Rudderless Japanese Suffer Malaise: Positive Signs Aside, Some See No Hope

Article excerpt

TOKYO - Japan seems strangely dispirited these days, almost a throwback to the early 1960s, before the Japanese economic surge began.

Consequently, and contrary to the expectations of many Americans and the anxieties of some Asians, Japan is far from emerging as a political power with greater security responsibilities in Asia.

In those earlier days, Japanese wrung their hands, wore solemn faces and lamented that their poor island country was struggling not to sink into the ocean.

Then came the Olympic Games of 1964, which the Japanese staged superbly and renewed the self-esteem that had been shattered with the defeat in World War II. Next there were two decades of a spectacular rise in national wealth and the standard of living.

In the late 1980s, the speculative, inflated "bubble economy" ballooned as the Japanese became overconfident and even arrogant. The "bubble" burst in the early 1990s and sent land prices, the stock market, foreign investments and the yen plummeting. Japan slid into a recession from which it has not yet recovered.

Today, despite every indication that Japan is on the rebound, government officials, business executives, political commentators and strategic thinkers bemoan the state of the nation. Said a journal editor:

"We have no hope for the future."

A perceptive Japanese political commentator explained: "The political world here is paralyzed. The bureaucracy is demoralized. And the business community has been chastised."

Specifically, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto sits atop a shaky coalition that precludes the Japanese government from taking initiatives in foreign policy.

The once-vaunted bureaucracy has been tainted by allegations of bribery, incompetence and cover-up. Business leaders have been embarrassed because recovery from the recession has been slower than expected and the public questions their ability to revive prosperity.

Underlying this malaise is a Japan still encased in the pacifist cocoon in which the nation wrapped itself after the devastating destruction of World War II and the U.S. occupation. Thus, far from seeking to exert political influence or to become active in the security of Asia, the disheartened Japanese seem content with their nation's low posture.

"In the world arena," said a Japanese diplomat, "we remain hesitant. We do not take initiatives."

It was against this backdrop that Mr. Hashimoto and President Clinton met in Washington on Jan. 25, a year after they issued a joint declaration in Tokyo under which Japan was to shoulder a heavier defense burden and to provide more support for U.S. forces in Asia. Headlines in Japan and America suggested that Japan had turned a corner and would step out in a fresh, active alliance with the United States.

The meeting in Washington was devoted to commonplace issues and no new ground was broken. Today, said a senior Japanese official, "nothing has changed. …