As a Japanese and someone interested in international relations, I am disappointed at the current stagnation in Japanese politics. These short-lived governments come and go, failing to show any vision of the role Japan should play in the international community. In addition, the Japanese economy is not performing well.
The negative influence caused by the frequent changes in political leadership has been pointed out by foreign countries as well. Japan used to hear the fad term “Japan Bashing” as a criticism of it when it had influence on the world stage. There were reasonable criticisms as well as unfair ones. Yet being criticized was proof that the world was paying attention to Japan.
However, what is heard today is “Japan Passing.” That is to say Japan is neglected and being passed over. It is a sign of Japan’s diminished presence. What is critical for Japan and its people now is to communicate their opinions, concerns and expectations so that other countries in Asia and around the world will recognize them.
Frequent changes of prime ministers have become a tradition since the last years of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration. The life of each leadership is so short that it has not been possible to draw a clear picture of policies pursued by each leader.
Under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda managed to pass a bill for increasing the consumption tax, but foreign policy remained stagnant. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s handling of the U.S. military base issues in Okinawa during his administration threatened to see Japan-U.S. relations go up in smoke.
The government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in its response to the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the earthquake on March 11, 2011, allowed radiation-contaminated water to flow into the Pacific Ocean without sending prior notice to neighboring countries. This was regrettable given the international aid and support that Japan received from many countries including nearby nations. It was all the more lamentable because the world viewed the soft power of Japan with great admiration when those affected tried really hard to help each other despite the terrible disaster and Japanese people were making sincere efforts to recover from the devastation.
Despite the initial commitment of the Noda government to actively participate in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) talks, it remains shelved. Furthermore, the Senkaku and Takeshima issues surfaced, worsening Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea.
Now that the call is for bringing together Asian nations, it is time for Japan to tackle and resolve these issues. At the least, a calm response is necessary so as not to lead the situation in the wrong direction.
I think that China is also not necessarily wanting a war over the Senkaku Islands. Last summer, the “Eighth Tokyo-Beijing Forum” was held in Tokyo. As the chairman of the steering committee for the forum, I delivered the following message in my keynote speech:
“Japan and China need to promptly establish a strong mechanism to manage risks and cool down situations so that they can prevent conflicts and clashes from developing in an undesirable direction for the two nations. Looking back at the history of modern international politics, there are many unfortunate examples in which a minor, incidental event suddenly developed into a situation that no leaders of the countries concerned desired, and eventually turned out to be uncontrollable. It can be said that both the Japanese and Chinese governments share the responsibility for exercising wisdom to prevent such minor clashes and disputes from developing into a serious and irresolvable situation.”
There is a need to think about the means of cooling down tensions and preventing them from rapidly escalating into situations that nobody desires. When both sides establish various communication channels and talk candidly, they can develop a common mindset for addressing the issues. This is indispensable in today’s complicated international relations.
Nevertheless, it is disappointing that both Japan and China tend to parade a nationalistic way of thinking, apparently a throwback to the 1930s. It seems that they have lost sight of how to lower their fists. Both Japan and China need to identify where their common interests lie and take prudent measures to avoid bigger clashes.
One of the reasons that Japan’s presence has weakened on the world stage is its prolonged economic slump. In Asia, China, South Korea, India and some other countries have achieved economic growth and enhanced their national power. After World War II, Japan became the first country in Asia to achieve an economic growth so strong that it took the world by surprise. But Japan’s faltering economy in the last two decades has overshadowed its society.
In the 1990s, Japan led the rest of the world in official development assistance (ODA). Now its contribution has declined to half its past amount, falling from the top to fifth rank. Setting aside the total amount, its per capita value is embarrassingly low compared with North European countries. Although it was decided by a U.N. General Assembly resolution that developed nations should contribute about 0.7% of their gross domestic product (GDP) to ODA, Japan today contributes only 0.2%.
In order for Japan to demonstrate its soft power, it is essential to provide ODA support. This situation in which its ODA has declined to such an extent is lamentable.
The United States helped Japan reconstruct and has been committed to its democratization for over 60 years since the end of the war. It could be said that the alliance with the United States enabled Japan to proceed with a light armament through post-Cold War international environment.
While difficult challenges such as the military base issue with the United States continue, I believe that stressing the importance of the alliance with the United States is indispensable if Japan is to avoid possessing an excessive amount of weapons and heading toward nuclear armament. Japan should also bear a proportion of the cost required to maintain the alliance with the United States.
Putting importance on the alliance with the United States is not something that would lead Japan toward becoming a military superpower. President Barrack Obama’s new administration has made clear the possibility that it will seek to improve relations with China. The Obama administration seems to be aiming at the creation of a new world order inclusive of China.
Japan faces a tough situation, but instead of taking a pessimistic view it should try to steer things in a better direction. I believe that direction involves two vectors.
The first vector is the aging population and declining birth rate. It is a problem not only in Japan but also in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and many parts of Europe. It is absolutely necessary to create a brighter outlook for the economic future of young people. At the same time, various policy measures for child-care support must be implemented to eliminate discrimination against women in all aspects and make full use of their vitality. Furthermore, Japan should warmly accept foreign people with skills into its society.
Through these measures, I believe Japan will be able to maintain its energy and international competitiveness as long as the population decline occurs at a slower rate.
The second vector relates to nurturing human resources for the global stage. The need for this is agreed upon by the government, the academic community, economic organizations and others. Japan is falling behind in some aspects, but national boundaries have lost their meaning in all areas, including the economy and finance, science and technology, and the environment. Information is delivered around the world on a real-time basis.
We are no longer in an age when everything can be completed domestically. People who enter global arenas must be cultivated at home and students must be accepted from other countries, while at the same time Japan sends out many young people worldwide. It is essential to create an environment so that students do not have to worry about finding jobs after studying abroad. The business community has also expressed its supportive stance on this.
If effective policy measures can be realized to deal with the aging population and declining birth rate and to develop world-class human resources, I believe that the future of this country will be bright.
Today, there are no boundaries between domestic politics and international politics. The problems facing Japan cannot be solved only through domestic measures. Now is the time for Japanese politics to establish consistent and comprehensive principles and move forward hand in hand with other countries around the world.
Translation of an article (pages 20-23) from the monthly magazine Daisenbunmei 2013 January issue (Daisenbunmei-sha Inc.) with addition and modifications by the author himself.
Yasushi Akashi was born in 1931 in Akita Prefecture. After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1954, he completed his Master’s degree at the University of Virginia. He then worked toward a Ph.D. at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In 1957, he became the first Japanese employee of the United Nations. He fulfilled various roles including Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. His current responsibilities include being Chairman of the International House of Japan, Representative of the Government of Japan on Peace-Building, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka, and President of the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning (JOICFP). He has published a number of books including “The United Nations” (Iwanami Shinsho) and “In the Valley between War and Peace – Personalities I met-” (Iwanami Shoten).