When Japan’s imperial court finally succeeded in toppling the long-ruling Tokugawa shogunate in late 1867, senior nobles soon discovered they faced an even greater challenge: deciding what to do next.
A first policy gathering of key courtiers “failed to reach a decision”, according to historian Donald Keene. “Proponents of rule by the emperor had not given adequate consideration to the problems they were likely to encounter when they assumed responsibility for government,” Prof Keene wrote in his history of the era.
That inauspicious start to what is now known as the Meiji Restoration – a political turning point that catapulted Japan into modernity – should be a source of comfort for interested observers of the nation’s most recent revolution.
For while Japan’s new Democratic Party has undoubtedly made history by ending the long conservative dominance of post-war politics, the party and its scholarly prime minister Yukio Hatoyama have since often appeared unready for the realities of power.
Torn between the conflicting need to shore up a fragile economic recovery and repair the state’s battered finances and deeply divided on how to handle a high-profile dispute with the US about a military base, the DPJ government has seen its ratings slump and faced a barrage of criticism from the media.
Perceptions of uncertain government have also fuelled a few ripples of concern among international investors about the sustainability of debt levels. Nor are many analysts entirely convinced by the much-heralded blueprint for a new growth paradigm published in December. “The DPJ’s just-released 10-year ‘growth strategy’ document offers neither growth nor strategy,” sniffed the Oriental Economist newsletter.
Still, by Meiji standards, the current political transformation – dubbed by Mr Hatoyama a “bloodless Heisei Restoration” after the reign-name of the current emperor – is actually a model of orderly progress.
Meiji reformers only started making a policy impact after months of political vacuum and civil war. The current more tranquil transfer of power has allowed at least some novice DPJ ministers to hit the ground running. A DPJ revamp of government procedures has already gone some way to meeting its pledge to curb the power of the country’s elite bureaucracy – and so far without causing any administrative crises.
Nor can the DPJ be blamed for economic problems that developed under the half century of dominance by the Liberal Democratic party it ousted so emphatically last year.
Masayuki Naoshima, a senior DPJ member and now minister of economy, trade and industry, accepts that the nation is facing an “extremely difficult economic situation”, but insists that the foundations are being laid for a true revival.
“The Japanese people have a high level of ability and great potential for the future. As we steadily implement the new strategy, I believe the economy will return to growth and you will be able to invest in this country with confidence,” Mr Naoshima says.
There are indeed some good reasons for such faith. While the depth of last year’s recession was a reminder of the dangers of over-reliance on external demand, Japan remains a powerhouse of technology and craftsmanship.
Innumerable little-known small and medium-sized companies still lead in global niche markets, from printer parts to nuclear reactor components, for example.
Also more stodgy sectors, such as services and agriculture, can be seen more as a national opportunity than a problem, given that any success in raising productivity levels would translate directly into economic growth. And DPJ promises to build a better social safety-net and ease the financial burden on parents should go at least some way to supporting domestic demand and boosting the low national birth rate.
Following through on such pledges may require greater leadership than Mr Hatoyama has shown so far, however. Opinion polls suggest many voters are losing faith in the wealthy former engineering professor, scion of a celebrated political dynasty, whose collegiate style is seen by critics as mere inability to make tough decisions or impose discipline on an often fractious cabinet.
Mr Hatoyama’s vacillation over a controversial US marine base relocation on the southern island of Okinawa has been widely blamed for allowing the issue to become a focus of worries in Washington about the party’s commitment to a cross-Pacific alliance that has been a pillar of regional stability for half a century.
He has also wavered on domestic policy issues, such as which manifesto pledges should be given priority. And scandals surrounding his fund-raising operation and that of DPJ secretary-general, Ichiro Ozawa, have given the battered LDP an opportunity to set debate agendas in the Diet.
“Mr Hatoyama came into office with a lot of questions about his political and leadership skills, and he has answered them – but not in the way he would want to,” says Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.
The diffident prime minister’s somewhat other-worldly style and sometimes ambiguous off-the-cuff comments have certainly offered plenty of ammunition to an often hostile press.
Indeed, after he was forced to retract a statement seen as implying he might oppose investigation of Mr Ozawa, Naoto Kan, the deputy prime minister, humorously told journalists they should not take his boss’s remarks too literally.
“The prime minister is known as ‘the alien’, so his words have different meanings from those used by us earthlings,” Mr Kan said.
Yet failings of leadership do not inevitably mean the country is doomed to fail in its attempt to remould itself for the challenges of the 21st century.
Once they got their act together, the 19th-century Meiji revolutionaries forced through big changes, such as the abolition of the warrior class and creation of a centralised state without worrying about vested interests or public opinion.
Any modern-day revolution will be a much more consensual affair, powered in large part by the aggregate actions of individuals, companies and non-governmental organisations.
Reduced reliance on government bureaucracy, more family-friendly lifestyles, and greater business innovation cannot be merely imposed from above.
“I do think that Japan is going through a prolonged process akin to the Meiji Restoration and the [post-second world war US] occupation,” says Prof Kingston. “This is the third transformation, but it’s not being done by decree or by a small oligarchy. This is something that is being negotiated, and fought over, and spread out over a longer period of time.”
As part of these changes, the deeper significance of last year’s election was not that it delivered a DPJ government, but that it was a definitive rejection by the electorate of the virtually one-party, LDP-dominated post-war political system.
The full implications of this decision are unclear, but it shows the status quo is no longer an option. Voters have signalled they are willing to sack any government that fails to deliver the changes the nation wants and needs. That in itself is a revolution.
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