Japan's unease

The Japan that will host the Group of Eight summit July 21-23, is a country feeling deep unease.

Japan has survived the worst of the recent Asian economic collapse, and many Japanese are hopeful that the relaxation of Korean tensions might reduce the military threat they have felt from nearby North Korea. Even so, it seems - from two weeks here visiting with longtime friends, some of them in the world of policymaking, most not - that many Japanese have other deep uncertainties about their future.

One sign of that unease: Just a day after Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori swore in his new Cabinet July 4, a nationwide poll found that a record 62 percent of respondents already viewed it with disapproval. But one week earlier, Mr. Mori's party, the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had won an absolute majority at the voting booth. What on earth was going on?

Disapproval of Mori was widespread among the people I talked to. Many cited a degrading comment he made in the run-up to the election, when he said voters who were still undecided should "stay home in bed" on election day.

Others noted that Mori had kept his Cabinet very similar to the pre-election Cabinet - apparently in an attempt to ensure policy stability throughout the summit period.

"But the Cabinet won't last beyond the end of the year, so it won't make any difference anyway," one business executive said.

Disapproval of the LDP as a whole seems less broad than disaffection with Mori. The LDP has dug itself in as an effective patronage machine throughout its decades in power. It has kept the voting system weighted in favor of the generally more-conservative country districts. Rural support for the LDP has resulted in countryside communities whose tiled farmhouses and trim fields look notably more prosperous than the crammed-together apartment blocks in the vast, run-together urban areas.

In the cities, meanwhile, newspapers followed with notable interest the result of the recent election in Mexico, where an entrenched ruling party very similar to the LDP was finally voted out of office.

During Japan's election, the LDP's majority was reduced by several percentage points. Opponents seem hopeful that the next time around, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, might make a breakthrough, though some policy analysts doubt it. Many members of the business and financial community worry, meanwhile, that, neither inside nor outside the LDP is there much political will to undertake the deep financial and policy restructuring needed to pull Japan out of its seven-year economic trough.

These affluent people point to many continuing examples of government overspending, financed from their own incomes through a top-level tax rate of 50 percent.

Computer industry leader Masaru Murai noted that South Korea, where he has business links, reacted much more decisively than Japan to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

"South Korea has really made a comeback," he said admiringly. "Now, in fact, the continuing recession here has become a brake on the Koreans' ability to grow further."

Among some Japanese there is a fear that any reunification of the two Koreas might lead to a resurgence of the anti-Japanese feelings which have simmered in many parts of Korea since Japan's long and brutal pre-1945 occupation of the peninsula. In mid-1998, North Korea exacerbated those fears by sending a "test" missile launch right over central Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. That action led many Japanese to support a project for a joint American-Japanese "theater missile defense" system.

But like most of the Japanese friends I talked with, Mr. Murai expressed the hope that, instead of leading to a rise of anti-Japan feeling, the rapprochement between South and North Korea might ease tensions throughout the whole of Northeast Asia. Policy analysts in and outside the Japanese government seem to agree that if South Korean diplomacy can really succeed in bringing the North under control, then most Japanese policymakers would welcome that outcome.

If many Japanese are hopeful about regionwide trends, others still harbor other uncertainties about developments closer to home. Underlying the concern over the country's economic policy is a deeper concern about demographic changes.

Younger Japanese - particularly women - no longer see their principle goal as sacrifice for the bearing and raising of children. A new individualism has sent the birthrate plunging - and this in a nation which historically distrusts and fears immigrants. Family life is changing rapidly, with many significant social and economic consequences.

*Helena Cobban will be filing her foreign affairs columns from Japan this summer. Her newest book is 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace: Nobel Laureates Discuss our Global Future' (University Press of Virginia).

A record 62 percent of the public disapproves of the new government.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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