We are now in the fourth year of the Reiwa era, but that was preceded by 30 years of the Heisei era (1988-2019). What was that era?
Simply put, it was a time of triple suffering. First, the economy we were so proud of collapsed and fell after the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. Second, the great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 1995, the great East Japan earthquake of 2011, and other major disasters happened frequently. Third, rapid military expansion and threats from North Korea and China exposed Japan to a genuine national security threat for the first time since the end of World War II.
Despite the triple ailments, Japanese society remained undisturbed, avoided populism, maintained a philanthropic way of life, and the reputation of cool Japanese culture grew.
So how will it change in the Reiwa era? Has the triple burden been abolished? Rather, the country now faces fourfold problems. The reason was the spread of the new corona virus. While major disasters are localized to specific regions, the new coronavirus poses a life-threatening threat to the entire nation. People will not tolerate a government that is unable to respond to the threat to their survival. Even a government that has served the longest term in modern Japanese history (Abe), or one that has a firm grip on bureaucracy (Suga), has been easily replaced amid the coronavirus catastrophe. It’s a terrible crisis.
Has the threat of foreign enemies diminished with the advent of Reiwa? The opposite is true. North Korea is even more defiant and provocative when it comes to nuclear weapons and missiles. Since nuclear weapons are practically useless, the likelihood of actual damage is not high, but what is to be feared is China, which has built a comprehensive military system and is not afraid to use it. Also known as wolf-warrior diplomacy during the coronavirus pandemic, his aggressive behavior has prompted international anti-China restraint measures such as AUKUS (Australia-UK-US Security Framework) and QUAD (Japan-US-Australia-India Strategic dialogue). ). Major Western European nations, which traditionally viewed China as an economic opportunity, became so wary that they sent warships to patrol East Asia. Despite this, China’s actions towards Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands cannot be blocked, and Japan must find a response to the difficult front-line problems.
In short, our country is in the midst of a national crisis. Now I would like to make three suggestions as to what should be done.
On the one hand, a crisis management team for disaster prevention and disease control is to be set up. A century ago, the Spanish flu killed about 400,000 people in Japan, but the Japanese government still lacks an effective system to deal with infectious disease crises. Changing the Action Manual in peacetime would be an unexpected expense for bureaucrats, and they are reluctant to respond. The Prime Minister’s Office must be supported by a specialized organization that has accumulated expertise on foreign and domestic infectious diseases and can respond to new situations with timely research and studies.
The same applies to civil protection. It’s hard to believe that in an archipelago so prone to disasters, the prime minister’s office doesn’t have a permanent department of civil protection experts. As for external threats, a group of political experts under the prime minister, including the defense secretary and the chief of staff, study and train contingency plans on a daily basis. A civil protection and disease control agency should be set up for crisis response, with experts in both the fields of civil protection and infectious diseases.
Second, Japan must restructure its national security strategy. Post-war Japan, reflecting on its pre-war behavior, believed that starting wars of its own accord was not a condition for peace. Today that is only half the story. The task now is to find a way to prevent our neighbors, who are hastily expanding their armed forces, from using force. This is remarkably difficult to achieve, but a combination of three approaches can be useful: (1) strengthening self-help capabilities, including improving missile networks, (2) making the Japan-US alliance more effective, and (3) expanding international cooperation.
The gulf in military power between Japan and China has since widened significantly. Under these circumstances, we must avoid mistakes of taking two extreme paths. One of them is defenseless pacifism. As in the case of Belgium’s unpreparedness before World War I, which led to Germany’s invasion, and China’s 1995 takeover of Mischief Atoll in the Spratly Islands from the Philippines, it is jarring to see a country threatening violence , does not offer sufficient resistance and seduces his greed.
The other extreme is to argue that we should have full deterrence against the other country. With Japan’s economic power, it is not easy to build an army (deterrence) that can destroy the heart of China, and we should not allow the problem to spread too far. The only Japanese territory China intends to conquer is the Senkaku Islands. There is an urgent need to strengthen the Japanese Coast Guard’s capabilities and build a multi-layer missile network to make this more difficult. As long as the Japan-US alliance is alive and well, a direct attack on mainland Japan is too dangerous for China. We must rebuild our relationship with China on the basis of the “Japan-US Alliance plus Japan-China Entente” so that we can neither attack nor be attacked.
Third is the revival of the Japanese economy, which is the basis of everything. To achieve this goal, the second Shinzo-Abe administration fired “three arrows”: (1) drastic monetary easing, (2) aggressive fiscal policy, and (3) growth through capital investment. The first and second measures worked, raising stock prices and creating positive economic sentiment. However, the third program did not work and Japan is still experiencing low growth.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called for a “new capitalism” through wage increases and the correction of inequality. This is a global problem and I hope progress is made. The most urgent task, however, is for Japan to regain its growth potential by strengthening research and development and direct investment. Without this there will be no improvement in the nation’s finances and no revitalization of Japan. In the current situation where many companies have forgotten this for 30 years and have focused on internal reserves, strategic government leadership in R&D and investment is essential. In this sense, the construction of a semiconductor factory by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan gives me hope.
Some senior officials have campaigned to tackle the national budget deficit. It is an important political goal, but now is not the time to pursue it. Fiscal austerity in a COVID-19 recession is suicidal. Now is the time to use aggressive fiscal measures to vigorously push digitalization, where Japan is lagging behind the rest of the world, and to focus on accelerating investment in new industries in the face of global warming.
The triple or quadruple exposure is about the severity of the environment. What matters is how we act. History is rich with examples of recognizing severity and setting ambitious goals to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Let’s aim for a creative recovery in the Reiwa era.
(By Makoto Iokibe, Chair of the Asian Affairs Research Council)