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Japan itself must come up with solution

Updated On: Jun 08, 2011

Simon Tay discusses the how Japanese politics can move forward in the wake of the catastrophe.

This commentary was featured in TODAY (Singapore) newspaper, 7 June 2011.

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 on-going uncertainty over nuclear power plants, Japanese society has responded with stoicism and solidarity. But Japanese politics is an emerging tragedy.

Mr Kan survived only by giving a vague promise to quit after the current crisis abates. His is only the latest twist in a long-drawn-out crisis of confidence, seeing five premiers in four years. Political divisions are not just between the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), so long in power but also within factions of the DPJ.

Mr Kan does not enjoy widespread support. But nor does any other politician. Now in opposition, the LDP is threatening to block the budget for reconstruction even as the country grapples with the aftermath, with 100,000 still homeless from the tsunami and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear problem yet to be contained. The LDP has attacked Mr Kan's handling of the nuclear crisis, with little self-awareness that it regulated the nuclear power industry since its infancy.

Hope is fading that in response to the tragedy, 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. Disruptions in Japan have rippled through global supply chains, affecting production in Thailand and other Asian manufacturing locations. With the American economy facing a double-dip and European softness, the No 3 economy in the world needs to do better.

Japan also matters in regional politics. There have been some questions over the nature of a rising China and the capacity of a more constrained America to continue its forward presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Japan cannot and should not seek to contain China. But its active diplomacy could be an important component in the region's overall balance. Conversely, internal preoccupations and a revolving door of leaders will increase concerns about Chinese dominance.


The normal politics is not working and Japanese need to think of abnormal solutions.

If Mr Kan cannot control factions in the DPJ, including former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, should he not appeal directly to citizens?

Mr Kan asked for a grand alliance between his DPJ-led government and the LDP but this was rejected. Should Mr Kan look beyond the current leaders to someone like retired PM Junichiro Koizumi, who left while still popular and tried to reform the LDP from within?

While politicians bicker, the Imperial Household has been appreciated for its attention to the victims of the tragedy. Might not this symbolic institution of the country 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 of the bento-box of political divisions. Otherwise, two trends are emerging.

First, American influence on Japan is increasing and the US-Japan alliance has re-strengthened. This results from both the quick and generous support the United States has given to the tragedy as well as the real Japanese concerns arising from the dispute with China over a chain of islands, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Diaoyu islands.

The US - concerned about Asia but facing domestic issues and budget tightening - may also find it useful to lean on Tokyo.

While their alliance is a given, an assertive America and a drifting Japan will make for over-dependence. Japan's role in Asian regionalism will be coloured accordingly, especially if relations with China grow tense.

The second trend is that citizens and corporations in Japan are not looking to the politicians to provide answers. Self-help groups and community organisations have grown to shoulder many of the burdens post-crisis. Japanese corporations have been responding to the disruptions to get their businesses and exports back to normal.

The emerging responses are for corporate and civic improvisations and not government action. But this does not happily translate to a consistent policy for foreign engagements. Looking past government can be especially dangerous given the amount of rebuilding that must come next, and the already enormous government debt in the country. Confidence in the Japanese government is important.

Historically, American black ships opened up Japanese to foreign trade and, post-World War II, Japan was effectively run and remade by General Douglas MacArthur.

Today's Japan needs a re-opening and reform, as Mr Kan has already recognised and called for. But a solution - and perhaps an unorthodox one to break the present politics and head off the next crisis - needs to come from Japan itself.


Please click the attachment below for the full .pdf version of the commentary.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

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