Is Japan a Failed State? Does It Matter?

by Michael Auslin

Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan has just publically written his political obituary. Desperately hoping to avoid a no-confidence vote that seemed to be gaining the support of dozens of members of his own ruling party, Kan promised that he would step down as premier once he had dealt with the nuclear crisis and post-earthquake reconstruction. Of course, such a timeline is open-ended, and a wily politician could probably survive for a while as he claimed that the crisis was not yet solved. But Kan isn’t a wily politician. He’s not even a very good politician, and he has done the political equivalent of committing ritual suicide to atone for the sins of being a failure. Why he thinks this will buy him either time or support from the politicians who sought to overthrow him is lost amidst the general head-shaking going on. The only ones who come out looking worse than Kan are Japan’s opportunistic politicians in both major parties, the ruling Democrats and once-powerful Liberal Democrats. Most pusillanimous of all is former Democratic party kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa, who publically called for Kan’s ouster, stated he would support the no-confidence vote against his own party leader, and then chickened out, abstaining from the vote. Why Ozawa believes he could gain the support of the public is an even bigger mystery than why Mr. Kan thought he could retain it.

Japan now has a dead prime minister walking, the fifth in as many years. For those whose life dream is to live by Robert’s Rules of Order (or the Japanese equivalent), the gyrations of Japanese politics over the past decade have proved the vitality and stability of the political system, as parliamentary rules are minutely observed in order to play a deadly political game. For the rest of the Japanese, however, they have watched their country become increasingly irrelevant on the global stage and the object of pity by those who once admired the country’s ruthless and seemingly efficient leaders. Most damningly, Japan’s politicians continue to utterly fail their people. The country has struggled for over 20 years to get back its economic footing, and Japanese companies have indeed had significant success in making themselves a crucial part of the global supply chain (as we all learned after the March 11 disaster crippled some industries). However, politicians in Japan have consistently failed to offer a compelling or realistic vision for their country’s future or provided the means for sustaining economic growth. And the sense of ennui in Japan is growing.

Does any of this matter? It’s getting harder for Japan specialists to assert that it does. The world long ago adjusted to a shrunken Japan, and found new centers of economic growth and political dynamism. Unfortunately, the leading one, China, is a corrupt, brittle authoritarian regime which daily veers between scaring the pants off its neighbors and winning regional plaudits for keeping domestic stability (at the point of a gun) and driving its growth engine ever harder. If international politics is in no small measure a function of public perception and the winning of hearts and minds, then the world has plenty of cause to worry about democratic Japan’s failures and China’s successes. Unfortunately, Japan’s politicians, busy stabbing each other in the back in the narrow alleyways of Japan’s neon-lit entertainment areas, are oblivious to the fact that they are driving their country off the cliff. The biggest losers remain the Japanese people. But the rest of the liberal, democratic world pays a price as well.

— Michael Auslin is the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard, 2011).

The Corner

The one and only.