Japan needs to focus on its ailing economy, not a nationalist agenda

Kevin Rafferty says an LDP return to power could herald turbulent times for the region

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 3:59am

The cacophony at the suburban railway station rises not so much to a crescendo - which might suggest something melodious - as a terrible din. Endless, mindless slogans are brayed into a microphone and sprayed via the loudspeaker system over the passing public.

Most Japanese seem unmoved, neatly sidestepping outstretched hands proffering election propaganda pamphlets urging support for their candidates in Japan's general election tomorrow.

Opinion polls suggest that the long-time former ruling Liberal Democratic Party will be returned to power in coalition with the Buddhist Komeito and with support from the up-and-coming Japan Restoration Party, led by the octogenarian nationalist Shintaro Ishihara and the populist mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto.

Such an outcome would be justice against the Democratic Party of Japan for its failure, after three years in power and as many prime ministers, to fulfil its grand promises or to rescue the nation from falling back into recession after two decades.

But justice can be cruel, too. It would put Shinzo Abe back in power as head of the LDP, which laid the foundations of the economic mess. Abe was prime minister in 2006 but gave up after a year because he could not take the strain.

His return could presage turbulent times. Abe has a nationalist agenda, including a revision of Japan's constitution to get rid of Article 9, which renounces war, and to make the self-defence forces an army also in name. In winning the party's leadership in September, he said: "Japan's beautiful country and seas are under threat, and young people are having trouble finding hope in the future amid an economic slump."

With new leaders in Beijing eager to show their national strength on the seas, the risk is that the present sullen stand-off over who owns the Diaoyu Islands (Senkakus in Japan) could worsen into a cold war from which neither country nor the rest of Asia would benefit.

The best hope is that, in power, Abe and friends will realise that a nationalist policy is at best a waste of resources that Japan's sickly economy can ill afford, and that the economic mess deserves full attention.

Japan has many social and economic assets: a safe society that knows how to pull together to meet hardship; a well-educated, skilled population; excellent hi-tech industrial foundations backed by good logistics and infrastructure; and companies at the cutting edge of scientific advances.

But in the past 20 years, Japan has lost its way, buffeted by slower economic growth, the high yen, the rise of emerging markets and poor decisions on outsourcing, but above by all the refusal of the cosy male club of bankers, businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians to understand that times were changing and that Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese rivals could think more nimbly.

Japan needs radical solutions to raise the hopes of an ageing population, but the LDP appears stuck in the old groove, promising more construction as a way out of the economic gloom - which will only pour concrete and corruption on dreams for change.

"Womenomics" would be a partial solution to Japan's woes, a powerful idea whose time must surely come soon. The International Monetary Fund says that if Japanese women were as active in the workforce as in other rich countries, there would be a permanent boost to the gross domestic product of between 4 and 8 per cent. Endless obstacles, designed by men, prevent women from contributing. A glaring lack of childcare facilities is only one indicator of Japan's business practices against women.

Take Terumi Irie, a bright 40-year-old mother of two teenagers. She gets up at 5am to prepare breakfast and lunch boxes. Having seen her salaryman husband and children off to work and school, she travels 20 kilometres to her part-time sales job.

She returns before 6pm to cook dinner and run a bath for the return of her husband at between 10 and 11pm. "I would love to do a more fulfilling job, but Japanese business practice is against it," Irie says. "My children do not need child care, but they require food and someone to check they do their homework and be there for them. There is no way I could work the hours expected of my husband, so unless I have my own business, which costs more money than we have, I can work only part-time."

Japan's pool of part-time workers has grown massively, now 35 per cent of the workforce. This has added to the divisions, helped depress wages and create uncertainty, and deflation.

Internationalisation should also be a buzzword to help create partnerships at home and abroad so Japan could be a new centre of creativity in education, science, industry and commerce that would help the country recover its confidence and advanced place in the world. But internationalisation is probably the dirtiest word in Japan's political vocabulary; and yet, it is nationalisation that has led to the mess the country is in - and one the rest of the world hardly cares about.

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Powerhouses, an account of Japan Inc and internationalisation