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Los Angeles -- What bad timing! The imminent arrival of new U.S. ambassador Thomas Schieffer to his post in Tokyo comes at about the same juncture as the shock-revelation that Japan has sunk back into recession -- again.
At the moment Japan has so many developing problems that the former Texas business tycoon might just want to return to his prior post in convivial Australia, where the economy is going so much better and the people seem so much happier.
Businessmen like Schieffer tend to watch economic trend lines with near-religious devotion because they believe these trends to be reflections of underlying economic, political and social fundamentals. And, fundamentally, the Japanese economy is not great.
Sure, Japan is still the worldís second largest economy, sure, it sports some of earthís most profitable giant corporations, and, sure, the people as a whole are whip-smart and well-educated. But since its apex in 1989, the Japanese economy has had only four significant economic up-ticks -- thatís but four in 15 years! And now, Japan is facing its fourth occasion of a recessionary retreat in a decade.
Top Japanese officials, from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on down, have been soft-selling the recession story. I do, for instance, greatly respect the wildly talented Heizo Takenaka, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumiís economic and fiscal policy czar. But when he reacted to the recession news this way: "If you look at the bigger picture, the economy is in a recovery state,Ē I said, well, thatís what he has to say?
I donít think Japanís economic malaise is anywhere near over. On the contrary, if it werenít for China, which is now its greatest trading partner, Japan would be even worse off. Along with the United States, China has a voracious appetite for Japanese products -- and offers Japanese businesses with plants in China very inexpensive labor.
Despite the China injection, Japanís household income has been down 43 of the last 46 months, personal consumption (and hence domestic demand) remains soggy, and demographic trends (especially the countryís aging population) put white-hot pressure on the economy to raise productivity levels even more to sustain true growth.
Japanís problems are also political, not just economic. The Koizumi government has targeted as its top domestic priority the dismantling and privatization of the countryís huge postal system, but most Japanese donít seems to really care one way or the other as long as they get their mail, and the political establishment is anything but keen to play ball with this fixture of the political and governmental scene. Even if Koizumi succeeds, he will have to expend so much political capital to get there that there may not be any left for other important programs.
Internationally, to be sure, Japan has scored a solid success with its tsunami relief efforts. And its mainly symbolic Iraq deployment, though it is deeply unpopular at home, has solidified the relationship with the Bush administration, which prioritized relations with Tokyo when it came to power more than four years ago.
But Tokyoís bilateral relationship with China seems to be getting testier by the month even as the economic relationship depends. This paradox is due to the fact that the Chinese have long memories (of what the Japanese did to its neighbors during the last century) and the Japanese are very deeply suspicious about Chinaís motives about everything. A diplomatic or even military dust-up over what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands (a continuing tension) is far from inconceivable.
This all comes at the same time that the Koizumi government is launching a major campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The effort is well-justified and a seat is well-deserved. But a practice of irritating Beijing, which already has a permanent Security Council seat of course and could derail the whole effort, would not seem the smartest play.
Perhaps the sometimes-stubborn prime minister should cease visiting Japanese war shrines, especially since Beijing claims to find those visits so repulsive. And Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao could then try to summit at least an interim understanding about the Senkaku islands and other tensions between them.
The new U.S. ambassador probably cannot do much one way or the other to help. Schieffer is a businessman whose claim to fame is that he is close to Bush; but he is not particularly as close to Congress, as was the outgoing Howard Baker, a former Senate majority leader, or as was Bakerís predecessor Tom Foley, a former speaker of the House of Representatives. Prior U.S. ambassadors included former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Majority Leader Michael Mansfield.
The Japanese have reacted to the Schieffer appointment by concentrating their minds on the friendship-with-Bush point. This is good political psychotherapy. Indeed, Bush does prefer total loyalists in the important administration positions, rather than out-and-out qualified persons.
Schieffer was well-liked by the easy-going Australians, but the Japanese may be a bit harder to please. Generally speaking, they are not, as we have seen, in the best of moods at the moment.
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Tom Plate is a professor of Communication and Policy Studies at UCLA. He is a regular columnist for the The Straits Times and is syndicated through UCLA's Media Center to papers throughout the world. Plate was a participant member of the World Economic Forum at Davos and is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. The author of five books, he has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003. He is now founder and director of UCLA's Media Center.
For publication and reprint rights, contact the Media Institute at email@example.com -- or Tom Plate directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 2/17/2005
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