Buying the hype?

Michael Auslin, a history professor at Yale and soon to be scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a somewhat challenging survey of contemporary Japan at, AEI’s online magazine.

As the article’s title — “A Beautiful Country” — suggests, Auslin buys into the confident rhetoric that has emanated from Tokyo in recent years, but at the same time, he does not deny that Japan is beset with a host of problems that make Japan’s future prospects far from certain. As he writes, “From a shrinking population to a static military budget, from alienated youth to a declining savings rate, the country will be forced to make major choices in the coming decades. What has changed, however, is not only that real reform seems to have taken root, but perhaps more importantly that the expectations of the Japanese themselves have moved beyond both the irrational exuberance of the 1980s and the gloom of the 1990s.”

Has real reform taken root? I guess that depends on what one makes of recent developments in Japanese politics. Who is the aberration, Koizumi or Abe? Did Koizumi permanently knock the Japanese political system onto a new course, and Abe’s problem-laden government is just a temporary detour to better governance? Or is it the reverse? And where does Japan’s dissatisfied public — as shown by Asahi‘s poll on attitudes towards politics — fit in the picture? Can that aimless discontent be channeled to productive ends, or will it simply serve to punish the LDP next month before returning to the LDP’s side the next time a Lower House election rolls around?

As such, I cannot necessarily share Auslin’s optimism. There is potential for real, lasting change to how Japan is governed — but it will not happen automatically. The Japanese people will have to forge a coherent program out of inchoate discontent, which of course leads one to wonder whether Japanese citizens are prepared to exercise their rights.

And as for Japan’s changing security policy, there has been real change in the past decade, but it is an open question as to the extent of that change. How far along has Japan come, forces in the Indian Ocean and Iraq notwithstanding? What role are the Japanese people willing to countenance? Without the abductions issue — used to great effect by Abe and others to present the North Korean challenge in terms individuals can understand and provide a “softer” basis for a firmer Japanese defense posture — would the public be quite so eager to support “normalization”? And what to make of the abiding unease about being dragged into American wars abroad?

The more closely one looks at what Japanese are saying and thinking, the more questions arise, and far from being vibrant and confident, Japanese society seems rife with insecurity — about the future, about Japan’s place in Asia and the world, and about the ability of the durability of the Japanese system in the age of globalization.

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