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Cover Story
Japanís new model of political leadership
Karel Van Wolferen, Author of The Enigma of Japanese Power, is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam
Issue Date - 22/12/2011
Amid the horrifying news from Japan, the establishment of new standards of political leadership there is easy to miss Ė in part because the Japanese media follows old habits of automatically criticizing how officials are dealing with the calamity, and many foreign reporters who lack perspective simply copy that critical tone. But, compared to the aftermath of the catastrophic Kobe earthquake of 1995, the difference could hardly be greater. This time, Prime Minister Naoto Kanís DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) government is making an all out effort, with unprecedented intensive involvement of his cabinet and newly formed specialized task forces. The PM himself is regularly televised with relevant officials wearing the work fatigues common among Japanese engineers.

In 1995, Kobe citizens extricated from the rubble were looked after if they belonged to corporations or religious groups. Those who did not were expected to fend mostly for themselves. This reflected a Ďfeudalí like corporatist approach, in which the direct relationship between citizen and state played no role. This widely condemned governmental neglect of the victims was among the major sources of public indignation that helped popularize the reform movement from which Kan emerged.

Unfortunately, todayís Japanese media are overlooking that historical context. For example, the newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun recently lamented the shortcomings of the Kan governmentís response, emphasizing the poor lines of command running from the cabinet to officials carrying out rescue and supply operations. But it failed to point out that the feebleness of such coordination was precisely the main weakness of Japanís political system that the founders of the DPJ had set out to overcome. When the DPJ came to power in September 2009, it ended half-a-century of de facto one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). But even more significantly, its intentions addressed a cardinal question for Japan: who should rule, bureaucratic mandarins or elected officials? The LDP, formed in 1955, had not done much actual ruling after helping to coordinate post-war reconstruction, which extended without debate into an unofficial but very real national policy of, in principle, unlimited expansion of industrial capacity. Other possible priorities hardly entered political discussions. The need for a political steering wheel in the hands of elected politicians was highlighted in 1993, when two major political figures bolted from the LDP with their followers. By doing so, they catalyzed the reformist political movement that resulted in the DPJ, the first credible opposition party that was prepared to win elections and actually govern. Lowering the prestige of the government right now is the fact that Kan has not shown any talent for turning himself into a TV personality who can project a grand image of leadership. But his government is dealing as best it can in the face of four simultaneous crises, its efforts encumbered by huge logistical problems that no post-World-War-II Japanese government ever faced before.

The efforts of Kanís government are obviously hampered by a rigid and much fragmented bureaucratic infrastructure. The DPJ has had scant time to make up for what the LDP has long neglected. Its seventeen months in power before the current catastrophe have been a saga of struggle with career officials in many parts of the bureaucracy, including the judiciary, fighting for the survival of the world they have always known.

But it was the US that first undermined the DPJ administration, by testing the new governmentís loyalty with an unfeasible plan Ė to build a new base for US Marines stationed on Okinawa. The first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, miscalculated in believing that a face-to-face meeting with the new American president to discuss long-term matters affecting East Asia could settle the issue. He was steadily rebuffed by the US government. As Hatoyama could not keep his promise to safeguard the interests of the Okinawan people, he followed up with a customary resignation.

Japanís main newspapers have mostly backed the status quo as well. Indeed, they now appear to have forgotten their role in hampering the DPJís effort to create an effective political coordinating body for the country. A half-century of reporting on internal LDP rivalries unrelated to actual policy has turned Japanís reporters into the worldís greatest connoisseurs of political factionalism. It has also left them almost incapable of recognizing actual policy initiatives when they see them. The rest of the world, however, has marveled at the admirable, dignified manner in which ordinary Japanese are dealing with terrible adversity.

The term ďstoicismĒ appears over and over in media coverage of Japanís calamity. But, in my half-century of close acquaintance with Japanese life, I have never thought of the Japanese as stoic. Rather, they behave as they do because they are decent people. Being considerate, they do not burden each other by building themselves up as heroes in their own personal tragedies. They certainly deserve the better government that the DPJ is trying to give them.

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