Japan as Belgium

Naoto Kan’s resignation is a reminder of how dysfunctional Japanese politics is. Will the public demand change?

Japan as Belgium
Credit: World Economic Forum

‘Our country has become just like Belgium,’ a Japanese academic and former government official lamented to me recently. On the surface it might seem an eccentric comparison. But the resignation of yet another prime minister in Japan after just over a year in office underscores the point he was trying to make – both countries have dysfunctional governments.

Belgium has been without a government now for well over 400 days. The problem stems from deep divisions between the Wallonian south and the Flemish north on how the country should be run, divisions that have been lingering for decades but which have now come to a head. Belgium also now has the dubious honour of having surpassed Cambodia in taking the longest time ever to form a new democratic government after an election.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has just announced his resignation, meaning we can now expect the Japanese political elite to engage in the usual horse-trading in an effort to find a consensus candidate who, in all likelihood, will fail to excite either a domestic or international audience. The rapid turnover of leaders in the world's third-largest economy (Kan was the sixth leader since 2005) has contributed to Japan being a master at punching well below its potential diplomatic weight.

Of course, the comparisons between Japan and Belgium shouldn’t be taken too far – there are enormous differences between the two countries and their political traditions. Japan is largely homogenous nation, with a strong set of shared values. Multi-ethnic Belgium, in contrast, lacks a genuine national identity. But what has been remarkable in both cases is the ability of the country to plod on despite lacklustre and even non-existent political leadership.

For decades, Japanese have lived with grey, consensus-driven politics revolving around backroom deals, with one short-lived leader after another shying away from tackling the fundamental problems the country faces. Yet while their political leaders have consistently failed them, an industrious population seems to have collectively shrugged its shoulders and continued to deliver what is in many senses a remarkably well-functioning place to live. Perhaps the best example of this resilience and self-sufficiency has been the response to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, where Japanese stoicism in the face of a fumbled government response to the crisis was widely applauded by the international media.

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Indeed, The Economist recently ran a fascinating piece on the economic vibrancy of some of the Japanese regions, pointing out that the Tohoku region has an economy the size of Argentina's and Kyushu's economy stacks up favourably with Norway's.

But ultimately, democratic government demands an actual government. Belgium may last 500 days without one, and Japan can apparently get by indefinitely with a mediocre one, but leaving unelected bureaucrats calling the shots for too long is a recipe for problems. Structures, individuals and interests become entrenched and calcified in a way that can take decades to put right, as the Democratic Party of Japan has found since coming to power after more than five decades of virtually uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party rule.

Japan's disenchantment and disengagement from its own national politics has left the country with too many bureaucrats and not enough leaders able or willing to take on the tough challenges Japan faces as a regional and global actor. Sadly, the electorate themselves have encouraged this by embracing the idea of Japan as the Galapagos, an island nation that can somehow shield itself from globalisation and forge a uniquely Japanese future. That may sound all well and good for some. But the reality is that the world is continuing to evolve at a rapid clip – not least in dynamic neighbouring cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul.

It will be interesting now to see if Naoto Kan’s successor will continue to equate the Galapagos mentality with the burying of heads in the sand. 

Stewart Watters is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat and a researcher in Britain's House of Commons.