Leading articles:Honest Abe?
Asia's largest economy must confront its past to grasp its future
[The Times September 27, 2006]
Japan's new Prime Minister has a hard act to follow. His predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, famously brought style to an office that has often lacked charisma. Mr Koizumi had the leonine good looks, the love of Elvis Presley and a determination to reform a country thought to be unreformable. This may be why the new leader of the world's second-largest economy, Shinzo Abe, has already let it be known that he adores Italian gelato and relaxes with a bow and arrow. But Mr Abe, not unlike a senior British politician who hopes one day to be his counterpart on the global stage, will inevitably be a very different prime minister to his predecessor.
He has an historic chance to ensure that Japan realises its potential, by dealing frankly and sensitively with the past. And he must use his country's new-found economic momentum as an opportunity to continue necessary reform, not as an excuse to avoid confrontation with powerful interest groups allergic to change. The alternative is for his country to be swiftly eclipsed by Asia's new giants in terms of influence and expertise as well as sheer economic muscle.
The regional dominance established by the Japanese economy in the three decades that followed the Second World War was overwhelming; so much so that even after the prolonged slump of the 1990s and the explosion of the Chinese and Indian economies, Japan still accounts for nearly half of total Asian GDP. Japan will remain an economic superpower for decades to come and so it must show economic leadership now, before trade issues are determined for it and not by it.
Mr Koizumi acted decisively to reverse Japan's relative economic decline. His privatisation of the country's postal service, which had eroded governmental efficiency by funnelling private savings into the public sector, was a political as well as an economic landmark. But even though the Japanese economy has returned to modest growth, that recovery is fragile and will stall if Mr Abe fails to continue what Mr Koizumi began.
Some initial signs are hopeful. The new leader blends his nationalist leanings with a strongly pro-Washington outlook. He has also promoted one of the key architects of Mr Koizumi's structural reforms. But there is a risk that both men may be distracted by an ideological mission to rewrite Japanese history ? and some history textbooks ? to satisfy those who believe that the country's war dead have been forgotten in favour of public hand-wringing over its war crimes.
Mr Abe must find a way to express sympathy for the dead without alienating the rest of East Asia. There are ways of doing this without whitewashing the past or taunting China with annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which memorialises war criminals as well as soldiers. Whatever form of words he chooses, they must accom-pany the dogged liberalisation of Japan's labour and financial markets, whose anachronistic rigidity is a needless brake on growth. By opening more fully to the world, Japan will gain, not lose, its true identity.