Acting with an Eye to History

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2013.02.06] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

Having won an overwhelming majority in the Lower House in the recent general election, the Liberal Democratic Party has returned to power in partnership with the New Kōmeitō. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s new government has already started to draw up a raft of new policies with a focus on the economy as it attempts to deal with the numerous domestic and international challenges facing Japan. As the government continues to work on its policy platform, it needs to pay careful attention to two points in particular: Learning from experience and keeping an eye on how future generations will judge its policies.

Learning from DPJ Failures

As far as the first point is concerned, there are many lessons for the new government to learn from the experiences of the Democratic Party of Japan administrations it has replaced. The DPJ made the mistake of overemphasizing its differences with the LDP when they came to power, bungling foreign policy and adopting a whole range of mistaken measures in other areas. In general, the party underestimated the importance of continuity in national politics. Even after a change of government, it is foolish to dump diplomatic and security policies wholesale. Major adjustments on this level must be undertaken cautiously. Of course the government should make improvements wherever they are truly in the national interest, but adopting a policy just for the sake of being different makes no sense at all.

The Abe administration might be similarly inclined to wipe the slate clean and return to business as usual. But the new leadership should recall the deadlock and paralysis that resulted when the DPJ took power in 2009 after years of LDP rule. Abe and his cabinet must resist the temptation to restore as many of the party’s former policies as they can. The ultimate aim should be a healthy transfer of power.

With an Eye to History

At the same time, as the new government sets about implementing its policies, it should have some image of how it wants to be remembered 50 or 100 years from now.

Domestically, for example, it is important for both parties to respond responsibly to a situation in which a “twisted” Diet arises, in which the upper and lower houses are controlled by different parties. It can be tempting in these situations for the opposition to use its majority in the upper house to frustrate whatever the government tries to do. This is a temptation that needs to be resisted. The government needs to work from a long-term perspective. This includes working to build a framework that will make this kind of gridlock less likely in the future; it may involve reforming the parliamentary system itself.

The same is true of foreign policy. In formulating its stance, particularly in Asia, the government needs to consider how a particular policy will be evaluated in the future. The need for this sort of perspective should be clear: the historical impact of the hard line taken by Japanese governments in the 1930s continues to this day. Of course individual politicians will have their own principles. But when it comes to putting principles into practice, there needs to be room for compromise that takes current conditions into account. Politicians must act in the national interest. That consideration should drive everything they do.

The new government does not have an unlimited range of options to choose from. My hope is that the government will make it priorities clear and adopt a long-term perspective with an eye to how history will judge its policies.

(Originally written in Japanese on January 7, 2013.)

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Editor in chief of Nippon.com, associate professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

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