WASHINGTON—Japan is at a critical juncture and must decide the role it wants to play in its region, says a new report by a Washington public policy think tank.
“Japan has the power to decide between complacency and leadership at a time of strategic importance,” says the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Once the economic driver in Asia, Japan has taken a back seat as other countries step up in the region. With China’s increasing assertiveness over territorial claims, tensions have increased putting more pressure on Japan to decide on a direction.
The CSIS report, titled “The U.S.-Japan Alliance, Anchoring Stability in Asia,” urges Japan to overcome historical differences and address problems in its relationship with South Korea.
Tensions have recently increased between the two democracies, with Japan’s failure to acknowledge its occupation of the Korean Peninsula during World War II a recurring factor.
“It is essential for Japan to confront the historical issues that continue to complicate relations” with South Korea, the report says.
Domestically, Japan is currently preoccupied by many daunting challenges.
The most recent challenge, of course, is recovering from the devastating March 2011 tsunami. But even before the “3–11” disaster (as it’s called in Japan), there were significant problems.
Simmering for years has been the issue of the country’s dramatically aging population, declining birth rate, in addition to a debt to GDP ratio of 200 percent—the highest among OECD countries.
With six prime ministers in as many years and another election likely this fall, young people have retreated, exhibiting little confidence in their leaders or the political system.
“Current discourse surrounding Japan is plagued with diction on ‘crises,’ ‘challenges,’ and ‘indecision’” says the report, which was co-authored by Richard Armitage, former U.S. deputy secretary of state and Joseph Nye, a professor of political science at Harvard University.
Despite the challenges, the report remains positive about Japan’s strengths—if it chooses to use them.
“Japan is fully capable of remaining a tier-one nation. It is only a question of her disposition.”
Japan is the third largest economy in the world, the second biggest contributor to the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, and wields considerable soft power.
“She rates among the top three countries in international respect and first in the world in terms of ‘national brand,’” according to the report.
Japanese automotive industries are world leaders in car manufacturing, their electronics are among the best in the world, and a number of trading companies and banks are highly rated too.
Yet despite the high regard for brand Japan, the country fails to exhibit confidence and leadership commensurate with its strength.
Torkel Patterson, president of bullet train group U.S.-Japan MAGLEV, LLC believes Japan’s greatest problem is a lack of confidence.
“Number one is to be more confident and [to know] there is a reason to be more confident,” he told The Epoch Times.
Patterson, a contributor to the CSIS report, says many Japanese companies lack confidence to compete globally. Industries, like the electronics, may be technically sound but have not kept up with innovation, falling behind competitors as a result.
Japan needs to recognize its strengths and look at ways to build on those, he says.
Patterson sees great potential in two groups: women and immigrants.
Women are a highly underutilized resource, says Patterson. “They have some extremely talented women that they have not been brought into the workforce to the extent that they can.”
According to a 2006 United Nations study, women hold only 10.7 percent of managerial positions in government and business in Japan. In the United States, by contrast, the figure was around 42 percent the same year.
Another strategy would be to increase immigration, something that Japan has traditionally been resistant to. This would boost the negative population growth and the economy. From farmers to health care workers “ there is a whole opportunity for foreign workers in Japan that is growing,” says Patterson.
While cultural attitudes are more difficult to change, Patterson says he senses a mood for change and believes encouraging more women and boosting immigration will contribute to a change in dynamics.
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