A Partner in the Pacific

Gerald Wright on the upcoming Japanese election and what it will mean for the country's ties to Canada.
By: /
December 15, 2012

Japan appears to be sleepwalking to its election on December 16. Far from being viewed as an opportunity to place the country on a more constructive path, the election is deepening the pessimism and increasing the feelings of cynicism many Japanse have for their political system and their country’s future prospects. The award of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University has been one ray of light in an otherwise gloomy autumn.

Cynicism is particularly strong this time around. In the last election for the lower house of the Diet, in 2009, the patronage encrusted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was engulfed by a new wave represented by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). High expectations were fuelled by the new team’s extravagant campaign promises, including children’s allowances and toll-free expressways. Nearly four years later, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (the third DPJ prime minister) has had to commence his campaign by apologizing to the electorate for the government’s utter failure to deliver.

The LDP, which is likely to come out on top on December 16, reflects the increasingly nationalist mood of the Japanese, but even LDP President (and likely future prime minister) Shinzo Abe’s promise to revise Japan’s Constitution, which currently constrains the employment of the Self-Defense Forces, arouses scepticism since his own party is by no means united on this measure. A telling sign of the antipathy towards the leadership elite is that minor parties are scurrying to recruit candidates, formulating policy on the fly. The most significant “Third Force” group, the Japan Restoration Party, appears close to collapse over differences between former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who favours nuclear power generation, and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who opposes it.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that when electors are polled for their choice of leader many opt for “none of the above”. Japanese students, I can testify, show little interest in their country’s political process. The huge issues that confront Japan – a rapidly aging population, a debt that is over twice the size of the gross domestic product, a fall in U.N. rankings for global innovation, and climate change – are not getting much of an airing in this election campaign. How will voters be able to determine, even in general terms, the kind of Japan for which they are voting? Politicians should take the lead in getting Japan back on track but the political system is in considerable disrepair.  

As the election campaign is seizing the headlines, behind the scenes negotiators representing Canada and Japan are beginning work on an Economic Partnership Agreement. Does Japan promise to be a credible partner? The Harper government’s intent to develop Asian markets for Canadian exports has been presented as a trade initiative but, in fact, Canada is bound to be drawn into the political as well as the economic life of the Asia Pacific Region. Canada will need strong and effective partners capable of assessing what is going on in the Region, sharing intelligence and collaborating in multilateral forums.

We must look beneath the country’s everyday politics in order to assess what kind of a partner Japan could be. Japan has weathered the stresses and strains of a giddy economic upturn followed by a shattering decline, in turn followed by a massive natural disaster (the Great Tohoku Earthquake) and a nuclear crisis. All the time social cohesion has remained strong, the quality of life has stayed extremely high (as befits the world’s third largest economy), and the country has followed a fairly consistent path in foreign affairs. Notwithstanding enormous problems that go unresolved, Japanese society is capable of mobilizing its resources to pursue long-term policy goals.

This is evident in Japan’s underlying approach to China. We can expect a return to normalized trade relations with China following the recent spat over islets in the East China Sea. Mr. Abe will probably exchange his nationalist bluster for more level-headed issues management.

Japan must pursue close economic ties with China at the same time as moderating China’s growing influence in the Pacific Region. On account of its economic power and its political potential, Japan’s experience can serve as an example for every major Pacific power that must balance those twin foreign policy imperatives. That example will deserve close examination by Canada too.