[TODAY]Malaise and Reform - and Moral Dignity

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[TODAY]Malaise and Reform - and Moral Dignity

Junichiro Koizumi bursts like a comet into conservative Japanese politics, sporting a hair style that sets him apart from his stodgy political colleagues. As much as his hairstyle, Mr. Koizumi's direct, liberal and sometimes abrupt statements were enough to cause a public stir among a Japanese public bored with a mass of interchangeable gray politicians.

Mr. Koizumi, enjoying remarkable popularity, with a 69 percent approval rating, became prime minister by breaking away from the traditions of the Liberal Democratic Party and won a victory in elections for the upper house of the Diet. Japanese voters gave him the mandate to lead a reform that requires pain and great energy.

Why are the Japanese people so excited about Mr. Koizumi? The answer has less to do with his charisma than with the frustration and anomie the Japanese have been experiencing for the last 10 years. Anomie, a psychiatric term, is the alienation and distress that follows the sense of loss of goals that are highly cherished.

Mr. Koizumi took over an ailing Japan. The long political domination by the Liberal Democratic Party collapsed in 1993, the Heisei recession started in 1995, and a terrible earthquake struck Kobe. The Aum Shinrikyo subway terrorism incident was another blow to the Japanese psyche. Land prices and stock prices have plummeted; the fall in real estate prices was especially striking. At the end of 1989, the total land price in Japan was estimated at four times the value of all land in the United States, but Japan's prices have now dropped to one third of the previous level. Banks that lent money with real estate for collateral are screaming at their bad debt load.

The reason why the frustrations of the Japanese are so great is because the nation was hit by a recession and other blows just at the moment they thought they had surpassed the United States and Europe in the capitalistic surge that accompanied the tenures in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Yasuhiro Nakasone.

According to Takamitsu Sawa, a professor at Kyoto University, intellectual inferiority and cultural decline have risen in Japanese society during the past 10 years. Akira Asada, another professor at Kyoto University, says that a series of failures in political reform since 1993 made society cynical, and Tetsuo Yamaori, a religious scholar, compares social conditions in the year 2000 to the chaos of Japan's pre-15th century--Warring Period.

The meaning of the word "pain" in the painstaking reform Mr. Koizumi speaks about refers to an increase in unemployment and bankruptcies.

The current unemployment rate in Japan is 5 percent. If the Japanese government reduces its financial expenditures and writes off 13 trillion yen in bad debts, according to Mr. Koizumi's plan, it is inevitable that another 200,000 persons would lose their jobs. The Japanese people are fully aware of the situation, and the fact that they still entrust the prime minister with such risky reform without sanctuary seems to result from the understanding that they cannot continue to neglect the political, economic and moral crisis that has continued for more than 10 years.

Japan, an economically powerful country, is like a dinosaur suffering from a serious illness. The frustrations of the people explode in such forms as nationalism and extreme patriotism and a refusal to face up to their history.

The obstinacy of Mr. Koizumi, who insists on worshiping at the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's World War II defeat, seems to be based on political calculation to ride on the wave of the pain of the collective depression that grips Japan.

People all around the world are interested in whether Mr. Koizumi can save the Japanese economy from a long-term depression, and especially whether he can overcome the powerful forces in and outside the Liberal Democratic Party that want no reform. In particular, President Bush wants to form a Washington-Tokyo new-liberal alliance and shore up security cooperation with Japan, with an eye cocked toward China. It wants Japan's market to be more open as well. The U.S. government wants to start this process of strengthening its ties with Japan by obtaining Japanese approval for its missile defense plans as soon as possible.

Korean interests are two-fold. Will Mr. Koizumi tilt more to the political right along with the Japanese public? How will he manage Korea's and China's indignation related to the distorted history textbooks?

I want to give him this advice. Although Japan may succeed in reform and succeed in recovering the prosperity of the 1980s, it needs moral dignity as well to be an economically and politically powerful country in today's world. That moral dignity can be gained only when Japan clears out the skeletons in its closet, like Germany, and apologizes to its neighboring countries for the past wrong-doings. As long as Japan clings to ultra-nationalism as it is doing now, it faces the specter of 30 or 50 years of social and moral depression, not just 10 years of an economic depression.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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