With Pearl Harbor attack 73 years in the past, Japan to vote on its future
Pearl Harbor is a powerful reminder of the importance of Japan. The surprise attack launched 73 years ago, Sunday (or Monday by Tokyo time) by Japanese forces changed the course of history, plunging America into World War Two and, eventually, sealing Japan’s imperial fate. From the ashes of the war these bitter enemies forged an unlikely alliance that has weathered many storms. Today it is more important than ever before.
After two decades of stagnant economic growth, Japan has awoken from its slumber under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hyper-active second tenure. But with the economy slipping once again into recession and political scandals erupting almost weekly, Japan’s transformation is at a critical juncture. Seeking a popular mandate to continue this “Abenomics” agenda he claims is the only way out of this slump.
The Japanese will be heading to the polls in less than a week in the shadows of history to deliver their verdict on Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister and the first to be born after World War Two. For Abe, the past weighs heavily both personally and politically as the grandson of a prime minister who sacrificed his premiership for the sake of the deeply unpopular U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Historical legacies of World War Two continue to hold back cooperation in Asia and have particularly plagued Japan’s post-Cold War global role. Pearl Harbor is an important reminder of how Japan was once hijacked by a military industrial complex that demanded further conquest to maintain its empire, but also of the new Japan that through embracing defeat and American occupation re-imagined itself as the world’s first pacifist power that constitutionally was forbidden from waging war. Acknowledging the anomaly of imperial Japan versus the island nation’s subsequent track record is important.
U.S. military protection enabled one of the most spectacular economic success stories in world history that served as an inspiration for its neighbors and served American Cold War interests as well in Korea and then Vietnam. With the memory of war still seared into them, Japan’s own version of America’s “greatest generation” chose to focus internally on building some of the world’s leading companies from cars to electronics that have become household names around the world. In 1964 Tokyo triumphantly held its first summer Olympics using it as a global launching pad for its economic ambitions and re-emergence as an economic power.
As the next generation of Japanese looks toward the return of the Olympics to Tokyo in 2020, an aging population and stagnating economy at home force them to seek opportunities abroad where their companies are still well positioned. Globally minded Japanese companies are increasingly looking beyond the developed world to the emerging markets and the rising powers where growth rates continue to soar. A healthy economy and self-confidence at home would allow more room for foreign policy innovation, sorely lacking in Japan’s own constrained parliamentary system.
Japan is undoubtedly back and, thankfully, unlike 73 years ago there is nothing for Americans to be worried about other than a lack of imagination on the part of Japanese leaders and voters. Still, next week’s elections are far more important than Washington or the Japanese people may currently realize. Even with depressed turnout, a clear mandate one way or another on the reforms that Abe has set out will define Japan’s future course hopefully more decisively than his predecessors. Japan has a history of reinvention and “bending adversity” that will be vital in the 21st century if it is to continue to thrive. As Americans and Japanese gather to commemorate Pearl Harbor and begin preparations for the yearlong celebration of 70-years of partnership, it’s important to not only learn from our past but constantly be looking to shape the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japan’s place in the world.
PHOTO: Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), eats a local grilled fish presented by a local resident (R), during his official campaign kick-off for the Dec. 14 lower house election, at the Soma Haragama fishing port in Soma, Fukushima prefecture, December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Issei Kato