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A Tsunami of Wakefulness in Japan

Times columnist Tom Plate teaches in UCLA's policy studies and communication studies departments. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

Japanese voters have castigated their government’s policies in a devastating blow to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, and they deserve to know that their growing frustration with their country’s direction is shared in the United States. The bold rebuke in upper-house elections, which were a general referendum on national policy could wind up providing America with a great opportunity to arrest the alarming slide in U.S.-Japan relations. In today’s globalized world, with Japanese and American economies joined at the hip, a major political turn in Japan can be important to the average American. This election could prove vital to America and the world.

It is tempting to suggest that being Japan’s prime minister these roiling days can almost make the job of a Hollywood studio chief look like a tenured position. In the past eight years, the Japanese have had seven PMs, and before long, as Hashimoto steps down, they will have an eighth. Should anyone care? America, Japan’s foremost ally, has become virtually resigned to the view that the Japanese political system is so frozen that it makes scant difference who’s on top because there’s so little capability underneath. Confided a Clinton administration official, regarding the previously scheduled late July summit that had been organized for Hashimoto: “We were planning the visit and we said: What the hell are we going to say to the prime minister when he’s here? Their system just won’t change, the economic crisis is getting worse, it’s a very bad scene between us.”

Now the Clinton administration doesn’t have to worry about what to say to Hashimoto. But it does need to keep talking to Japan. A grave split in Tokyo-Washington relations could be catastrophic. It is vital for Washington to look on the bright side: The message of the ruling party’s defeat in the weekend’s elections was clear: It’s the economy, stupid. And there was a message in the unexpectedly large size of the Japanese turnout: We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. For its part, America has both the opportunity and moral obligation to try to connect with that anger, especially before we become dysfunctionally and terminally frustrated with Japan ourselves.

A frustrated U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin is thinking of heading back to Wall Street. Although either his chief deputy, former Harvard professor Larry Summers, or top-notch U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky could step smartly into his shoes tomorrow morning, Rubin owes it to the president and the country to stay for the duration. Whatever Rubin’s mistakes--and he has made a few, such as failing to react promptly to last year’s Thai currency collapse--he probably is the most realistic of all Clinton’s close advisors, and thus his advice is likely to be the most salient. Knowing the stakes at hand, Rubin will want to fight two big impediments to recovery. In America, there is our incompetent Congress, now foolishly balking at providing more money for the Asian bailout effort. And across the Pacific, there is the clueless Japanese political establishment, which needs to be constantly pressured to stop dithering as the regional Asian economy sinks in the East.

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The Japanese are so much more capable than this, and they have the money to get their economy moving forward again. What’s missing is the leadership at the top. Even if Rubin decides to leave, as rumored, he should before jumping ship put together a major effort to jar the Japanese out of their lethargy and so achieve a higher level of regional consensus about the crisis. His boss needs to chair a crucial series of long, well-prepared and brutally frank telephone conferences with the leading principals of the Asian financial crisis. That would include China’s economic czar Zhu Rongji (because a Chinese currency devaluation would prolong the crisis); President Kim Dae Jung (because struggling U.S. ally South Korea is too big and too important to fail); Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (because suddenly the former British colony is in economic trouble); Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad (a blowhard, sure, but an essential player in any true regional consensus-building); Singapore’s Finance Minister Richard Hu (“They have a tremendously adept economic team,” says a Clinton official); and of course Japan’s new prime minister.

To be sure, emergency telephonic conferences might well degenerate into consensus-poisoning Asian gripe sessions against America, whose seeming indifference to Asia’s current pain as well as stubborn over-reliance on the International Monetary Fund are sore points. Still, it’s worth the risk: This crisis is virulent and will become worse. The temptation for many will be to throw up their hands and give up hope. U.S. leadership can and should do more than cheerlead, but even that cosmetic touch might help right now. “The conferences you’re suggesting,” commented an administration official before the weekend political tsunami in Japan, “would have more pop to them if Japan were to be awake.” Judging from the election returns, the Japanese would seem to be anything but slumbering.


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