Sisyphus at Work
TNR has a long piece on the transition of power in Japan, which covers a lot of ground between the LDP and the DPJ, and really gets to the heart of the matter, which is Japan’s yearn to grow into a fully developed actor with less dependence on the United States.
The United States has long complained that Japan seems incapable of acting like a serious country; that most of its people live in a never-never land of wishful thinking on security issues while its leadership cannot seem to act decisively—whether that be a matter of dealing with longstanding economic problems or equipping a military establishment with the actual means to deal with the threats Japan faces. But the political setup that produces this irresponsibility is of Washington’s doing—it’s the way a vassal state can be expected to behave. And while President Obama is not answerable for the stunted sovereignty that forms the most enduring legacy of the American occupation in Japan, he can be blamed for the complicity of his administration in blocking efforts to transform Japan into a politically mature democracy.
For the underlying subtext of last week’s events is that the United States may really after all prefer vassals to allies.
But I maintain that the issue remains a fundamentally internal one, whatever pressure and action the United States can apply to Japan’s turnkey administration. Until Japan can reconcile its fragile position in east Asia with its wariness of extensive and deadly weaponization, it cannot–as was shown by Hatoyama’s scuttling–claim the position of independent authority it rightly covets. The United States has as much control over Japan’s defense mechanisms as it ever has in the last six decades, and it will take a significant force of public opinion (still understandably hostile towards weaponization) combined with ruthless pursuit of policy change to truly grasp independence on the world stage.
This is not to discount Japan’s power, mind. Japan is the second-largest economy in the world, a well-placed democracy in its region with undeniable influence. But there are clear limits to that power, and they start right about where Futenma is.
Speaking of Okinawa, the US military has instituted a curfew for troops stationed there as of today, locking the doors on those winsome doves from midnight to five am. It is an obvious–but potentially effective–olive branch towards new Prime Minister Kan’s administration and the people of Okinawa. I will be watching attentively to see how it goes.
Lastly, PM Kan spoke today about Japan’s massive internal debt problems, comparing their future bleakly to Greece’s present. In the Guardian:
“We cannot sustain public finance that overly relies on issuing bonds. As we can see from the eurozone confusion that started in Greece, there is a risk of default if growing public debt is neglected and trust lost in the bond market.”
Japan’s public debt stood at 218% of gross domestic product last year, according to the International Monetary Fund – the highest in the industrialised world.
Kan said the debt problem could not be dealt with overnight. “That is why we need to have a drastic reform from now in order to obtain fiscal health.”
Now, the Japan and Greece aren’t quite apples-to-apples comparable–the sources of each country’s debt is quite different. But fiscal austerity measures may actually go down more easily in Japan than they have in Greece or Spain, owing to Kan’s fiscal knowledge and current approval ratings (near 70%). Consumer taxes, however, tend to roil public support, and that’s a potential mechanism that could be proposed. For a consumer-goods driven culture, taxes on goods are hateful. But they could prove necessary.
If Kan chooses to make fiduciary responsibility a cornerstone of his work in the next couple of months–as opposed to divisive and generally unsolvable issues such as Futenma and other culture rifts–he has a good chance of surviving. And to tell the truth, I really hope he does.