In the 1970s and 1980s America worried about “Japan Inc.,” an economic colossus that bid fair to outstrip the U.S. in innovation and manufacturing. But in a lesson that this country has doggedly refused to learn, no economic trend lasts forever.
Japan’s economy ran out of steam, and its long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party ran out of ideas. What token gestures there were toward economic reform were blocked by powerful, protectionist-minded banking, industrial and agricultural interests.
Since the 1970s, Japan has been ruled by a seemingly interchangeable cast of 24 prime ministers — only one of them memorable, Junichiro Koizumi, and he only because of his Elvis haircut — none of them re-elected until Sunday.
On Sunday, Japanese voters gave Shinzo Abe a rare second chance. He was prime minister for 12 months in 2006 and 2007; he resigned over health issues, cabinet scandals and almost certain defeat at the polls.
Abe’s party won control of both houses of parliament, giving his government, in the words of The Associated Press, “the potential to be one of Japan’s most influential and effective administrations in years.”
Heavens knows, Japan could use one.
There are long-term problems Abe can probably do little about — an aging population and a declining birthrate. For cultural reasons, the easiest and most effective solution to that problem — immigration — is out of the question for the foreseeable future.
But joining the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc, which would require Japan to scrap its long-held protectionism, also would give its industries and businesses, made complacent by the good years of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a badly needed shakeup.
He must negotiate a needed sales tax increase of 5 to 8 percent without jeopardizing a still-fragile economic recovery and an annualized GDP growth of 4.1 percent.
More problematic is Abe’s plan to redraft the pacifist constitution, written by the U.S. post-World War II, to allow for a more robust military with real offensive capability. This alarms the Chinese to no end, but it’s their own fault for almost belligerently claiming hundreds of islands in the South China Sea whose ownership is claimed by several nations, including Japan.
However, his views track closely with U.S. foreign policy. (He wants us to keep the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed there.) Second chances are rare in Japanese politics. We should help him make the most of his.