Japan Conference Keynote by Fred Hiatt, Washington Post

Keynote Address

Fred Hiatt – Editorial Page Editor, Washington Post

Japan as a Global Power: Contending Views from Japan

Sponsored by:

The Sigur Center for Asian Studies’ Rising Powers Initiative
Council on Foreign Relations Japan Program
MIT’s Center for International Studies

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs
Remarks as delivered.

With President Obama in Europe this week, I was thinking back to a trip he made early in his first term, when he caused something of a stir with a comment that appeared to disparage Americans’ view of themselves as a unique nation.

“I believe in American exceptionalism,” Obama said, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Now we could spend a pleasant half hour discussing whether that statement consisted of heresy as some conservative critics maintained or if it was simply a statement of commonsense.

To what extent Obama views America as in Bill Clinton’s words, “the indispensable nation” is an interesting question for debate. I say, Obama’s coming here because I think it’s true that most countries do have a specific national narrative. Even if not all of those narratives envision a specific global role.

Japan stands out among them in a couple of ways. Japan has had a strong sense of national narrative, as strong as any country in the world. It has been a narrative that has envisioned a global role. Yet, its narrative has changed dramatically several times over the past century. I apologize to Eto Sensei for not going back to the Tokugawa era here.

It is remarkably up for grabs today. Both what Japan’s narrative will be and whether it should continue to envision a global role. Before I go any further, I want to interject that I am not a political scientist. I’m not a historian and I’m not a Japan scholar. In other words, I’m probably less qualified to talk about these things than just about everybody else in this room, but being a journalist, I’m not going to let that stop me … but you’re forewarned.

A hundred years ago, if you would ask somebody what made Japan exceptional, they probably would have sited its unique success among non-White nations …  and they would have used that term without any embarrassment, in establishing itself as a global power.

Over the next three decades, Japan’s rules refined and exploited that narrative, presenting Japan as a unique civilizing force for all of Asia. The propaganda reinforcing that view was so relentless and the sacrifices that individual Japanese made in its name were so deep that when it crumbled in 1945, the affect was dizzyingly disorienting. The opportunity to redefine Japanese exceptionalism was also liberating and exciting.

Many Japanese rallied around a new version of Japanese uniqueness centered on the peace constitution. Japan, the only country to suffer from atomic warfare would become the conscience of the world, an eternal warning against conflict,  and an enduring example of the possibility of prosperity without aggression.

Of course, the second, not entirely consistent narrative, soon emerged as well. The loyal American ally, the bulwark against the Asian communism, the unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific, and so on. For this to satisfy the desire for exceptionalism, it was important that Japan be not just a useful ally, but the most useful ally.

That’s the importance accorded to Mike Mansfield’s oft repeated insistence that the US-Japan Alliance was America’s most important bar none. I think I have that right. I certainly heard it often enough. I should have it right.

Both of these posts were narratives, were to some extent imposed from without, but they resonated with existing courts in Japanese society. While they functioned in obvious tension with each other, they managed to coexist because they both served useful roles as Japan developed over the next three decades.

By the late 1970s, yet another version of Japanese exceptionalism began to emerge, immortalized in 1979 by Ezra Vogel’s, Japan as Number One. In this narrative … and here I’m describing how it came to be understood in the public consciousness, not how it was described in Professor Vogel’s more careful exposition.

Japan was again poised to be a global conqueror. This time, based not on military strength but rather on the superior, social and economic models that Japan had shaped. Just in time, manufacturing closing it supplier networks, peaceable labor management relations, wise bureaucratic guidance and so on. In response to an interesting question this morning, I would say that I don’t think this was just a model of American [colonization inaudible 00:09:13]

I think there were values implicit in it, values such as cooperation in society, kind of stakeholder capitalism where everybody’s input was valued and respected as opposed to the American more brutal, shareholder capitalism; a long-term outlook as opposed to quarterly short-term thinking and so forth.

Now, before we move into the early 1990s, before that is, we allow this narrative also to shatter. It’s worth looking back at the four versions of exceptionalism that I’ve mentioned. In the span of just 80 or 90 years from the rest of the Japanese war say to the tumble of the Nikkei average, how is it possible that Japanese people managed to rally to achieve such unity of purpose around four such distinct visions?

One answer I think is that of course, not everyone bought in to anyone’s story, any more than all Americans buy into the frontier myth or the shining city on the hill. National narratives play a unifying role but they also offer themes that minorities can rally against and to find themselves in opposition too. That’s as true in Japan as elsewhere.

Another answer would be that common themes do run through all of these narratives. Devotion to the common good over rank egotism, or what Americans would celebrate as individualism, is one common thread. So is the idea that Japan has to work harder than other countries to achieve its rightful place in the world.

To put both of these in familiar terms, Japan is a small collection of rocky islands, with few resources where people have to get along, and sublimate their selfishness because they live in such close quarters and where they have to gut it out to compensate for the absence of space, sunshine and natural bounty, with which other countries have been favored.

I’m sure you all could find other commonalities. I’d say one other, at least common element is the strong reaction of outsiders. You might even say at times, overreaction to these Japanese claims of exceptionalism. To a greater degree, I think, than with regard to other countries, it seems outside experts regularly have debated for example, whether Japan was capable of becoming a democracy or later whether it really is a democracy, before the occupation even got going.

For example, America’s most knowledgeable Japan hands were warning MacArthur, it would be foolish to imagine that the Japanese could ever govern themselves. The rocky island theme also arouses great emotion among outsiders; some of whom sympathize with and admire the Japanese’ narrative of struggling against great odds. While others have seen it in a less attractive light as a kind of victim psychology tending towards self-pity that leaves insufficient room for empathy for outsiders.

I was a correspondent in Japan from 1987 to 1990 at the height of the Japan is taking over the world frenzy. Japanese companies were buying up golf courses in Hawaii, studios in Hollywood, iconic skyscrapers in Manhattan. The land under the Imperial Palace was extensively more valuable than all the land in California. I’m sure you remember.

I’m sorry to report that there were very people suggesting at the time that all of this was not sustainable. That maybe if those land valuation sounded crazy it’s because they were crazy and that maybe Japan wasn’t going to take over the world. There was however, a vigorous and sometimes nasty debate among the foreign observers, over whether Japan taking over the world was going to be a good thing or a bad thing.

Those of us who did not see Japan Inc. as an alien force certain to subvert American and European democracy, were derided as chrysanthemum clubbers. In the event, none of us needed to have worried. Japan did not become number one. Instead, in the early 1990s, it entered a period of stagnation, what became known as the lost decade and then the lost two decades.

Now, I think everybody in this room understands that those formulations are overbroad, and American plopped it down in Tokyo today in the midst of this supposed stagnation, can only be impressed by a city that works by the reliable subways, gleaming urban malls, extraordinary restaurants, safe streets, vibrant culture and so forth.

My own reaction when I visited Tokyo early in this millennium after having been away for a few years, during my time in Moscow, was if this is a lost decade, how can we get one too? Of course, it hasn’t really been 20 years of decline. From 2001 to 2006 or so, growth was pretty healthy. Unemployment remains low and so on.

What is true though, is that for the past 20 years, Japan has been in search of a new narrative to replace the one that popped along with the real estate and stock bubbles. One scenario that has been tried is that of renewal. A narrative that Japan, having fallen into despond has found its legs, turned the corner, got its mojo back or is just about to do so.

We are hearing that hopeful assertion now with the advent of Abenomics. We heard it after the triple disasters of March 2011, when it was suggested that the shock of catastrophe would get Japan working together again toward a common purpose. We heard it from some quarters in 2009, when Japanese voters empowered the opposition after a half century of nearly uninterrupted one party rule. We heard it a few years before that when Koizumi became prime minister.

These flashes of optimism usually harkened back to other moments when Japan was dramatically shifting its narrative, the major restoration or the rebuilding from the ashes of World War II defeat. I certainly hope that the optimism this time is vindicated. I would suggest that renewal by itself is not a sufficient storyline. Renewal has to be toward some larger purpose.

What might that purpose be this time around? To answer that question, I think you have to first understand Japan’s contemporary challenge because any narrative worth its salt, demands an obstacle that has to be overcome. For the major restoration, the perceived obstacles were backwardness and isolation. In 1945, they were the physical ruin of a nation and the discrediting of its ideology.

Today, their challenge is demography. That doesn’t mean that the aging of the population is Japan’s only problem. Of course, the rise of China, the provocations of North Korea, the risks of energy insufficiency, the possible effects of climate change, the possible retrenchment of the United States; these and more have to be on Japan’s list of worries.

The context for all of them is a declining population, unprecedented in the modern era outside the context of war, and one in which cold and very old people will dominate as never before in human history. These trends are not unique to Japan, of course. Thanks to immigration and the relative fertility of recent immigrants, the United States is less exposed than other countries. Almost all developed nations are heading in this direction.

In the 34 events democracies that make up the OECD, there are on average about four people of working age right now for every one who is 65 or older. By 2050, OECD projects the ratio will be down to 2.1 to one.

One of the central questions for modern democracy and not just in Japan, is whether it will be able to cope with this trend. Will voting populations heavily weighted toward the older generation have the foresight, the altruism and the political will to invest sufficiently in the future, to invest in schools, research and infrastructure?

So far, the answers from around the OECD are not all that encouraging. America, for example, so far hardly offers a model. A fact that occurs to me from time to time as I listen to American officials express frustration at political instability in Japan, at the annual rotation of prime ministers, at Japan’s supposed inability to deliver on promises.

Some of that exasperation over the past few years has been understandable, but given America’s own failure to accomplish even the mildest reform of its own entitlement programs, the condescension toward Japan’s system has struck me as a bit unseemly.

I also would add, this is not just a problem of democracies. Russia, obviously is rapidly depopulating. China, uniquely will age before it is fully developed because of its one-child policy. You could add Singapore to the list, depending on whether you define it as a democracy or not.

Autocracies can be just as susceptible to populous pressures as democracies. At times more or so, because they lack the legitimacy to impose what may be difficult measures for the short term and they may live more in fear of their own people. Nonetheless, this is mostly a challenge for the industrialized democracies. There’s no denying that Japan is the pioneer on this road. It’s going to get older sooner than other countries.

If the OECD averages in 2050 will be about two workers for each retiree, Japan will be closer to one and a half to one. Its population will decline from 130 million to under a 100 million. Does this guarantee or absolutely foretell a broader national decline? I would like to believe that demography is not destiny, but I think the honest answer is we don’t know. We’ve never experienced this before.

We do know in broad strokes, the measures Japan might take to mitigate the effects and there aren’t all that many options. It could make better use of its female workforce as we’ve discussed this morning. It could make better use of its older workforce. It could take advantage of new technology or it could open itself to more immigration.

We also know that each one of these presents difficulties for Japanese society. We know they’ve all been talked about for some time, and we know that not much has been accomplished, certainly on the immigration or labor force fronts. Why not? I think that brings us back to narrative.

I was struck after 3/11 when the media and some observers were optimistically or wishfully [inaudible 00:21:27] the prospect of another major restoration. That some of my Japanese friends were pushing in the opposite direction. Wasn’t the failure at Fukushima a sign they asked that Japan had overreached? Might this not be the time to find a way to live more in accord with nature, to stop trying to tame the atom, to accept population decline and the added living space that we provide?

Why did Japan have to be number one? Couldn’t a nation live just as happily as number five or six or ten, like other former imperial powers, Holland say or Sweden? Certainly, one could imagine a national narrative consistent with this vision of gentile decline, Japan as exemplar of peace still, and now as ecological leader too.

Over the following two years though, that pleasant prospect has collided with China’s increasing assertiveness, which I think for many Japanese has raised questions about the feasibility of peaceful decline. It may be in fact that the only options are to rebuild in some way or to be swallowed. Other possible narratives present themselves.

Some of which were alluded to this morning, more in the language of strategy and geopolitics; Japan as a bridge between China and America, Japan as a bulwark of freedom in Asia, Japan as an alternative to the Chinese model of state capitalism … maybe even as Representative Abe suggested this morning, Japan as an exemplar or navigating successfully the aging of society.

Ironically, I think as Prime Minister Abe seeks to amend the constitution, he had something in common with the gentile declinists whom I just described a minute ago. After all, he too, would be seeking to turn Japan into a more normal country. If the self-defense constitution no longer suits Japan’s circumstances, then is normal a sufficient identity to replace it with.

In the end, I think obstacle and narrative relate to each other in a kind of loop. The aging of the population may convince some Japanese that certain visions of exceptionalism are now out of reach. If the population is to become smaller, older, less innovative, less entrepreneurial, then perhaps the country’s ambition needs to be scaled back accordingly. Maybe a narrative built on struggle and hard work and a drive for leadership of any kind is just too tiring to contemplate.

On the other hand, to paraphrase President Obama, the Japanese I think do believe in Japanese exceptionalism. I believe that struggle and hard work and overcoming odds remain an important part of their self-image. A shared sense of purpose, a reshaped national narrative, might render possible, some fundamental changes that seem unlikely today. Changes that in turn would help Japan overcome or at least manage its obstacles.

It seems unlikely to me that Japanese society will welcome large-scale immigration anytime soon, but changes in childcare systems and accommodations for women in the workforce do not strike me as inconceivable if they came in the context of a larger national story. In a healthy cycle, the narrative would drive changes, which would in turn reinforce a narrative of their success.

How likely is that? I don’t know. I wouldn’t bet against it. I think it’s never wise to bet against Japan. As an outsider, all I can say is, “I certainly hope so.” A Japan that sees an indispensable role for itself in furthering Asian democracy would certainly be a positive force for the world. Without such a Japan, it’s much harder for me to imagine a positive outcome in Asia over the coming years and decades.