Can Japan Say No?

By Akira Ishikawa

Don't let news headlines fool you. Embarrassingly underreported by the U.S. media is a tectonic shift Japanese politics is undergoing, while the nation's economic woes are given extensive coverage. Japan has come a long way and is poised, at long last, to transform itself into an "ordinary" nation, a nation that is not only able to but also willing to chart its own course.

After decades of political stability and double-digit economic growth since the 1950s, the country has entered a period of turbulence following the end of the Cold War. The abrupt end of 38-year ruling by the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993 unleashed a gush of enthusiasm -- and false hope -- for reform, catapulting once-predictable politics into the realm of the unpredictable. The political scene became almost surreal -- a merry-go-round of prime ministers, coming and going of political parties, and soap opera-like alliances (e.g., strange bedfellows like the Liberal Democrats and the Socialists). After a period of dazzling chaos, however, we are coming in sight -- vague as it may be -- of a new Japan. The first sign is the Tokyo gubernatorial election back in April.


New Tokyo Governor Who Can Say No

Nearly a decade of economic distress has roiled the world's second largest economy into restructuring, throwing out some of its post-World War II success ingredients, such as keiretsu corporate alliances and lifetime employment. At the workplace, where the message that business is not as usual is loud and clear, fear-stricken corporate soldiers are hunkering down in trenches. The unemployment rate has climbed to a record 4.9%, with no sign of a turnabout in sight. Yet politics, long impervious to calls for reform, are in a sort of paralysis; political parties, new and old, have failed to prod the country out of the current mess and into a new era of promise. Sadly, beneath circus-like spectacles politics is as usual; things are running largely by inertia. Unlike on the economic front, the past still holds the reins in the political arena.

Against this backdrop of disquietude at the national level, there is a glimmer of hope emanating from the country's mega-city, Tokyo. In April its populace voted former legislator Shintaro Ishihara to the governor's office. He is best known outside Japan for his hawkish, "right-wing" views as spelled out in a 1989 pamphlet-size book, The Japan That Can Say No, that he co-authored with Sony founder Akio Morita. Priding on Japan's technology prowess, especially in semiconductors, Ishihara provocatively suggested that Tokyo use it as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with Washington. His history of unorthodox, polemical remarks dates back to 1968, when he was elected to the upper house of the Diet (parliament) for the first time. He caused something of a commotion by declaring that Japan should go nuclear at a time when the issue was all but a political taboo.

Most recently, after quitting politics in disgust at self-interested politicians in 1995, Ishihara took on Washington in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Extending his reach beyond Japanese borders, Ishihara once again sniped at Washington (and the U.S.-influenced International Monetary Fund) for letting international -- mostly U.S. -- financiers ransack emerging economies. (His latest of the No-saying series is aptly entitled The Asia That Can Say No. )



Establishment politicians and pundits alike dismissed Ishihara's victory, saying it has no national and international implications. Dead wrong. For they are held captive to thinking in outdated Cold War mode. Ideology, for example, means a different thing in post-Cold War politics. So do nationalism, anti-Americanism, and other principles of foreign policy. Critics apparently think little of Ishihara's political relevance beyond the Cold War because gubernatorial-level politics has little to do with Japan's foreign policy or international relations. That said, the question remains: Why did 25 percent of the Tokyo voters that went to the polls support Ishihara? (His approval rating has since soared to 70 percent.)

Ishihara's governorship is first and foremost a symbol of populist calls for new politics in a post-Cold War era, suggesting that the status quo is not the solution to the capital's and the nation's mounting problems. The status quo here refers to a matrix of political, bureaucratic, and institutional arrangements -- and practices -- for policy formulation and implementation that have been in place since the onset of the Cold War. This public-policy architecture, dubbed the "1955 System," was perfected to the point where advantages of Japan's standing in the Cold War were optimized. Politically, it was single-party ruling under which ties with Washington were cemented. Economically, Japan engineered export-led growth while erecting trade barriers (e.g., regulations) against imports. Militarily, the Japan-U.S. security pact put Tokyo under U.S. protectorship while Japanese soil, studded with U.S. military forces, was turned into what former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone called an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for the U.S.

The metamorphosis was not cost free, however. The trade-off was that Japan had to submit itself to an idealist experiment of nation building. Embracing the U.S.-drafted Constitution that denounces armament, the Japanese had no choice but to set out to build a peace-loving democracy from the ruins of World War II. Pacifist idealism was indeed a viable policy option insofar as it was meant to hold Japan's bellicosity in check. In exchange for protection under the U.S. military umbrella, Japan was, in effect, stripped of its ability to even defend itself. Under the U.S. strategic design a domesticated Japan was to become a loyal U.S. ally with significant participation in the world economy.

Deep down, though, this pacifist idealism was self-contradictory as it was bound to undermine its own foundation, i.e., U.S. military prowess. Domestically, pacifism fanned anti-American sentiment among the left-leaning liberals. (The anti-nuclear movement is one example). On the other hand, Japan's commitment to pacifism and disarmament made virtually no dent on world politics as Tokyo was unwilling to advance the cause beyond harmless rhetoric. Besides, the Japanese tend to portray themselves as victims, rather than protagonists, of militarism; which partially explains why they are still having hard time coming to terms with wartime atrocities like the massacre in Nanking. In the last analysis, U.S.-imposed pacifism tamed Japan, allowing its populace to lapse into collective amnesia and get back on with their lives. The pre-World War II slogan of fukoku kyohei (rich nation, strong army) was thus replaced overnight by keizai fukko (economic recovery).


New World

Presciently cognizant of Japan's predicament, Ishihara, among right-wing intellectuals of the 1960s, insisted that the nation arm itself. In the heyday of the Cold War such a view evoked nightmarish memories of prewar militarist Japan and was instantly dismissed as "hawkish" and "nationalistic." Ishihara was labeled as a reactionary, anticommunist right-winger.

Over the years Ishihara has changed remarkably little in his political stance. Against the backdrop of post-Cold War international relations, his political vision and style have now struck a chord with the discontented in Tokyo. At the core of his appeal is his firm resolve to say no -- i.e., to stand up for Japan's own national (and Tokyo's local) interests -- which, unlike in the Cold-War era, are no longer necessarily the same as those of the U.S.

The collapse of the bipolar world in December 1991 touched off a fundamental shift of historic proportions in international relations. Now in place is a new world order where the U.S. is the dominant power but not a traditional hegemon that is expected to flex its muscle at will. Underpinning the post-Cold War world is the subterranean pervasiveness of America -- its democracy, market economy, and culture. In a world that is eagerly accepting America as the de facto global paradigm, America does not in the least have to be imperial.

Ishihara ventures against the current of homogenization, which ultimately serves U.S. interests. The world, if you are not an American, may be a difficult place to live in because you are bound to play catch-up, no matter how hard you try to become American. Homogenization also means the loss of identity or, politically, national interests. At stake here is nothing less than nationhood. Saying no to America, it follows, will indeed be a ground-breaking political event, a first step toward reclaiming national identity. For much of the postwar period a domesticated Japan identified economic development or prosperity as its top-priority national interest. Now the second largest economy only after the U.S., Japan is pressed to review its values, interests, and goals.

Yet Japan, mired in an extended economic slump, is more than eager to Americanize its economy through deregulation, corporate restructuring, and bottom line-oriented management philosophy. Not too long ago, Japanese business practices like lifetime employment, labor-management cooperation, and seniority-based promotion were valued highly as the essential ingredients of the celebrated economic miracle. Now they have been reduced to liabilities, obstacles to international competitiveness. Whether the American business model will hold its value 10 years or 20 years into the 21st century is an open question. But the truth is, in my opinion, somewhere between the Japanese and American model. Massive restructuring may not be the answer to the current economic hardship. The Japanese are currently faced with a formidable challenge: to create an alternative to capitalism, U.S. style. What Japan will or will not do over the next five to10 years will give us a sense of what the first chapter of the new millennium will be like -- a homogeneous or diverse world.


Ordinary Nation

Sovereignty is the major ingredient of statehood, and no one questions about Japan being a sovereign state. What made Cold-War-era Japan an anomaly was its dependence on and submissiveness to the U.S. It appears as though Japan had given up some of its freedom -- another key element of statehood -- in return for security and economic development. This exchange, against the backdrop of indelible collective guilt about World War II, in effect muted calls for nationalism, or values and cultures that define Japan's own identity as a unified nation. Nationalism was generally relegated to a right-wing, anticommunist ideology that longingly romanticized prewar militarist Japan. The upshot is that Japan under U.S. "guardianship" became "universalized" overnight, meaning that the country embraced lofty U.S. ideals like democracy, freedom, and pacifism on one hand and shunned anything associated with the bellicosity of prewar Japan on the other.

In this process of transformation, the Japanese were abruptly severed from their past, as in the post-trauma syndrome of denial, and lost their national identity. Japan has become something of a reconstructed universalist nation standing for ideas of 20th century Western civil society. But this experiment -- hugely successful in domesticating Japan and creating wealth -- has a serious drawback. Out of touch with its past, Japan is unable to find itself and define its place in the world. After all, Japan is no America; following America only leaves Japan in America's shadow.

It goes without saying, though, that denying what Japan has accomplished in the last 50 years is not a solution to the predicament. At this historical junction, the Japanese must figure out their national identity by both looking back to the past and looking forward to the future. If wealth and peace are the primary and only goals of a modern nation, Japan at the end of the 20th century is already a nirvana. In that case, all Japan must do is to keep the status quo: Solidify its relations with the U.S. and stay in America's shadow. But if the Japanese want something other than wealth and peace, status-quo policy clearly will not be the answer. Changing course entails becoming an ordinary nation capable of determining its national identity and interests. That of course does not mean that Japan has to turn anti-American. Independence from the U.S. while maintaining strong cooperative ties with Washington is not an unattainable goal for Japan. And that will alter Japan's relations with China and other neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region.

Saying no is an important first step in the right direction.