Adding up the math

Adding up the math

By electing the Democratic Party, Japan recognizes the need to adjust to emerging powerhouse China, writes Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Los Angeles --- Let us not kid ourselves: Japan remains phenomenally important. But that's easy to lose sight of these days.

We forget that its economy is still huge and that its history will always remain central to the modern evolution of Asia -- and to the continuing evolution of Asia's relationship with the United States, which remains, for now, the world's sole superpower.

Its multinational corporations are second to none for effectiveness and global reach. Its profoundly deep and ultra-talented culture produces exceptional value in everything from literature to cinema to technologies to cuisine (And this is the short list).

But from the American perspective, at least, you would hardly know that Japan retains any importance at all. This may be because our foreign policy media radar screen seems capable of tracking only one Asian phenomenon at a time.

And that noisy new baby in the Asia-Pacific neighborhood -- wailing and demanding everyone's attention -- has been China. Sure, China -- the rising Leviathan from the deep vast ocean of its murky history -- merits our attentions. But Japan deserves more notice than it has been receiving. And there is no better reason to take note of Japan than with the lessons this weekend's monumentally important national elections will provide.

In the '90s, Japan not only slipped below almost everyone's radar screen but in some sense under its own. Its once-vibrant economy stagnated like an overweight shogun, and the political system shredded one prime minister after another with a shocking lack of ceremony or regret. By the end of the '90s everyone was calling it Japan's "Lost Decade."

The moniker was really perfect except for its time limitation: More and more you can throw in this first decade of the new millennium as well and make the case that what you have are two "Lost Decades."

The Japanese are properly careful about change: They do not divorce as much as we Westerners do and they do not throw political parties out like yesterday's spouse, either. In part that explained the almost endless endurance of the country's dominant political octopus: the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP, they always joked, was never very liberal, certainly not very democratic and in important ways looked more a political holding company than an ideologically coherent political party.

Yet despite that -- or because of that -- the LDP ruled, a vast pan-island conglomerate of shogunates, ever since the loss of World War II (except for a flicker of months in the mid-90s). But that monumental run ends this weekend. A new conglomerate of shoguns takes over: the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Japanese voters are abandoning their infamous aversion to change by voting the LDP out of power in the lower house (Diet), the primary seat of political power. They are making this major change for several reasons. They are sick of the LDP and probably the sole reason they are not sick of the DPJ is because the opposition party has not been in power enough to develop an illness over. They are hoping that bold change will jump-start their old-fashioned political system, which has been functioning with all the spiffiness of a broken-down black-and-white TV in an age of brilliant flat panels.

But there is another reason for the voter revolt, and it's not being much talked about. There is, in effect, a Third Man running in this election. It's not on the ballots, like DPJ or LDP. But almost everyone knows it is there.

The third man is China. The fear is that if Japan does not shake itself loose and wake itself up, the real power with the most influence over its future and over the region will be a third party: The Communist Party of China.

It's not only that Japanese shoguns don't like it when Chinese emperors rivet the world's attention. The Japanese people don't like it either. But they understand that a nation of a mere 130 million has to accept the looming and growing reality of a nation of 1,300 million (1.3 billion).

One thing the Japanese as a culture tend to be very good at is math.

Having made their calculations, the Japanese realize that they have to come to terms with the numbers. In population, they are but one-tenth of China. So do they maintain their one-on-one relationship with the United States (demographically, barely a fourth of China)? Or do they begin the unpleasant but necessary process of geopolitical adjustment?

And so the selection by election of the DPJ to run the country at the national level means that the Japanese have decided that they have to adjust. Its foreign policy establishment heretofore will construct a new theoretical framework for Japanese international relations. It will be a finely calibrated triangular thrust, to include, more intimately, Beijing, not just Washington.

The U.S. alliance will not be abandoned, of course, but it will be contextualized differently. A Japanese "Kissinger" will need to emerge to maneuver this brilliant nation through the many nuances of next few decades. Japan cannot afford for them to be lost, too.


The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.