Time and time again, Mr. Aso suggests that the key to saving Japan is for its people to rediscover and celebrate their “latent power,” to look cheerfully to the future, and to accentuate the positive.
The best example of this may be his chapter on aging society, in which he calls for a new respect for the aged and permitting those who want to work to continue to do so. As an aside, does Japan really have a problem of elderly would-be workers being denied their opportunity to do so? And does Japan really want to be forced to rely on elderly workers?
In any case, Mr. Aso has once again shown his boundless optimism, bordering on the delusional, in his New Year’s message.
Mr. Aso opened his remarks by praising the Japanese people for overcoming the slump that followed the bursting of the bubble. If it weren’t for the “what is said to be a once in a century global financial and economic crisis emanating from America,” he suggests, Japan would not be facing a crisis once again. In response the global crisis, Mr. Aso promised that his government would do everything in its power to make Japan the fastest country in the world to escape the global recession. As Ken Worsley notes, Mr. Aso neglected to provide any specifics for how he intends to meet this goal.
This is the point at which optimism turns into self-delusion. I say self-delusion because I don’t think the Japanese people are fooled by Mr. Aso’s promises.
The Japanese people know better than their prime minister that they did not in fact accomplish the feat of overcoming the bubble economy — Japanese firms were spared by growth in the US and China, but Japanese consumers did not see enough of the windfall to provide the Japanese economy with a stable foundation to weather a crisis. Contrary to Japan’s being dragged into a “once-in-a-century” (there’s that phrase again) global crisis despite having escaped its earlier downturn, Japan’s latest crisis is the direct consequence of having failed to fix the Japanese economy. Despite the “longest postwar boom” — another phrase commonly heard from government officials in recent years — it appears that the boom did not to put Japan on surer footing.
The Japanese people do not need to be told this. They’re fully aware that something is rotten in Japan, or else they would have been spending more. The last thing they need is a pep talk from the prime minister. But that’s what he gave them in this speech. After promising to be the first country to escape the recession, Mr. Aso proceeds to remind the public of Japan’s successful responses to bakumatsu and the occupation, and urges his audience to believe in Japan’s “latent power.”
I understand that optimism sells, that no politician wants to be seen as simply a bearer of ill tidings. But there is surely a middle ground between selling optimism and hope and peddling delusions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, managed the trick. In his first inaugural address, he diagnosed the problem facing the United States in clear, stark terms, and offered a way forward in terms no less stark. He also had a message for Mr. Aso: “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”
Mr. Aso should focus a bit more on the dark realities of the moment — and offer some more precise proposals for how he intends to escape them — instead of simply encouraging the Japanese people to believe in themselves and work harder, while denying the underlying causes of the current crisis.