In addition, Toru Hashimoto, the young mayor of Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, has built a new party and also developed a reputation as a nationalist.
Japanese politics, it seems, is showing signs of two decades of low economic growth, which has led to fiscal problems and a more inward-looking attitude among younger people. Undergraduate enrollment of Japanese students in US universities has fallen by more than 50 percent since 2000.
Thirty years ago, Harvard professor Ezra Vogel published Japan as Number 1: Lessons for America, a book that celebrated Japan’s manufacturing-fueled rise to become the world’s second-largest economy.
Recently, Vogel has described Japan’s political system as “an absolute mess,” with prime ministers replaced almost every year and the youngest generation’s expectations sapped by years of deflation.
Yoichi Funabashi, former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, also is worried.
“There’s a sense in Japan that we are unprepared to be a tough, competitive player in this global world,” he said.
Despite these problems, Japan still has remarkable strengths.
Although China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy two years ago, Japan is a comfortable society with a much higher per capita income. It has impressive universities and a high education level, well-managed global companies and a strong work ethic. It is a society that has reinvented itself twice in less than 200 years — in the 19th-century Meiji Restoration and after defeat in 1945.
Some analysts hoped that last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe would spark a third effort at national reinvention, but that has not yet occurred.
Many younger Japanese have told me that they are “fed up” with stagnation and drift. When asked about the rightward trend in politics, some young Diet members said they hoped that it might produce a realignment among political parties that would lead to a more stable and effective national government. If a moderate nationalism is harnessed to the yoke of political reform, the results could be good for Japan — and for the rest of the world.
However, if Japan’s deepening nationalist mood leads to symbolic and populist positions that win votes at home but antagonize its neighbors, both Japan and the world will be worse off. What happens in Japanese politics over the coming months will ripple far beyond the country’s shores.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate