Home .Governing globalization What's wrong with Japan?
What's wrong with Japan?
Saturday, 20 August 2011 11:15

So what's wrong with Japan?  It may all be summed up in the title, "The Japan That Can't Decide", of a new book by Kevin Maher.  This work distills the wisdom of his 30 years' experience working for the US State Department, most recently as its Director of the Office of Japanese Affairs.

Another interesting take on Japan’s problems is provided by maverick Japanese government official, Shigeaki Koga, in his book entitled “Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration” (Nihon Chusu no Hokai).  This is discussed below.


It is of course a gross exaggeration to suggest that Japan is incapable of making decisions.  In reality, Japan has a complex consensus-building culture.  This means that when decisions are made, they are solid and will usually be implemented reliably.

But it also means that decision-making is often very slow with all the time it takes to reach a consensus.  For example, it took many years for the Japanese government to decide how to handle its financial crisis which exploded over 20 years ago.  This procrastination has now left permanent scars on the Japanese economy.

Consensus-decionmaking can also mean that decisions are never made because a consensus is never reached.  The second runway at Tokyo's Narita airport has a house in the middle of it, which means that large aircraft cannot use this runway.  So instead of decisions being made on behalf of the majority of the population, they can be blocked by small vested interests.  In other democracies, the house owner would have been financially compensated and the problem solved.

Japan's decisionmaking style can also mean that no-one wants to make a decision, and everyone is trying to avoid accepting responsibility.  During the first 5-6 days following Japan's triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, the government's position was that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), not the government, was fully responsible for the nuclear crisis.  In reality, the problem was plainly one of national proportions, and beyond the capacity of TEPCO.  Much good time was lost as the country was wallowing in indecision.  And now much time is being lost in a slow and inefficient cleanup operation.

Much is spoken of Japan's "groupism".  But we should not confuse groupism with nationalism.  In Japan, the group can be very small, and in government the biggest group identity is the ministry, not the nation as a whole.  Thus, Japan's government is even more stove-piped than others -- meaning that ministries don't share information, and inordinate amounts of time are spent in turf wars rather than making decisions. 

Another issue suffering from indecision is the agreement to relocate part of the US military personnel and facilities away from  Okinawa, which still has not been implemented.  This was agreed between Tokyo and Washington, but many Okinawans would prefer to be rid of the base entirely.  Now the issue is just hanging in the air.  This issue was not helped by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's flip-flopping over the base. 

Japan needs to be realistic about the importance of Okinawa, and convince the Okinawans to swallow the base.  Okinawa is perfectly located being closer to the North Korean capital of Pyonyang than Tokyo, and being closer to Hanoi than to the Hokkaido capital of Sapporo.  It is critical to peace and security in North East Asia. 

But if implementation of this agreement keeps dragging on, the US Congress will refuse to finance the relocation, leaving everyone and everything where they are now.    

More fundamentally, Japan needs to get more realistic about the security situation in North East as China greatly strengthens its military, and North Korea could become even more volatile with its prospective change of leadership.  China itself is virtually hemmed in by the US allies of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, and is concerned about "area denial".  Taking over Okinawa would open up the East China Sea for China.

Japan needs to face up to the security threat posed by China.  This means increasing its military budget from its puny one per cent of GDP in order to maintain its military superiority by getting a 5th generation aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines and cruise missile capability.

The worst thing that Japan could do, through its indecision and dilly-dallying over the Okinawa base, is to send a message to the Chinese that there are problems in the US/Japan Alliance.  The Alliance is much bigger than Okinawa.

The area in which Japan is most capable of making decisions is in firing its prime ministers.  A couple of months ago, Prime Minister Naoto Kan agreed to resign under pressure from his Party.  Japan's political energies were then fully focused on the leadership position rather than the current substantive challenges facing the country (like the rise of China, the value of the yen, or solving the triple crisis), with perennial spoiler Ichiro Ozawa once again throwing his hat in the ring.

The Democratic Party of Japan then chose Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda as its next leader, and thus Prime Minister of the nation.  Was it a good choice?  Or will we be subject to another round of undiplomatic gaffes from incompetent politicians, followed by yet again a change in leader? 

The signs already do not look good.  First, Noda has reiterated his view that Japan's A-class war criminels are not war criminels, and thus there is no merit in asking a Prime Minister not to visit Yasukuni Shrine.  This type of nationalistic rhetoric greatly angers Japan's neighbors like China.  Second, Noda has also reportedly said that Japan does not need to propose an East Asian community now, and that Japan will firmly maintain its security alliance with the United States.  Japan desperately needs very good relations with the rest of Asia for both prosperity and peace, and needs to learn how to play the Asia and US cards at the same time, rather than as alternatives.  Third, within one week of his appointment, the new Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry, Yoshio Hachiro, has been forced to resign after making wholly insensitive comments on the occasion of a visit to the nuclear-disaster town of Fukushima, which he called a "town of death".

There was an old saying that Japan is a country with a first world economy and third world politics.  With the rise of the emerging world, some third world countries now have better politics than Japan.  The good people of Japan deserve better than this!  Fundamentally, Japan needs to change its mindset to become more realistic and to learn how to make decisions concerning the challenges its faces.     

This is a perfect lead into Shigeaki Koga’s thesis of the “Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration”.  Why was the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster so slow and ineffective?  And why was the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO) saved in a secret backroom deal?

According to Koga, “watchdogs and promoters of nuclear power plants live together under the one roof”, in a reference to the cozy relationship between the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and its Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.  What’s more, many former METI bureaucrats are now employed by TEPCO.  This means that there are widespread conflicts of interest and the government cannot control TEPCO.  For these reasons, the Fukushima nuclear crisis was really a man-made crisis.


In the case of METI, a good part of its power as a ministry derives from its intimate relationship with TEPCO.  So the bureaucrats had an interest in saving TEPCO.  This means that taxpayers and electricity consumers will cover the cost of the Fukushima accident, rather than the shareholders and creditors.  Unlike in other countries, there are no independent directors. 


How does all this happen?  It is due to the practice of awarding bureaucrats lucrative post-retirement jobs in business or other government agencies.  A regulator cannot get tough with a company who has employed the regulator’s former senior or boss. 


But aren’t these bureaucrats the intellectual elite of Japanese society?  May be, when they are hired.  Again, according to Koga, the Japanese bureaucracy is a graveyard for talent.  Promotion is based on seniority, more than talent.  Further, most Japanese bureaucrats have little sense of national mission.  Loyalty to their ministry is what counts in the internecine inter-ministry warfare that characterizes Japanese government.  A major motivation of bureaucrats is getting a lucrative post-retirement job.  They do this by protecting companies, and fighting for budgets to create new organizations (foundations or NGOs) where they might get a job.


Are things getting better under the two-year old Democratic Party of Japan government?  No!  The DPJ wanted to wrest power from the bureaucrats and bring it back to the democratically elected politicians.  One big problem!  The DPJ is extremely inexperienced in government, and has many difficult challenges, especially now with the triple crisis.  Many bureaucrats feel disenchanted and have been uncooperative with the government.  Infighting and instability in the DPJ means that Japan has already seen three prime ministers in little more than 2 years.  So the government is now going slow on bureaucratic reform in order to get better cooperation from ministries!


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