Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Japan's next steps

With PM Kan taking the reins on a coherent note, I'm cautiously optimistic about Japan's immediate future. That said, I think Japan must address a few issues urgently in order to keep the ball rolling. Yes, some of these are certainly optimistic, possibly bordering on wishful thinking, but needful nonetheless.
  • First, address the textbook issue and concomitant historical revisionism. In terms of public perceptions of Japan, this is perhaps the single most significant sticking point in Japan's relationships with its neighbors. Japan must own up to its wartime acts and come to terms with its Imperial past. Germany has managed to survive after doing so. Taking this step will help cool anti-Japanese sentiment throughout East and Southeast Asia.
    As an example, recent polls indicate that the Chinese and Japanese public both see addressing historical issues as the top priority (see question 16 here, for instance). Given the increasing economic interdependence in Asia, the dividends of such a program will be substantial. As the public goes, so often go the leaders.

    Interestingly, this could have some interesting repercussions in China regarding the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy in the public eye. Communism is no longer a viable ideology, and so the CCP has had to rely on other means to maintain its legitimacy. Anti-Japanese sentiment is a convenient tool, and if the Chinese public begins to warm toward Japan, the CCP will face an interesting time domestically. It will at least harmonize their domestic take toward Japan and their diplomatic take - China is on quite the charm offensive with Japan right now from a diplomatic perspective, particularly Premier Wen's jogging excursion through Yoyogi Park. While there could be some unintended consequences (aren't there always?), I believe that overall the two nations could begin to build a more meaningful bilateral relationship once the public opinion gap is bridged.

    I realize that this is not likely to happen, given the significant resources that the ultranationalist players possess. That said, it is an effort that must be made. If the DPJ wishes to meaningfully distinguish itself from the LDP, they are the party to get the ball rolling. Unless the Ultranationalists and Rightists and other fringe Uyoku groups are brought to heel, they will continue to be a problem. Textbook reform will be a key tool in reducing rightist influence. The kids need to know the truth. The truth sometimes really hurts, but Japan will continue to suffer prestige problems until this is resolved.
  • Next, as Kan mentions, get the economy sorted out. This is crucial in so many ways, and one more blog post can't do it justice.
  • Either get the birth rate sorted out or enact meaningful immigration reform. Japan is rightly proud of its unique culture, produced under unprecedented historical circumstances (periodic contact with continental Asia, punctuated by long periods of isolation, during which the Japanese had time to truly internalize and transform what they learned from the mainland, producing culture that, while obviously derived from the culture on the mainland, is vibrant and distinctive and very much a Japanese sort of thing). That said, Japan can't meaningfully continue without some solution to the impending demographic crisis (see this paper - eek! There is an alternate methodology proposed here, so it'll be interesting if it goes anywhere, and if so what results are obtained. I will be keeping an eye on projections either way.). Japan has a choice to either get its domestic birth rate up, allow immigration in a more meaningful way, or face relegation to a 2nd- or 3rd-tier power.

    The downside of the aforementioned history is that xenophobia and associated racism are endemic in Japan, though they're generally quite polite about it. This will need to stop even if the birth rate rises. As the world grows ever more interdependent and interrelated, foreigners will continue to seek opportunity in Japan, and jobs teaching English aren't going to cut it. The government needs to quit scapegoating foreign residents for domestic problems, and needs to institute reasonable measures to allow legitimate immigration. The government also needs to take steps to ensure foreign resident workers are treated as well as their Japanese counterparts. These problems are of course not unique to Japan, but the Japanese approach to the issue isn't terribly productive here.

    Also, and I'm just saying, granting Japanese citizenship to the descendants of Korean and Chinese immigrants whose families have been in Japan for generations would be a nice gesture here.
  • Evaluate Japan's security relationship with the United States and its closer neighbors. I will come back to this in a follow-up post, but suffice to say that the Futenma issue is symptomatic of some strains in the US-Japan security relationship. The relationship is strong overall, of course, and very beneficial to Japan, but it will not last forever.
Everyone has their own list of things Japan must do, of course. Not being in Japan (and not being Japanese, of course) colors my perceptions. Any of my Japanese readers/readers in Japan (a man can dream!) have input? I look forward to any comments.

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