A New Year for Nippon.comPolitics Economy
Around three months have passed since the Japan Echo Foundation launched Nippon.com. We had a solid start, with around 40,000 visitors in the site’s first three days online, and I’m confident our audience will continue to grow. We have a broad range of content—everything from serious essays to lighter, more casual pieces—and we’re putting it out in five languages, so we’re able to reach a huge audience worldwide.
I’d like to ask you, as editor in chief, how you see the site developing over the coming year. First of all, though, what sort of year do you think 2012 will be for Japan?
A Turning Point for JapanSHIRAISHI TAKASHI
Well, it may not be such an auspicious way to ring in the New Year, but I fear that 2012 will be a very tumultuous time for Japan.
At the European Union summit held in early December, the leaders managed to hammer out a general direction to take over the longer term, but they produced no solutions whatsoever for the short term. The European fiscal crisis is having an impact on economies in Asia as well. At the same time, though, the emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil continue to grow at a rapid pace. The global distribution of wealth and power is shifting more rapidly these days.
In the midst of all this, Japan is confronting a turning point on its political stage. As I noted in my column last month, Japan’s main political parties—both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party—contain two opposing camps of legislators within them: one championing improved economic productivity and the other advocating pork-barrel spending.
This standoff between the two camps has brought about a split in opinion within the DPJ on whether Japan should take part in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The government was aiming to wrap up a proposal on revising the consumption tax and other aspects of the taxation system within 2011, but Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko will further deepen the split in the party with this issue.
This year the waves of the European crisis will be felt throughout Asia. And if China’s economy enters a period of downward adjustment—something I certainly don’t hope to see happen—the global economy will face a grim situation indeed. Japan will have to make tough decisions even while its politics are wracked with these internal divisions. The chance is there for a general election at some point this year, I believe.
The year 2012 is a linchpin year: it will decide the course Japan takes for the rest of the decade.
The Chance for an ElectionHARANO
It’s clear that Japan faces a serious turning point this year. Could you speak a bit more about the political scene, particularly the prospects for an election?SHIRAISHI
To be honest, I don’t know which way things will go in politics. That’s why I make a point of considering matters from the angle of policy issues rather than the people involved. It’s clear that Japan’s fiscal future will need to include a revision of the tax system including a consumption tax hike; there just aren’t any other options left. Opinion polls show that about half of the Japanese people support such a hike—although it’s true, of course, that once the government announces a decision to raise the tax rate we’ll see a leap in opposition to the idea.
Be that as it may, the reasons that Japan must hike the consumption tax and otherwise overhaul its taxation system are quite clear. Public expenses like social security, medical spending, and pensions are ballooning rapidly. The nation can’t just sit back and watch this happen without taking action. If Japan doesn’t carry out a coordinated reform of its tax and social security systems, the nation will one day find itself in the same sort of crisis that’s now afflicting Europe. I think no one is fooling himself on this point.
So raising the consumption tax is the way to go in terms of policy. Politicians, however, also have to consider their electability. The nearer we get to an election, the less likely it is that any politician will speak about the need for higher taxes.
Now this is all speculation on my part, and you may call it wishful thinking, but here’s what I see happening this year: The government will draft a plan for tax system reform, and if—and this is a big if—Noda does not back down on the issue and the ruling and opposition parties are able to thrash out their differences, it will go to the Diet for formal deliberation. Once this happens, there will have to be a general election during 2012. Once the House of Representatives is dissolved, the Democrats won’t be able to count on the fair winds of public opinion that they enjoyed in the last lower house election in 2009. We’ll likely see many rank-and-file politicians who fear for their political futures jump on the bandwagon with anyone or any party that looks popular, refusing to get involved in the moves to hike taxes as a result.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen some interesting developments in local politics in Osaka. The concurrent elections in November last year to select a governor for Osaka Prefecture and a mayor for the city of Osaka were extraordinarily significant, politically speaking. The mayoral candidate backed by every established party was handily defeated by Hashimoto Tōru, who stepped down as governor to run for that office. The voters who went to the polls for Hashimoto are deeply frustrated with those established parties and the forces that prop them up, and he proved adept at getting them out in great numbers. I do have to say, though, that while his platform is attractive at first glance, there’s something unnerving in the way he was able to mobilize those people who tend to be shut out of the political system in contemporary Japan.
This movement has the potential to grow into a political typhoon that sweeps Japan. It’s no surprise that Your Party, along with various other “third choice” political forces, are flocking to Hashimoto’s banner. We’re seeing similar movements crop up elsewhere around the country. I think Japanese politics will head toward a general election while trying to figure out what direction these people are likely to move. So the chance is there for a realignment of political parties.
These are my reasons for seeing 2012 as a year of change for Japan. It’s most fortunate that Nippon.com is up and running in time for this important phase in the nation’s history. I see great potential in this website as an open forum for discussion of these issues, and I look forward to taking part in explorations of new ways to maximize that potential.
Informative Input for a Global AudienceHARANO
The Internet is overflowing with information of all levels of quality. It’s getting harder and harder to find reliable information on the topics you want to investigate. From the perspective of a website publisher, today—when Japan is approaching this key turning point—it’s more important than ever to build a stable, reliable site where people can come for information they trust.
You and the other members of the editorial board meet regularly to analyze and discuss the conditions in which Japan finds itself today, as well as the course to be taken by the nation. This guides our selection of content for the website, and I think it helps to build this trustworthiness that we want Nippon.com to have.SHIRAISHI
For the last three years I’ve served on the Council for Science and Technology Policy, working within the government to craft this policy for the nation and getting involved in implementing it. This experience has taught me that the government carries out all kinds of studies, examining a bewildering range of issues from lots of different perspectives. There’s discussion of the policy options and collection of data upon which to base judgments on those options. And quite a lot of those data are made available to the public. But it’s a stretch to say that these data are published in a way that makes it easy for the Japanese people to access them—and it’s even harder for foreigners to find the data that they need. The government publishes numerous white papers each year, and they’re a treasure trove of data, but it’s difficult to make effective use of them.
I bring this up because one thing I’ve been considering for some time now is the data coming out of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station ever since the accident there—data on radiation levels, for instance. Can’t we come up with some better ways to publish these data by taking into account the needs of the people accessing them? The bureaucrats in charge of getting these data out might claim that it isn’t part of their job description to do that. But if the general public is to view these data and use them to make informed decisions, we’ve got to work on publishing them more effectively—on thinking of ways to display the data that place the readers’ needs first. I’d like to make Nippon.com a website where we do just that.
The Japanese government is moving ahead with some fairly deep revisions to the nation’s energy policy right now. This should result in a decision before this summer on the basic shape of energy policy over the next twenty-five to thirty years. But the studies that provide the foundation for discussion toward this goal have not been shared widely with the people of Japan.
As venues for debating these issues, Japan has traditionally used the media on one hand and various governmental advisory councils on the other. To take the debate a bit deeper, we also had the serious monthly journals like Chūō Kōron, Voice, and Sekai. But this part of the publishing world has clearly lost a tremendous part of its vigor in recent years. I’m also hoping to see Nippon.com step up and help to fill this gap.
The Tasks for Our SiteHARANO
It’s true that even though there’s a wealth of detailed data available, the authorities have done a poor job of communicating this data clearly to the world in multiple languages.
I think another key word to watch in 2012 will be “Asia.” This year we’ll see changes of leadership in nations including China and South Korea, for example. I intend to take special care in broadcasting information for our Asian audience. Do you have any thoughts in this connection?SHIRAISHI
Yes, this year China and Korea will get new leaders at the helm; there will also be elections in the United States and Taiwan. I also think there’s a chance for a change of leadership here in Japan, although that’s not a prospect I look forward to, particularly. Also, as I noted a bit ago, given the trends in the Chinese economy since 2008, there’s a chance that China will see a major adjustment to its economic growth soon. Add this all up and there’s a considerable possibility that the Asian region is in for serious change.
I recently reread E. H. Carr’s 1939 book The Twenty Years’ Crisis. Now I’m not one to believe that history repeats itself even as farce, so to speak, but there is a predictable tendency for politics to turn nasty when the global economy is in a downturn.
It’s precisely at times like this that we must at all costs avoid descending into nastiness, turning inward, and becoming short-sighted. We’ve got to take a long-term perspective in our thinking, considering the options before us in a manner that’s open to the world, rational, and—this is the point I want to emphasize most of all—thoroughly pragmatic. This is the position I’ve staked out for myself as editor in chief of Nippon.com.HARANO
We aren’t producing a news website, so we won’t be focusing primarily on speed in our publishing. But I do want to make this a site where people can come for timely, valuable information. I think soon this will be the sort of site where people will come to us and ask us to publish their thoughts on our pages.SHIRAISHI
Yes, I’m certain we’ll be seeing plenty of contributors soon!(Translated from an interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Japan Echo Foundation.)