Japan quietly seeks global leadership niches
The island nation seeks to carve out a bigger role in world affairs as a 'soft power.'
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A world vastly different from the one that shaped Japan's postwar policy is driving a change in outlook, says Kenneth Pyle, an expert at the University of Washington. But it's unfolding gradually: Just as it took 15 years from the arrival of American gunboats in 19th-century Japan until a modern government formed, Japan is now deciding how best to respond to a world where cold wars and a weak China are the stuff of history books.Skip to next paragraph
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"Right now, there a kind of interlude, an interregnum where the international system is not clear," he says. "They are assessing, and it's going to take some time."
To some observers, Japan is in need of a leadership that interacts and communicates as easily as its pop culture. "In a globalizing world, Japan needs to be understood," says Sakie Fukushima, a managing director of Korn/Ferry International. "It needs to express opinions more effectively and be part of the world."
But the current prime minister, Taro Aso, has not won his countrymen's confidence. The nation faces political stasis, a rising income gap in a proudly middle-class society, a burgeoning elderly class, and a dropping birthrate. Last month, Japan officially tipped into recession, bringing gloomy reminders of the troubled 1990s.
Mr. Aso now confronts a divided parliament and a devastating 22 percent approval rating – boding ill for his Liberal Democratic Party in national elections, that must be held by next September.
For Aso and Japan, much depends on choices of a rising generation. Critics see some worrying trends: Interest in some foreign countries has waned; for the third consecutive year, the number of Japanese studying in the US has declined, while India, China, and Korea have seen double-digit increases.
Asahina, the government official, is aware of the hurdles even reform-minded officials face. "Most young bureaucrats share [Project K's] feeling," he says. "But to have a feeling and to take action are different. Most people are waiting and seeing."
He argues that Japan can take advantage of its membership in both Western and Asian spheres, with its "ambiguous" position an asset in bridging differences between other countries. "Japan has the potential to be persuasive in the world," Asahina adds. "We have to speak out strongly and differentiate ourselves. We can remodel."