Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Writer Karel van Wolferen tells Japan ...

... to get out from 'wings of American eagle'

by Manabu Hara, Senior Staff Writer

IHT/Asahi Weekend Beat (February 19 2005)

Japanese government officials claim that under the Koizumi administration, relations between Tokyo and Washington have never been better.

However, in "Sekai ga Nihon o Mitomeru Hi" (The Day that the World Can Take Japan Seriously Again, PHP Interface, 1,785 yen), published this month, Karel van Wolferen, University Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam, argues that Japan should "discard an antiquated role as a vassal of the United States" and take an independent diplomatic line to contribute to world stability and peace.

In a telephone interview, the writer said that continuation of the same diplomatic line shows Japan lacks a government that can take initiatives to adjust national policy.

The author has written numerous books on Japan, including the best-selling "The Enigma of Japanese Power", which analyzes the Japanese system as a whole.

Q: In the new book, you again say Japan has no government in the true sense. Could you expand on that a bit?

A: Government, in the meaning we usually give to it, implies the ability to take initiatives in making important adjustments to national policy. Japan has a sophisticated administrative system, which is very effective in making small adjustments to maintain the status quo of overall national policy. Those adjustments are made only when domestic social, economic developments or new circumstances surrounding Japan force the country to do so. Postwar Japan has never taken the initiative to change its policy priorities.

Japan has a huge and internationally relevant industrial and financial capacity, which translates into an unacknowledged strong political effect on the world. But Japan is known as a country that does not want to be a political presence and has remained nearly invisible as a political power.

The effect has been continued great political dependence on the United States and the lack of new thinking and new diplomacy to cope with the very great changes in the world around Japan: China becoming a major industrial power, Russia joining the capitalist world and the United States breaking with its own foreign policy traditions.

The Yoshida doctrine, which formulated the priority of maximum expansion of industrial capacity made possible as Japan [was] sheltered in the shadow of the United States, made some sense when there was little policy choice for Tokyo to make during a later phase of the Cold War, but does not at all make sense in this much-changed world. It would seem the country has crept ever more snugly under the wings of the American eagle.

The Koizumi Cabinet slavishly follows the Bush administration in international politics and, very contrary to earlier Japanese objections to war as a policy tool, helps destabilize the world as it does so. It has come time, in this 21st century that Japan discards its antiquated role as a vassal of the United States, become truly independent and develop its own strong diplomacy toward Asian countries and the European Union. With all that, it may contribute to the stability and peace of the world.

Q: Some people say that sending troops to Iraq and Japan's interest in having a permanent seat on the UN Security Council show that Tokyo is trying to change its low profile in international politics.

A: No, I do not think so. Sending troops to Iraq simply means that Tokyo makes it easier for Washington to tell the world the Bush administration has a big ally supporting its occupation of Iraq.

Japanese troops should not be under American supervision, but under that of the UN. Military cooperation with the United States in this case helps give a semblance of legitimacy to an invasion that violates the tradition of international law the world has slowly developed. Japan has been a strong supporter of international law, believing it helps foster international peace. What Japan is doing now runs counter to what it has been saying with emphasis in the past.

If Japan was truly breaking away from its stance of international passivity, it could have reminded Washington that it is heavily dependent on Japan, as Japanese-owned dollars keep supporting the American economy.

Once that had sunk in, it could then have warned the Bush people that they are currently making the world a more dangerous place. No one in his or her right mind believes that present American policies are effective in reducing actual international terrorism.

With respect to becoming a permanent member of the Security Council, this has been a dream of the Japanese establishment for a long time. I think it is a good idea in principle, but many countries would be justified to ask whether permanent Japanese membership would, for practical purposes, merely mean one extra vote for the United States.

The Security Council is a relic from a vanished world, the world just after World War II. Japan would actually be better served by switching its diplomatic energies to another objective relating to the UN. It is the only world forum we have, but it could be made much more effective as one helping to solve humanity's collective problems if the General Assembly were turned into a political body with more weight. There are various ways to do this. A Japanese initiative for such a purpose would surprise other countries and immediately establish Japan as a power to be taken seriously.

Q: Some say it is risky for Japan to pursue an independent diplomatic line while depending on US military might.

A: That kind of argument may have been valid during the Cold War period but not today. It is much riskier now for Japan to remain a de facto protectorate of the United States. Again, the Asian environment has changed dramatically, but Japan is steadily losing room to maneuver diplomatically.

Suppose the neoconservatives and the Republican right wing stir up trouble between China and Taiwan. They are, in fact, continually promoting tension between them. If Japan remains an American appendix, it will have to behave in accordance with American wishes. Such a situation would be very dangerous for Japan. The future of the world depends on a lot of things, not the least one a relatively good relationship between China and Japan.

Japan's strong pacifism used to be viewed in the world as unrealistic and irresponsible. But the 21st century is very different from the 20th century, in which two nuclear superpowers confronted each other. Although any country should have the military means to defend itself, diplomatic means are now far more important than they were in the previous century for peace and stability in the world.

With respect to the Japanese Constitution, it could easily be revised and make the Japanese military legitimate while continuing to express its famous antiwar commitment. The war-renouncing article could confirm that Japan, like all states, has the right to wage war, but the Japanese people, on the basis of their tragic experiences, are resolved never to use this right except to stave off an attacker.

Q: How can Japan reform its governing system to take the initiative in adjusting its national policy?

A: I have written about the various possibilities in quite a few books. But to sum up: Japan should build a politically directed governing system.

I must say that the Japanese bureaucracy will always remain important. There are good aspects to it. As long as normal conditions prevail, the bureaucracy can absorb political madness (which sometimes emerges in the world of politics). The American bureaucracy is rather weak and cannot play the same role as the Japanese administrative system does. At the same time, by its nature, the Japanese bureaucracy cannot take genuine initiatives concerning important national issues - no bureaucracy in history has ever done that on its own. A bureaucratic system has to be guided by people with a political mandate. In a democracy, such guides must represent the wishes of the population and have coherent and responsible visions of desirable possibilities.

I think that since 1993 the Japanese public has nursed a desire for building a true governing system. The political party upheaval of those days instilled a taste for true representation. New political talents have emerged since then, and some politicians have learned a great deal. The consolidation of a political system in which different coalitions of parties could take over from each other would be a healthy development. Very important in this context is that politicians learn to translate what is politically desirable into policies that are feasible and carry them out in cooperation with the bureaucrats.

Q: In your book, you say the image of Japan's "lost decade" is distorted and prevailed due to the influence of the Western media.

A: The international financial press sticks to standard yardsticks derived mainly from neoclassical economics for measuring economic health. As a result, people and governments around the world were given the impression the Japanese industrial machine was on its back and Japan had become an economic basket case. This is utter nonsense.

I would be the last to deny that Japan faces formidable economic problems, but absence of significant growth does not necessarily mean absence of health. In that so-called lost decade, large segments of Tokyo were completely renewed, and an earlier sense of gloom has been replaced by a greater sense of relaxed comfort.

With the fast-rising industrial power of China and India, however, the Japanese industrial and financial systems face entirely new challenges, which are related to changing political realities, insufficiently understood environmental and energy realities, and other problems that will require collective efforts to find solutions and help preserve international order.

This makes the need all the more urgent for Japanese talent to come to the fore and develop new thinking with collective human interests in mind. The nowadays extraordinarily narrow vision of the ideologically driven "big brother" on the other side of the Pacific has become dangerous, which is why Japan ought to assert itself positively rather than meekly follow.

(IHT/Asahi: February 19,2005)

Bill Totten


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