Japan in March 2011 - disappointment, frustration and wrath

Disappointment, frustration and wrath

For a long time I have hesitated to write on the negative feeling prevailing in Japan since the 1990s. It is a sort of frustration coupled with stalemate feeling or cooped-up feeling and vague fear of gradual decline. But, now I decided to write this article, because the situation is really too bad and I wish that foreign people will know that the Japanese people are not stupid to overlook it but keenly aware of the imminent crisis - state of emergency.

Democratic Party (DP) does not want to understand that it was NOT chosen by the voters because of its "Manifesto" but because people were simply disappointed by the incompetence of the latest Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) PMs and the confusion in LDP. However, people did not need much time to realize that LDP is worse than LDP; LDP at least knew that it was not able to plan policies. LDP used the bureaucratic system, the one and only think tank in Japan in planning and executing policies and the party was satisfied with its role in channeling the requests of interest groups. DP on the other hand, criticized career bureaucrats as privileged people(1) and has succeeded in intimidating them into paralysis. It is natural that bureaucrats have become very timid in taking a political risk, while DP does nothing other than sprinkling tax money so that they can retain voters at the future elections. DP politicians have been loudly announcing that they fight bureaucrats and they, politicians, will lead politics. But, people already realized that politicians, regardless whether they belong to DP or LDP, can do nothing without the support from bureaucrats.

(1)I have to consider somewhere why this sort of "resentment to privileged people" drives the people, mass communications and finally the political sceneries in Japan.

While politicians are doing nothing, Japan is on the verge of bankruptcy. Very little time is left to reverse the devastating financial situation. The accumulated state indebtedness has reached or is about to reach the size which can be covered by the total domestic assets. It is very natural that S&P recently downgraded Japan. What we need is a drastic change in budget structure: sharp cut in welfare expenditure and in tax allocation to local governments and a big raise in the consumption tax(2)rate.

(2)The rate of this VAT similar tax is presently 5%.

However, there are NO serious debates on principal policy direction because politicians are more concerned about their reelection than the national destiny. If politicians are not able to tackle the problems which are fatal to the existence of the nation, what are they? We feel that we were in the similar situations as in the 1930s when young officers took up weapons to terminate the corrupt politics. What should we do now in 2011?

Bureaucrats used to lead the country

The Japanese people, in particular the older people, have the feeling that we had a very optimistic and euphoric time till the end of the Showa period (1926-1989)(3). Of course, when we recall the Showa period with nostalgia, it relates to the post WWII period only, typically the 1960s and 1970s. Japan was experiencing a miraculous economic growth and the living standard was leveling up year by year.

(3)Since the Meiji period (1868-1912), we have a single name for the reign of an emperor. Since then we have three periods: Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989). We are now in the Heisei period which started in 1989 and we are in 2011 in the 23rd year of Heisei.

Japan became the second largest economy of the world and Japanese industrial products were sweeping over the world market. Japanese people could afford car, air-conditioner, color TV and other luxury consumer goods and travel abroad as tourists. When the Japanese people thought that they achieved the goal they had yearned for since the Meiji restoration - catching up and overtaking the Western advanced countries - Japan was flattered with such words as "Japan as No.1" and many Japanese people felt satisfied and got conceited.

After having attained the long standing goal "catch up and overtake", Japan suddenly lost its guiding principle. I believe it is the destiny of a country which has never led other countries, but has been always tried to adapt it to the world standard. For the most part of its history, the central value was the Chinese hegemony and since the 19th century it is the Western value system.

When the Japanese people lost their objective, the bubble economy crushed and Japan started to drift without any chart. While we had a common goal, the governing machinery functioned effectively. It was the bureaucracy who planned the detail of the program. Politicians represented the various interest groups and gave pressure to the bureaucratic system, but they were in the end assessed and tamed by the Ministry of Finance which was backed up by the political bosses of the LDP.

Thus, the Japanese democracy was not a democracy but a huge system of channeling individual interests to the bureaucratic system. Therefore, it is no wonder that the most politicians do not have any capability about policy making, though many of them are skilled in power struggle. They are fundamentally opportunistic and their knowledge level about policy measures is in general much lower than that of bureaucrats. Consequently, when Japan is in a critical situation as present, no new policy paradigm can be expected from the politicians.

Bureaucracy was made paralyzed and
what remains?

The DP government only reinforced this conviction. It announced a so-called Manifesto - political promises - during the election campaign of the Lower House in September 2009. In fact, it was not worth being called a manifestation of policies, as they were simply a list of sprinkling moneys to the would-be voters for DP. I believe the most people who voted for DP did not support the individual items in the manifesto, but simply wanted to switch the long lasting LDP government to another group of politicians in the hope that it might solve the difficult problems Japan faced and faces.

But, what DP did was merely the trial to materialize the nonsense manifesto items such as introduction of child money regardless of parents’ income and individual income support for farmers as well as the abolition of highway toll, without seriously considering their financing. They promised us that they could make up money by avoiding "waste" and utilizing "buried money"(4). However, they could not find meaningful amount of money from those measures despite of their promise, which had been easily foreseen by everybody. The state budget suffers from huge deficit and the accumulated debt is about to surpass the total asset of the Japanese nationals $1 trillion. The deficit expanded every time when the LDP government tried to stimulate the economic situation since the mid-1990s.
(4)There were various "funds" in the government-related organizations to allow them quick operations without getting individual approval by the parliament.

Now, the deficit mountain is about to explode, but what the DP government did in the past one and half years was just to accelerate the pace of deficit building and the additional deficit was created due to the "waste" of money in the useless Manifesto policy measures.

Also in the diplomacy, except for a few exceptional cases, politicians do not have any idea about our external relations. However, they do not mind this, because most Japanese voters do not have clear idea about our relations with foreign countries except for rather distorted and emotional opinion about our relations to the US, the Korean Peninsula, China and Russia.

The basic strategy of our diplomacy was and is made by professional diplomats and politicians are present where ceremonies are necessary and they bring back snap shots with foreign VIPs as a proof of their political importance – which is endorsed by a handshake with internationally known politicians - to their constituencies. What politicians can do in diplomacy can be well understood from the recent comments of the PM about the visit of the Russian PM to the northern territory as well as the destruction by the former PM of the highly critical compromise formula concerning the relocation of US Kadena Base in Okinawa. I really cannot understand why they can still remain as politicians. Maybe, no Japanese expects that politicians can do something.

When, some problems happen, politicians usually explain that the responsibility rests on bureaucrats, because bureaucrats always try to protect their own ministry’s interests. It is certainly true that some bureaucrats became self-conceited and corrupted. But, are they so corrupt? What can politicians do without the support from bureaucrats?

Unfortunately, corruption and bribery belonged to the Japanese – or maybe international – tradition and the movement to abolish such a tradition started only in recent decades, though the change is swift and drastic under the influence from the Western protestant countries. Watergate Scandal was an important precedent also for Japan.

The involvement of the PM Tanaka in the Lockheed bribery affair was exposed in 1976 and Tanaka lost his PM post and shortened his life. Since the 1980s the purification of personal relations among politicians, bureaucrats and business people advanced. But, the speed of leveling-up of the correctness standard always outpaced the self and voluntary purification process. The series of Sumo scandal – I really regret that the latest bout-fixing scandal might put an end to the more than 200 years lasting Oozumo tradition – happened also because there is a gap between the speed of self-purification and of the escalation of criticism.

Ordinary Japanese people are all convinced that the darkest people are politicians and our suspect has been endorsed more than enough.

What can replace bureaucracy?

As bureaucrats have been bitterly disgraced, capable young people do not want to be unpopular governmental officials any more, which is quite understandable. The number of career-bureaucrat candidates decreases drastically and their quality as well(5). In reality bureaucrats in the ministries functioned as the one and only think tank of Japan. Without their knowledge and ability, the Japanese government cannot function. Therefore, it was indeed ridiculous for DP to exclude officials from policy making. The former DP PM abolished the regular meeting of vice-ministers of all ministries, because the coordination among ministries and decision making rests on politicians and not on bureaucrats. Such an anti-bureaucrats stance of the DP politicians has only brought about the paralysis of the government functions and the weakening of the governance.

(5)Applicants for the career bureaucrats increased in 2010. But, this is merely due to the bad prospect of the employment of companies.

The fundamental problem is that the Japanese parties do not have any well-thought-out policy proposals and the knowledge necessary for drafting rational policies. They do not possess machinery to enable it. I believe that the Japanese "parties" are not parties but merely groups of politicians to gather money and work for their reelection. Except for ganging-up for money and power, there is no shared goal. Their political convictions are different and they represent different and often contradictory interests even within a party. Their so-called "policies" are measures to channel subsidy and other governmental money to their supporting voters. DP does the same as LDP, maybe with more integrated and sophisticated way with the leadership of MP Ozawa, the direct disciple of the former PM Tanaka.

However, what is needed is the own effective think tank of political parties, so that they can develop their own policy experts and integrated sets of national and international policies. At the same time I wish that such think tanks can have personal exchanges with academy, business and finally but most importantly with bureaucracy. They must also take more active role in the international networking. Japan has been traditionally suffering from the underrepresentation in the international fora. If Japanese politicians should do something in diplomacy, they must have friends and networks in foreign countries. Therefore, I hope that the organizations which have a say in the policy making have good networks with foreign intellectual leaders.

I wish that parties make their election promises based on the well-thought-out drafts of their think tanks. My further dream is that competent researchers of such think tanks candidate for Members of Parliament and assume important posts such as ministers in the government as well as in the party organs.

Inward-looking young people

So far is my idea for the politics. But, I am also gravely concerned about the general inward looking mentality among the Japanese people, in particular young people. It is pity that the present young people were born and brought up in the post-bubble economy period. They do not know the time when Japan was in good spirits. They only know stagnating and pessimistic social atmosphere and hopeless political and economic situation. Already more than a decade ago I was surprised to hear from one of the leading intellectuals, that he was very excessively pessimistic about the future of Japan; Japan will be taken over by China, its population will decrease and Japan will be only a marginal existence within a few decades.

Whether we can be optimistic or pessimistic depends on our way of thinking, how we see the purpose of our life and how we want to organize our country. Intellectual leaders tend to see the situation from very nationalistic viewpoints and therefore become somewhat pessimistic. They want that we expand our economy, territory and influential area and increase reputation (usually among the Western countries). However, I doubt this standpoint. Whether we live a happy life does not directly depend on the expansion of the country. If we compare the gross size of economy, it is very natural that China with its 13 times large population cannot be satisfied with the same amount of GDP as Japan. We should instead consider the richness of individual life and the role we play in the international community.

Unfortunately, Japan now tends to look inwardly. I was surprised to hear that this year no Japanese student will enter the Harvard University, while from China and Korea some 30 or 40 students go to this famous university of the US. It is true that Japanese students do not need to go to foreign universities to get good jobs in Japan. However, in the time of globalization Japan – not any more an expanding and promising economy it used to be till the 1980s – also needs to commit much more vigorously to international cooperation.

Our companies want more foreign managers and workers when they recruit new employees, because they must operate more internationally than before. Exactly when our companies need internationally capable human resources, Japanese young people do not try to strengthen their ability to work internationally – not only Harvard but in general less students go abroad to learn foreign languages. 2011 was said to be the ice age for new graduates in their application for employment. However, I do not understand the mentality of those unemployed students. If they do not have jobs in Japan – it is natural, because companies shift their operations from Japan to China and other foreign countries, where there are bigger markets and cheaper labor. - why not go out of the country and try their fortune in foreign countries.

I am also not happy that they are eager to work only at well-known large companies, regardless of the kinds of job they have there, and to secure a life-time employment.

Their parents’ generations did not get good jobs at big companies, even though they were talented, because their families were still poor and many of them had to give up receiving higher education. Now, more than 50% of the young people go to universities and the level of students is lower than before accordingly. Fewer jobs at large companies and more graduates lead to the present difficult job market.

Is that really a difficulty? If graduation from university does not ensure a job at a big company, why don’t they want to work at smaller companies and try their fortune, where people are looking for graduates from universities, if they are not willing to go abroad?

While the unemployment rate among the newly graduated students possibly increases to 30% this year, we can see many foreign people working in restaurants, convenience stores and construction sites as service staff and workers. Japanese factories and agri-business cannot operate any more without foreign trainees – in fact cheap wage workers. Japanese young people should not refuse the work as manual laborer, if they are not well qualified and attractive enough to the employers.

If our young people are not willing to become attractive workers for employers, why not invite more foreigners to Japan? It can be at the same time the best solution to the problem of fewer children and smaller population. I find it attractive to accelerate naturalization process and if possible promote naturalization of the nationals of our neighboring countries; say sumo wrestlers from Mongolia and IT engineers from China. If we look back the history, we find that the population of Japan increased by way of naturalization, or more exactly speaking the framework of the Japanese state was established by immigrants during the first millennium. As we are more or less descendants of the ancestors from the continent, why is there a reason to reject new immigrants; if immigrants can speak Japanese, they can easily become members of our society, as we have very few religious and other taboos.


Having said this, however, it is more than clear to me that no drastic change would take place both in the function of parties as well as in the mind-set of the Japanese people in the near future. Therefore, I am very pessimistic as to the question whether we can avoid crisis in the coming years. Experts in monetary and financial affairs tell me that the crisis is unavoidable. However, they are not sure when it happens - in two years or five years, though not as long as 10 year. They are also not sure in what way our future crisis could develop. We have many recent precedents such as Greece, Ireland and Korea. But, they are all different in their crisis.

In any case, one thing is sure, we cannot rely on the Japanese politicians; we have to protect ourselves by ourselves.