[Viewpoint] Japan needs an Arab Spring

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[Viewpoint] Japan needs an Arab Spring

If you’d told me 10 years ago, when I moved to Tokyo, that today I’d be writing about an eighth leader, I never would’ve believed it. Yet here we are, analyzing and philosophizing about whether Yoshihiko Noda will last longer than the last five.

In April 2001, Junichiro Koizumi grabbed the job from the hapless Yoshiro Mori. Koizumi stuck around for an unthinkably long five years. He talked big about economic reforms, promised even bigger and managed to get a few things done. Then Koizumi turned the keys over to the forgettable Shinzo Abe, who then passed them to Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso.

Political lightning struck in August 2009. Voters tossed out the Liberal Democratic Party that had been in power for roughly 54 years. The Democratic Party of Japan might have fared better if it picked someone other than political lightweight Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister. Next came Naoto Kan, who last week resigned to make room for yet another leader.

Analysts and pundits are busy criticizing politicians in Tokyo for going with the safe choice - Noda - when Japan is navigating a world economy that is anything but. Yet let’s put blame where it belongs: Japan’s 127 million people.

There’s some truth in the old saw that people generally get the leaders they deserve. In Japan’s case, voters need to begin demanding more of leaders and speaking out forcefully for change. Instead, they offer nothing more than numbing silence.

I just spent several days in India observing tens of thousands of aggrieved voters rallying behind a 74-year-old anticorruption activist. Anna Hazare isn’t an extraordinarily charismatic man. Just as a young Tunisian man setting himself on fire precipitated protests that changed his nation forever, Hazare’s hunger strike was the perfect gesture at the right time.

Watching the crowds grow, I kept wondering why fed up Japanese aren’t taking to the streets en masse. I’m not advocating violence or aggression of any kind; just a giant march or two to let politicians know that the status quo just won’t do. Change will only come when politicians feel pressured.

There are a couple of obvious reasons that the protests seen recently in India, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere aren’t occurring in Japan. One is affluence. For all Japan’s challenges - recession, deflation, negligible wage growth - households have trillions of dollars of savings. And Japan’s jobless rate is just 4.6 percent compared with 9.1 percent in the United States. Another is cultural. In a nation where decorum and etiquette are obsessively observed, carrying banners and chanting in streets holds little appeal.

Yet the world is speeding up as Japan stands immobile, thanks to timid and ineffectual leaders. China leapfrogged over Japan to become the second-largest economy and its 9.5 percent growth is a sharp contrast to most developed nations. As deflation eats away at iconic Japanese companies such as Sony Corp., upstarts like Samsung Electronics of Korea are booming.

Even before the record earthquake and tsunami in March and the ensuing radiation crisis, Tokyo was dragging its feet. There was little willingness to reduce Japan’s huge public debt - the world’s largest - or figure out how to live without the stimulus of zero interest rates. There was no serious discussion about making the economy more competitive, preparing for an aging population, increasing the national birthrate or loosening immigration rules.

In the days after the earthquake, it seemed Japan would be forced to disengage from autopilot and steer the economy in another direction. If the last five-plus months proved anything, it’s the durability of Japan’s inertia. Politicians have been preoccupied with getting rid of Kan. Mission accomplished. Now what?

In the devastated northeast, tens of thousands of people remain in crowded shelters and temporary homes. They are fearful of the fallout from radiation leaks in Fukushima and job prospects in the long run. All they are getting from Tokyo is petty politics as usual and economic policies that can only be described as tired. Bureaucrats continue to build on their little fiefdoms with little regard for the masses.

As finance minister, Noda was a one-trick policy maker. The vast majority of his time and energy went into trying to weaken the yen and safeguard exports. The yen is strong because investors are souring on the dollar and euro. Noda thought he could have his way with currency markets, and still does. What Noda should do is encourage companies to work around disadvantageous exchange rates with increased innovation and productivity gains.

Expect more of the same from Prime Minister Noda and lots of talk about raising taxes to pay for earthquake reconstruction. Noda should first divert money from wasteful spending on public works projects, given the hit the economy will take as tax bills rise. Yet Noda isn’t known for fresh thinking or bold ideas. Remember, he was the safe choice. It’s true what The Who long ago sang about new bosses and old bosses.

Only this is no time for safe, and the Japanese people are growing antsy. It’s time to demand change in the streets of Tokyo and Osaka the way average people did in Cairo and Tripoli. It’s time the Japanese revolution began.

*The writer is a Bloomberg View columnist.

By William Pesek
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