It has now been over one year since northeastern Japan was devastated by what has been dubbed by many as the “triple disaster” – consisting of an earthquake, a deadly tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown of the now-infamous Fukushima nuclear power plant. According to The Economist, the disaster killed more than 19,000 people and left over 325,000 homeless. The millions of Japanese people’s lives directly affected by the disaster can never be accurately estimated. The disaster has also sparked a global backlash against the use of nuclear power, and the legacy of Fukushima claims responsibility not only for the closure of nuclear plants across the Japanese archipelago but also throughout the world (most notably in Germany).
The heart-wrenching scenes from Japan’s northeast shocked audiences around the world, but the resilience of Japanese civil society and volunteer groups in responding to the crisis were equally inspiring. However, due mostly to the central government’s lackluster or ill-executed response, the disaster has also lead to a striking lack of trust in the country’s political institutions. The tsunami itself caused sudden and shocking destruction, and the subsequent nuclear disaster will have repercussions for decades to come.
However, the most dangerous threat to Japan’s future comes not from unpredictable shifts of the earth’s crust, but from all-too-predictable political paralysis in Tokyo. As devastating as the March 2011 triple disaster was, the real threat to Japan’s future comes from another set of three dangers: political paralysis, economic stagnation, and demographic decline. Just as last year’s three crises were all interrelated, each of these separate factors affects the others. The longer Japan’s politics remain dysfunctional, the more the economy will suffer and the national deficit (already 200 percent of GDP) will balloon. The greater the demographic stress caused by the world’s fastest-shrinking and -aging population, the more the economy will suffer. The destructive cycle could go on and on – and for the past two “lost decades,” it seems that it has.
The most glaring example of the political dysfunction is the constant merry-go-round of prime ministers: Japan has gone through six prime ministers since September of 2006. The most glaring example of economic stagnation is the almost flat growth rates of the past two decades, along with the important symbolic replacement of Japan by China in the world’s number two economic position. With rapid aging and population decline on the horizon, these political and economic problems will almost certainly be exacerbated in the coming decades. This deadly combination of political, economic, and demographic problems could permanently strip Japan of its global influence if nothing is done.
Fortunately, current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appears determined to save Japan from decline. He has proposed numerous inventive measures to get the economy back on track, including the truly major prospects of breaking up protectionism and entering Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade group.
Even his most basic of proposals, however, have been met with stark opposition in the Diet. In order to curb Japan’s sky-high debt, Noda has proposed raising the consumption tax from its current 5 percent to 10 percent over the course of the next several years. Even this relatively modest proposal may cause such a political uproar that yet another general election will have to be called this spring. And if Noda were to lose an election, the merry-go-round would continue, and Japan would once again have a new prime minister who promised change but was unable to overcome a calcified system.
Japan’s current economic woes may well be insurmountable, but action must be taken. Any course is better than walking willingly into irrelevance. Unfortunately, if true systemic change ever does come, it may be too little, too late.