Author: Sourabh Gupta, ICAS

On 1 May 2019, Emperor Naruhito ascended Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne, heralding the Reiwa era. Three decades earlier, when his father Akihito assumed duties as the Emperor, Tokyo was a picture of optimism and promise.

Well-wishers gather to celebrate during first public greeting of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako at the East Plaza, Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, 4 May 2019 (Photo: Reuters/AFLO/Pasya).

Japan was then among the five richest countries in the world, it was the G7’s most egalitarian society, the economy was 12 times larger than China’s, and the central government’s budget position — a net debt of just 17 per cent of GDP — was the envy of other OECD countries.

Politically, uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule had suffered its first major reverse — to a female-led (Takako Doi) opposition party no less — in the Upper House election. Four years on, Morihiro Hosokawa would form Japan’s first non-LDP led government since the 1955 System’s inception.

In terms of neighbourhood relations, the graceful new emperor was poised to unreservedly express his regret for Imperial Japan’s misdeeds to a visiting South Korean president. In August 1993, prime minister Hosokawa himself candidly — and classily — expressed his government’s apology for Japan’s ‘aggression and colonial rule’ in his maiden policy speech to the National Diet. Internationally, the Cold War was ending and — as one wag put it — with Japan the victor.

In a nutshell, Japan had proven it could be prosperous, its political system multi-party and competitive, and its relations with immediate neighbours reconciled. Under the new Emperor Akihito, Japan would be a first-tier nation in every sense.

Three decades on, as Japan awakens to a new imperial era, it is hard to overstate the extent to which this optimism has been shattered.

Japan has dropped out of the top 20 list in terms of per capita income, it has witnessed the fastest rise in inequality and child poverty among G7 countries, the economy is less than half the size of China’s, and the central government’s budget position — now with a net debt of 120 per cent of GDP — is among the worst in the developed world. The size of the Japanese economy today is roughly the same as in 1997, despite the economy enjoying the two longest post-war expansions during the intervening period.

Electorally, LDP rule (in coalition with Komeito) has never been as dominant. For three consecutive Lower House elections, the LDP has mustered a three-fifth’s majority on its own — partly due to some of the lowest voter turnouts of the post-war era. The healthy tension of a competitive two-party system, last enjoyed during the Taisho era a hundred years ago, remains as distant a goal as ever.

Neighbouring relations-wise, the Diet — the repository of the sovereign power of the Japanese people since May 1947 — could never bring itself to meaningfully atone for Japan’s misdeeds. On the lone occasion in June 1995 when it tendered an adulterated apology, the term ‘war of aggression’ was downgraded to ‘acts of aggression’ and neither its perpetrator (Imperial Japan) or victims (Asian nations) were directly identified. If anything, there has been backsliding as a less-repentant generation of conservative politicians cite apology-fatigue.

Japan’s aspirations to become a United Nations-centred, internationally-minded and popularly-supported ‘normal’ nation have also evaporated. Dictates of realism have instead produced an unpopular re-interpretation of Article 9 that presses Japan’s supreme law, the Pacifist Constitution, into the service of complex self-defence laws, rather than the other way around

This is not to argue that the Heisei era has been bereft of achievement. Its real growth rate per working-age person since 2000 has been higher than the United States’ or Europe’s. Cabinet-centred governments have emasculated faction-based politics and pork-barrel lobbies. In 1998, prime minister Keizo Obuchi unreservedly apologised to visiting South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. And following the 9/11 attacks, Japan went from ‘passing’ to ‘surpassing’ expectations with its forthright international contributions.

But the Heisei era still seems like a dream gone sour. The villain of the piece was Nagatacho’s inability to nurture the tender shoots of liberal–progressive politics and parties for any extended period of time in government. It is telling that no Democratic Party of Japan cabinet minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine during the first three years of its rule, and Japan–Korea relations reached peak blossom with the hand-back of Josean Dynasty records in October 2011.

As conservative rule was perpetuated, reconciliation faltered, the vision of a ‘normal’ nation at ease with its neighbours became harder to sustain, and overdependence on the US alliance and subsidiary western defence partners (Australia, the United Kingdom and France) exacerbated. Japan is once again ‘escaping Asia’ as it were — this time in the Asian Century.

In his classic tome on the material sinews of Great Power-domination, Paul Kennedy argued that a significant correlation exists between a state’s revenue-raising capabilities and its staying power among the first rank of nations. Japan’s central government operates today, incredibly, on general account tax revenues that are smaller than that collected in 1991. With an aging and declining population, Reiwa Japan must adjust its expectations and thread a more level-headed balance between its economic base and its strategic capabilities — and commitments — in Asia and the world.

Japan’s conservative parties have shown that they are not up to the task. Without the healthy tension of a competitive two or multi-party system that arises from periodic bipartite shifts in electoral fortunes, this task will only get harder.

Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, Washington, DC.

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