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12:12 13 February 2016

OPINION: The path Japan should take

By Ezra Vogel
TOKYO, Feb. 13, Kyodo

The last few years China is much stronger than it was at the time that reform began in 1978. It is natural that many Chinese think it is an opportunity to try to make up for some of the problems when China was weak.

From the Chinese point of view, ever since the latter part of the 19th century, they were weak, and Taiwan first became part of Japan and the foreign powers moved into China. They now think that they are strong enough that, if their economy passes that of the United States and they have more financial base for building army and navy and new technology in space, then they can be much stronger and they think it is only natural that they assume a stronger position. So this has created some tension.

It is impossible for the United States to remain supreme, the way it was before. The question is how to find a new order that has overlapping organizations. It would be good for the United States to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. China will also join Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think the more overlapping organizations we have, that include China, Japan, the United States and South Korea, the better we are.

We have strong rightwing people who are very upset about the new developments in the Middle East and what the United States should do to remain stronger, and who do not realize how much we have to work with China. They think if we just are assertive and strong in the Pacific that will be good. But that will not solve the problems in the long run. We have to develop a cooperative framework and that is not easy.

Right after World War II, Japan wanted to show that it was a country that believed in peace and was not concerned with war. It placed a lot of restrictions on itself about participation in international security arrangements. That was very good for Japan as it pursued an economic policy that strengthened the country and won good relations around the world. But now that the United States also has financial problems in affording things, it is quite clear that, as China becomes stronger, the United States will not bear the whole financial burden.

In things like international peacekeeping at the United Nations, if the U.S. troops and European troops risk their lives and Japan says, "We cannot risk our lives," then the other countries are not so enthusiastic about helping Japan with security issues. They think if there are lives to be risked then Japan should share in the risk.

It is understandable that many Japanese, who have been committed to the peace policy, do not want to see Japan expanding its military. So the question is how to find a good balance, where you do enough to show allies that you are taking your part and that is also realistic.

It is better not to change Article 9 of the Constitution. The better thing is to have some reinterpretation to let people go abroad. Domestically many intellectuals and many people who believe in peace will be so upset that it will create great problems in Japan. Of course South Korea and China will be very upset. Even Americans will be more disturbed.

From the Japanese point of view, the question is how to avoid being vulnerable to outside criticism as many rightwing Japanese deny many things and cause problems with China and South Korea. They realize how important foreign relations are, they must take a more moderate stance and not be overly excited, they should do more to teach all their children in their textbooks about what happened in World War II.

Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine was not a wise decision. It created a very strong reaction. He now leans toward the pragmatic side. That is good. He should be more careful in the way he states things and he should respond to American pressure to try to improve relations with China and South Korea. That is in Japan's interest to do that.

The reason I wrote "Japan As Number One" was not because I thought the Japanese economy would be the biggest. It was because I thought that, in many aspects of the society, Japan was doing extremely well. It had a very low crime rate, they had very good public education. At that time, they had very high quality bureaucrats. They had a very stable and open society. I think, in some of those areas, Japan is still doing quite well.

Japan has some good universities. So, if I were a young Japanese and I wanted to study engineering, I can get a good engineering education in Japan. I do not have to go abroad. The Japanese yen is not so strong as it once was. It is expensive. So there are conditions that make it more difficult to go abroad.

But it is also a lack of competitive young people in Japan, with English, who can really operate well and compete with the Koreans and the Chinese who have good English. The number of Japanese is increasing who can speak English and do well, but not fast enough and not boldly.

The Japanese need to work on how you present an argument to different audiences. Because Japan is so homogeneous, people understand quite easily with "ishin denshin." But when you go abroad, you have to explain in a more rational, comprehensive way.

(Ezra Vogel, a sociologist specializing East Asian affairs, is a former director of Harvard University's East Asian Research Center and the author of the book "Japan As Number One.")




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