A couple of East Coast consultants have written in the Financial Times of London that the U.S., as it “pivots to the Pacific,” should endeavor to make Japan an “indispensable ally.”

Ian Bremmer and David Gordon of the Euroasia Group asserted that Japan is “Asia’s richest, best-educated, and most technologically sophisticated country.” They argued that “with a rising China as the impetus, it is time to seal the special relationship that both the U.S. and Japan need.”

Bremmer and Gordon might have added that Japan is well served by capable civil servants (with some exceptions), able business executives, diplomats who are top drawer, and a new generation of military leaders striving for respect and modern competence.

The trouble with their proposal is that no current Japanese political leader of any stripe or party has shown the essential leadership, political skill, or willingness to respond to an American initiative. Japan today is plagued by a dysfunctional political order.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a scholar who has published widely on Japan, was swift to puncture the Bremmer-Gordon balloon. Writing in the Financial Times, he asserted that the Bremmer-Gordon proposal was “an absolute non-starter.” He argued that Japan is “an inward looking nation” whose leaders lack a”world view.”

“No one knows what Japan stands for,” Lehmann asserted. “At international policy forums, the Japanese, apart from a tiny handful of regulars, tend to be conspicuous by their absence.”

In Honolulu, the executive director of the Pacific Forum think tank and an experienced Japan hand, Brad Glosserman, addressed the same issue: “At the best of times, Japanese politics are complex, confusing, and conspiratorial. Yet even by this byzantine standard, today’s political environment in Tokyo is especially treacherous.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got a fresh taste of the consequences of Japanese politics when she met with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok earlier this month. The bland press briefings suggested she heard little but platitudes from Mr. Noda.

When Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Tokyo on Monday, he announced only that Japan had agreed to permit the U.S. to deploy another anti-missile radar station to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles. But he seemed not to have been offered much in diplomatic backing, economic aid, or military help as an ally.

Numbers tell the story of the political turbulence that prevents Japan from contributing more than a minimum to the alliance. In the period that began when Emperor Akihito ascended the throne in 1989, Japan has had 16 prime ministers. In that time, China has had three paramount leaders, the U.S. four presidents, and Britain five prime ministers.

Of the Japanese prime ministers, only Junichiro Koizumi lasted any length of time (2001-2006). The other 15 averaged just a little over a year each. Tsutomu Hata was in office for only two months before he was forced out. In the same period, moreover, Japan has had 21 foreign ministers.

A tale, possibly apocryphal: A newly-appointed foreign minister was asked in a press conference what would be his first action. He answered, perhaps a bit ruefully, that he needed to find the Foreign Ministry because he didn’t know where it was and had never been in it.

In essence, Japan is still struggling with democracy. The Japanese people surely have absorbed democratic principles as evinced by large turnouts for elections, civilian controls over the armed forces and police, and freedom exercised by a sometimes highly-opinionated press, robust civic organizations, and outspoken writers.

In the sphere of practical politics, however, a feudal order is still operative. Before the modern period starting with the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan was governed by a “shogun” or supreme commander and a central bureaucracy that had limited authority over the rest of the nation.

There, “daimyo” or feudal lords ruled over about 50 autonomous “han” or clans, most of which employed samurai warriors to defend them, to seek to conquer neighbors, or to collect taxes, uphold the law, and generally to run the clan’s bureaucracy.

Today, that feudal construct is seen in “habatsu,” or factions forged by politicians doling out funds to win the personal allegiance of other politicians. Political parties are coalitions of factions held together by expediency rather than ideology. The goal of most factions is to gain power for the sake of power rather than to execute policy.

That produces only constant factional infighting, not a strategic outlook or nor beneficial feats as a vigorous, indispensable ally.

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth