Friday, January 7, 2011

State in statis: Japan

In Osaka again for Yomiuri's Wake Up Plus!, and once again the topic of the hour is Japanese politics. I suspect most people's eyes glaze over at those two words (with good reason - Japanese politics have almost no international relevance anymore) but as often happens, I have lots more to say that I didn't get to say on the show.

Today's debate focused on the tough year ahead for the Kan administration. It's hard to find people who say nice things about Naoto Kan and his team - even the show's makeup artist was furious. Kan is trying to push through several hard policies at once: a tax hike to cover mounting social insurance costs, entry into the free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the agricultural policy changes it will necessitate, and a cabinet reshuffle. And of course amendments to the alliance with the US.

The things that struck me about the debate is how infrequently Japanese politicians (including members of the administration) use numbers to justify their policies. There is so little persuading the public here compared to the US - politicians and cabinet ministers all appear to be talking to each other, rather than to the public. And nobody uses numbers to explain precisely what the costs and benefits of a program (like TPP or the consumption tax hike) are.

Another thing that stands out is how Japan's frequently changing administrations (Kan's most recent cabinet reshuffle was in September last year) take a toll on the country, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, constant change contributes to a commonly held public perception that all politicians are equally corrupt and useless. Internationally, these changes make Japan harder to read and more irrelevant. If there are different people in power all the time, how can Japan craft a solid vision on any foreign policy issue and make its voice heard overseas?

The last thing that everyone - even politicians themselves - seem to agree on is that Japanese politics doesn't attract the most promising members of society. Smart, ambitious, public-minded Japanese people these days don't go into politics. They go into business. Politics has such a bad reputation - and so demonstrably doesn't change anything that ails Japan - that clever young people don't even consider it as a career.

Sometimes I wonder whether Japan doesn't need a crisis (domestic or abroad) to wake up to the size of its problems. I wouldn't wish a major crisis on any country, but for a state in stasis, a wake-up call might be just what Japan needs to save itself.