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Global Japan
NOV 11, 2011

New Leaders Needed for Japan’s Rebirth

By Steve McClure
Mr. Nik Gowing, Main Presenter, BBC World News (Photos: Photocreate)

In the wake of the March 11 disaster, Japan is seeking to create a new economic and social structure to serve as a model for the world. Speakers at the G1 Global Conference on November 3 called for new, strong leadership to help Japan move forward.

Until 1986, Japan’s highest-denominated banknote featured an image of Prince Shotoku. The prince’s portrait was then supplanted by the stern countenance of Yukichi Fukuzawa, which remains on the 10,000-yen bill to this day.

Both men provided visionary leadership at crucial junctures in Japan’s history. Shotoku is credited with writing Japan’s first constitution in the 7th century, based on his vision of a united polity founded on Buddhist values. Meiji-era educator and businessman Fukuzawa is considered one of the founders of modern Japan, which he envisaged as a country that would absorb Western learning while maintaining its independence.

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary Japanese leader of similar stature whose portrait could someday grace the 10,000-yen note. Japan isn’t just in an economic slump – it’s in a leadership slump.

Nowhere is that more apparent in the political realm.

The fact that Yoshihiko Noda is Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years speaks for itself. The revolving door that seems to have been permanently installed in the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Residence) means that no premier has time to craft and implement the fundamental reforms Japan so badly needs.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to reconstruct and revive Japan following the March 11 triple shock of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. But Japan’s sclerotic political system and a dearth of leadership could well slow the process of getting Japan back on track.

“No one is really leading with regard to what reforms should be done before others,” is how House of Representatives Member Keiro Kitagami describes Japan’s post-March 11 political environment. Kitagami, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, was speaking during the G1 Global’s Plenary Session 1, entitled “The Rebirth of Japan: The Political Landscape.”

It’s all very well to trot out the mantra “reform” – after all, who wants to be seen favoring the status quo, given Japan’s current situation? – but just what “reform” means in concrete, specific terms is less than clear.

Motohisa Furukawa, Minister of State for National Policy, Economic, and Fiscal Policy and Science and Technology Policy, described some broad reformist aims in his keynote speech at the beginning of the same session. Like other speakers at the conference, Furukawa sounded the theme of turning disaster into opportunity.

“In the process of reconstruction and rebirth from the disaster, we’d like to create a new economic and social structure that the world will follow as a new model in future,” Furukawa said. “I don’t think that to be reborn means simply going back to the original.”

So what form will that new socioeconomic structure take?

“[We want to] create the world’s No. 1 energy and environmental society, and the world’s No. 1 longevity society,” Furukawa informed the audience. “Japan will accelerate green innovation.” He added that the government will review Japan’s energy policy from scratch and will work to reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear power.

As if to answer skeptics who might wonder how these lofty goals can be translated into reality, Furukawa noted that that the Noda Administration has established a council on national issues charged with finding a strategy to rebuild Japan.

The council obviously has its work cut out for it; one can only wish it success.

Back to the need for leadership, to which all the panelists paid at least lip service. Can a society where a premium is placed on reaching decisions by consensus engender and support strong, visionary leaders?

“We need strong leadership and strong momentum for reform,” pointed out Heizo Takenaka, Director of Keio University’s Global Security Research Institute and Professor at Keio’s Faculty of Policy Management. “We can’t get strong leadership because we are such an insular society.” One way of reducing that insularity, Takenaka said, is for Japan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement.

House of Councillor Yoriko Kawaguchi looks within Japan itself when trying to come to grips with the country’s leadership deficit: “We are not giving education to children to create leaders,” she said.

Perhaps it was because they were speaking in their second (or third) language, but it seemed that the three politicians on the panel were speaking in unusually free and open terms, which was refreshing.

Kitagami was especially outspoken. “The problem is not just leadership characteristics, but the whole system itself,” he said. “The Japanese people have to realize that democracy entails responsibility.” Kitagami summed up the problem neatly: “When someone shows leadership, they say he’s a dictator.”

So while everyone agrees that there’s a need for Japan to be reborn, just what form that rebirth should take is unclear. And while there’s a consensus that the country desperately needs leadership, the big question remains: who will lead? 


About G1 Global
The G1 Global Conference, first held on November 3, 2011, at GLOBIS University in Tokyo, is a daylong event where leaders from government, business, academia, and the media gather to discuss (in English) challenges facing Japan, Asia, and the world, as well as ways to reform and reinvent Japan. The G1 name is based on the concept of “Group is one, Globe is one.”