Change in Premiership and Japan’s Soft Power

Kiyoshi Sugawa
Kiyoshi Sugawa Senior Researcher, Policy Research Committee, Democratic Party of Japan

April 25, 2000

Translated by the author from “Rondan” (“Opinion”).

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi succumbed suddenly to a stroke, and Yoshiro Mori was chosen as the new Prime Minister of Japan. I hear not a few criticisms of how Japanese leaders handled Mr. Obuchi’s hospitalization and the power transition. As a person living in the United States and an observer of Japanese foreign policy, I would like to offer my opinion from a slightly different angle. Unlike other recent news from Japan, the affair caught considerable attention from the media and intellectuals in Washington, D.C., because of its unexpectedness. However, I had mixed feelings to find that the more I explained to Americans what happened in the power transition, the less favorable image they had of Japan.

Joseph Nye, Jr. advocates the notion of “soft power.” It is an ability to get things done through attractiveness, versus hard power, which is exercised through military forces or economic sanctions. Conventional wisdom does not regard culture, laws, accounting systems, and so on as aspects of national power. But recently, more people have come to believe that their society could be a source of influence and strength if it is attractive enough.

The most dramatic example to illustrate the notion of soft power is the former Communist Soviet Union, which ultimately lost its appeal both ideologically and economically. As a result, the Russians had to yield to the Americans. Until recently, Japan had a certain amount of international soft power influence with its economic development model that enabled the East Asian economic miracle on the one hand, and its non-nuclear pacifism on the other. These soft powers did supplement Japan’s comprehensive strength—typically illustrated by the GDP figure.

In another recent case, Taiwan vividly shows us the impact of soft power. Last month Taiwan elected Chen Shui-bian from the opposition party as its new president and terminated the half-century rule of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party). American enthusiasm welcoming this revolutionary outcome was remarkable. Chen Shui-bian gained even greater attention than Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who was elected just ten days later.

The Taiwanese election apparently increased the number of Americans who more openly acknowledge Taiwan as a democracy, and hence potentially support Taipei vis-à-vis Beijing. The United States, especially the Congress, will now strengthen its commitment to the security of Taiwan in the triangular cross-Straits relationship. Without building even a single missile or warship, but by promoting its electoral democracy, Taiwan was quite successful in considerably improving its soft power, and thus increasing its comprehensive national strength.

Now, let’s turn to Japan. Unfortunately, I cannot help insisting that events related to Mr. Obuchi’s illness have significantly jeopardized Japan’s national power from the viewpoint of soft power. Mr. Obuchi’s hospitalization was not announced for more than 22 hours. The Prime Minister’s Residence even issued a false report of his activity on the very day of his hospitalization. Whether and how Mr. Aoki—a Diet member and Cabinet Secretary—was appointed as acting Prime Minister is not clear yet. Only Mr. Obuchi’s political aides have reported his condition, and there has been no explanation by doctors. Furthermore, the new leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party have responded to such criticism with defiance and neglect. Today, in the globalized Information Age, these facts are transmitted almost instantly overseas through the media and individuals. No one can stop this.

A series of news reports about present-day Japanese politics are more than enough to illustrate the lack of transparency and accountability—prerequisites of a sound democracy. Trust in Japanese democracy has considerably deteriorated and Japan’s attractiveness has decreased further. It is not an exaggeration to argue that the Obuchi affair causes subtle but lasting damage to our foreign policy and national security in a wider sense. At the very least, if the new Prime Minister Mori stoutly declares that Japan and the U.S. share the common values of democracy and freedom during his May visit to the United States, it will sound hollow to many Americans.

I have no intention of insisting that we should create policy in order to be liked by other countries. Rather, it is in our national interest to improve the quality of Japanese democracy. No soft power can appeal to other nations without attracting its own citizens. We live in an era in which the image of a country’s domestic politics has a significant impact on its international influence as a nation. With a clear recognition of such international realities, we have to be more serious about our politics in Japan.