The dawn of a new age

It’s the 150thanniversary of the start of the Meiji era that radically changed the country. A significant coincidence since Akihito plans to abdicate in 2019.

Among the commemorations worth noting this year is the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. Together with the dramatic events of the Second World War, the Meiji Era is a historical moment that is crucial to understanding how the Japanese community changed the course of its history with regard to its openness to the world, the reform of its institutions and new economic horizons. In the common imagination Japan is the place that has achieved a harmonious balance between the contrasting forces of modernity, forces that have given rise to some of the great contradictions still present in Western society. Some of these have never been fully resolved such as those between reform and the immobility of power, openness to the outside world and defence of national identity, progress and respect for tradition. Precisely because of these parallels with other nations closer to home, we should regard the Meiji Era in view of its surprising results and the example of a political leadership that dragged the country forwards towards a brilliant future. A reference that could still be of use today in Japan as the country faces the challenges of the current century.

If Japan’s strategy today is that of a return to Asia, in 1868 the priority of the Meiji Era was ideally to “joinin with” Europe. This expression coined by Alex Kerr of Yale University, is a good example of the radicalism and the courage of the policies of the 122nd Emperor who reigned over Japan 150 years ago. In spite of the geographical distance and the changes currently taking place in other countries in the Pacific area, since the Meiji Era Japan has been the most Western of all of Asian countries. This apparent paradox, at least from a geographical a point of view, is, in reality, more evident in the historical transformation that Japan will soon be commemorating.

The turning point in the mid 1800s gave life to unprecedented conditions of stability and progress thanks to the new objectives of modernization and liberalization, in addition to the emergence of a more egalitarian social model. The renewal was such that the Meiji Era has been spoken of as the Japanese Enlightenment, when the Japanese archipelago made a great leap forward in the extremely long processes of social and political development, economic growth and technological innovation that took place slowly in Europe over the centuries. Also for this reason, the Japanese expression Meiji Ishin is often translated as Revolution and not only as Restoration. It was actually a fully-fledged liberal revolution complete with a written constitution: the five articles of the Charter Oath that reorganised the powers of the elite and the political liberties of the citizens. The great success of the Meiji Era was not only the opening up of trade to innovation, but also the opening to rights. Many factors can explain how the Meiji Era pushed the Land of the Rising Sun very close towards the West’s political vision, but there was one exception: the Emperor. In that phase the Emperor was the sole undisputed protagonist, an element of continuity and at the same time a break with the past, an individual who could always find the strength to push the country beyond its limits in moments of uncertainty and paralysis; a responsibility that the Emperor no longer holds, as the role has become a purely symbolic one, nevertheless he is still a reference point for the nation.

The Imperial Family of the Chrysanthemum Throneis the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world with the longest uninterrupted reign in more than 2500 years. This long period has witnessed the introduction of unprecedented changes, such as those introduced by Emperor Hirohito, who in the Second World War helped enabled the process of democratisation by renouncing the divinity of his power and who united around him a country defeated and under occupation. The current Emperor Akhi to on the other hand, worked towards reconciliation with the victims of the war and towards peace with other countries involved in the conflict. It is no coincidence that his reign will be remembered as Heisei, meaning “the time of peace”. The84-year-old Akihito has already announced that he will abdicate in 2019, the first abdication in two centuries. Soon there will be a new Emperor and he will benefit from the example of his forebears and his father, who was able to bring hope to the Japanese people up until the time of the recent Fukushima tragedy.

In spite of the relevance of the succession to the throne, political power is now exclusively in the hands of the government. In the current case, prime minister Shinzō Abe could take advantage of the spirit of change in the passage to a new Era, to ask the country to respond to the three great crises of contemporary times: the new risks of un unstable international politicallandscape, the uncertain socio-economic outlook and the widespread mistrust of the political class.

The first challenge that Japan must face is that of the current international scenario. The government must redefine Japan’s role within a geopolitical landscape that has not been so dynamic or complex since the 1980s. So far Japan has attempted to protect its interests in relation to the new giants of Asia and the bilateral relations with the USA, but it cannot afford to navigate blindly. Since the 1970s Tokyo has followed the principle outlined by the then Deputy Minister of Defence, Seiki Nishihiro that China can be stronger than Japan but it will never be stronger than the USA-Japan alliance. Nevertheless, given the continuous growth in Chinese military capacity, the inevitable occasions for attrition between the West and Russia and the threat of Pyongyang prior to recent thaw in the Korean peninsular, Japan cannot resign itself to decline while others conquer the Pacific.

The Tokyo government is trying to build good relations with the actors key to international security in the region: Beijing and Moscow. Both relationships are still ambiguous and controversial. With China it is the time for “tactical detente” but the military ambitions of Beijing in the South China Sea and their implications on commercial maritime traffic and control of the area could turn out to be more dangerous than North Korea’s missiles. Therefore cooperation with Moscow is a priority for peace and stability in the area, in spite of the fact that both countries have yet to resolve the Kuril Islands dispute that concerns the sovereignty of some of the islands in the Kuril chain.

The second challenge concerns socio-economic development. Since 2013 Japan has been pursuing what is referred to as Abenomics, a strategy that combines fiscal and monetary policy and structural reforms, with the aim of improving the performance of an economic system that has become sluggish. In contrast to the positive results in the job market with the unemployment rate below 3%, Japan has the highest public debt in the world with a record level of 253% of its GDP in 2017. Furthermore, the demographic decline of the population is pushing public finances towards the edge of the abyss. In the coming decades it will be increasingly difficult to ensure that the Japanese welfare model is sustainable. The other chronic problem with the economy is its limited capacity to attract foreign investment. Comparisons with the world’s other large economies offer stark viewing and following the withdrawal of the USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was not on the cards prior to the arrival of Trump in the White House, one of the main objectives of Abenomics, to double direct foreign investment by 2020, will be almost unachievable. In the past Tokyo has succeeded in riding out similar historic challenges with modest success, adapting to Washington’s unilateral decisions such as the so-called “Nixon Shock” in 1971, but Abe’s Japan could suffer much more from the “Trump Shock”.

The last big dilemma for Japan is the credibility of the political class and therefore the risks for its democracy. As was the case also 150 years ago, unexpectedly the problem of the power of the elite has reared its head once more. Ignoring the mechanisms of democratic participation, the Japanese political elite live like ancient dynasties. Analysing 24 democracies over twenty years of their political life, from 1995 to 2016, Daniel M. Smith (Department of Government, Harvard University) discovered that Japan is one of the top three countries in which dynasties have the strongest influence on politics. More than a quarter of the members of the lower house of parliament belong to a small group of a few great families where political power is inherited and then passed on. A famous example is the former Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi, whose daughter Yūko, also served as minister of the economy. In addition to the problem of “partito e mezzo”, the political crisis that creates most discontent and distrust amongst the population is that of the blocked system, in which the power of the dynasties dominates citizens’choices.

Curiously, these three crises at the same time recall the challenges that Japan had to overcome during the Meiji Era: foreign relations, internal precariousness and the vices of the elite. The hope for the Japanese people in light of this recurrence is that they manage once more to surprise and offer a model for long-term change, not only for the Asian countries but for the entire world with which Japan shares a destiny in which there is a very fine line between risks and hope.

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