second trend is that citizens and corporations are not looking to politicians for answers. Self-help groups and community organisations are shouldering many of the post-crisis burdens. Corporations are working to get their business back on track. But all this does not happily translate to a consistent policy for foreign engagements. Looking past the government can be dangerous.

Historically, American black ships opened up Japan to foreign trade and, after the second world war, Japan was effectively remade by General Douglas MacArthur. Today's Japan needs reform. But a solution must come from within.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America