“Japanese politicians,” he writes, “have made serving the American government a priority when they should be focused on serving the Japanese people. Japan has lost its sovereignty to the United States. Our nation has been invaded and occupied by invisible forces.”
The above comes from Mr. Morita’s first English-language publication, Curing Japan’s America Addiction, a beautifully designed book published by Chin Music Press, a small Seattle-based press that “[believes] in giving voice to writers who have new ideas, new thoughts.”
In what is a fundamentally conservative book — contrary to what co-translator Bruce Rutledge calls “the left’s response to…Shintaro Ishihara’s The Japan That Can Say No” — Mr. Morita laments the demise of postwar Japan at the hands of Japanese “neo-conservatives” like Koizumi Junichiro, Abe Shinzo, and their allies in the Japanese media. He believes that the Japanese establishment, including politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists, have betrayed their country by placing the interests of the United States before the interests of the Japanese people. Mr. Morita’s attack on Mr. Koizumi is not a left-wing attack. Mr. Morita is in fact an unabashed supporter of the LDP’s old conservative mainstream, an argument he makes at length in his 2007 book 自民党の終焉 (The end of the LDP). He believes that the old conservative mainstream — the “true conservatism,” he calls it — created an egalitarian, middle-class society, and prevented Japan from remilitarizing while maintaining a healthy distance from the U.S.
For Mr. Morita, however, over the past three decades the LDP has gradually been remade in the image of the U.S. Republican Party, which in turn has resulted in the introduction of neo-liberal reforms that have served to create growing income disparities in Japan, destroy public services, and channel Japan’s wealth to the U.S. While he criticizes Nakasone Yasuhiro, prime minister from 1982-1987, for moving Japan down the path of excessive dependence on the US, he reserves the bulk of his anger for Mr. Koizumi, perhaps because Mr. Koizumi has been blanketed with praise by the domestic and foreign press.
There is much to recommend in Mr. Morita’s book. He writes with genuine feeling about the decay of Japan’s rural regions and the growing income gaps. His critique of Japanese foreign policy is even more effective. He is particulary incensed by the effort by Japanese and American conservatives to provoke China and drum up confrontation with North Korea: as in the case of economic reforms, Mr. Morita believes that the hawkish foreign policies of Prime Ministers Nakasone, Koizumi, and Abe were more in the interests of American conservatives than the Japanese public. He writes: “The US-Japan alliance is strengthened as tensions between Japan and China rise. If the Asian region becomes unstable, American influence rises.” He also deftly explores the corrosive impact of the alliance on Japanese domestic politics, chronicling how the LDP used threats to withdraw subsidies to Iwakuni to influence Iwakuni’s 2008 mayoral election (discussed in this post). Mr. Morita’s arguments are all the more powerful considering that his might be the only such book that has been translated into English.
But I cannot recommend this book without some reservations. This book is ultimately undone by Mr. Morita’s anger at the state of his nation. Much like the American left during the darkest days of the Bush administration was desperate to pin every failing on George W. Bush, so too is Mr. Morita keen to blame Mr. Koizumi and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Abe for the problems facing Japan today. In this he overreaches, giving Mr. Koizumi far too much credit for transforming Japan. Clearly the structural changes that horrify Mr. Morita did not emerge overnight under Mr. Koizumi’s watch. Income inequality may be more a function of Japan’s demographics than any reforms implemented by Mr. Koizumi at Washington’s behest. The education system was broken long before Mr. Abe made patriotic education a priority. The Japanese economy has been impacted more by companies departing Japanese shores than by successful regulatory reform (although as Len Schoppa argues, it is not entirely clear that the former is a result of the lack of the latter). Indeed, Mr. Morita completely skips over the post-bubble decade in order to lambaste Mr. Koizumi for his treachery.
This is a major failing of Mr. Morita’s account of contemporary Japan. In his desire to defend the postwar system from its neo-conservative enemies, Mr. Morita blithely ignores the question of whether the postwar system was still intact by the time Mr. Koizumi took office in 2001. Arguably Mr. Koizumi — far from acting as an American stooge, implementing a US wishlist of regulatory reforms — was doing the best he could to rescue something from the wreakage. One could argue that Mr. Koizumi was mistaken in his priorities as he tried to build a new system, but Mr. Morita unfairly insists that Mr. Koizumi was not even acting in good faith in pushing for reform without sanctuary.
It is in this sense that Mr. Morita’s conservatism comes through. Mr. Morita, for example, explicitly sides with the People’s New Party in their fight against postal privatization, arguing that postal privatization has deprived small villages of service while leaving the privatized postal system ripe for the picking by American corporations. (How exactly US corporations would get at the newly created postal bank when an American hedge fund could not even manage to take over a sauce manufacturer is beyond me.) Mr. Morita ignores the role played by small post offices in perpetuating LDP rule and therefore stifling Japanese democracy, which Mr. Morita desperately wants to see strengthened. In this sense he wants to see the old LDP order restored; he supports Ozawa Ichiro’s Democratic Party of Japan — Jiminto no shuen is a long argument on behalf of a change of ruling party — because he believes that it is the proper heir of the LDP’s old conservative mainstream, now that the LDP has been “republicanized.”
This is ultimately my problem with Mr. Morita. Despite his passionate account of the problems of contemporary Japan, he is woefully short on ideas for how to make Japan better. Like a good conservative, Mr. Morita’s answers often involve appeals to the postwar past. But as admirable as the achievements of postwar Japan were, it is quixotic to long for their return. Indeed, was the golden age really a golden age? Japan may have been more equal and Japanese workers more secure, but as Schoppa argues, this social safety net was the result of the state’s offloading welfare roles to companies and wives.Were rural areas that much better off, or were they facing the beginning of a long decline that continues to the present day?
It is little good looking back to postwar era for guidance. The postwar system is out of place in a globalized world, in which companies can move offshore or obtain capital from abroad with considerable ease. The idea of providing welfare indirectly — including through public works programs for rural areas — has grown too costly socially and fiscally. (Japan’s fiscal situation also goes unmentioned in this book.) Providing a social safety net without swelling the national debt is a challenge that demands considerable creativity from Japan’s politicians, creativity that has thus far been lacking.
Ultimately that is the problem: in the face of the new global economy, Japan has suffered debiliating intellectual paralysis that has prevented it from coherently negotiating the terms of its engagement with the global order. Mr. Koizumi and the neo-liberals have provided one approach, an approach that appears to have been eclipsed thanks to the global financial crisis. Mr. Morita and the remnants of the LDP mainstream have strived to provide another, but all too often it amounts to pining for a bygone era, the very essence of conservatism. In the debate between the two extremes — the Koizumian neo-liberals and the “paleo” conservatives who rail against “market fundamentalism” — there is a desperate need for a middle ground that can reconcile demands for higher levels of social protection with greater levels of economic openness. Japan may ultimately grope its way to a new grand bargain, especially as the neo-liberal alternative loses its glamour, but in the meantime it is struggling to find a set of ideas that offer the elusive blend of growth and protection.
Nevertheless, Mr. Morita deserves credit for fearlessly trying to diagnose Japan’s problems, and Chin Music Press deserves credit for introducing his ideas to a foreign audience.