Council of Councils Inaugural MeetingText of Kudo's speech in Washington on Japan-U.S. relations, Japan's political situation

May 16, 2013

The following is Genron NPO Representative Yasuhi Kudo's speech text prepared for the Council on Foreign Relations' (CFR) panel discussion on "Views from Abroad: International Perspectives (from Japan, France and Russia) on the United States," held in Washington D.C. on March 14. Kudo served as one of the three panelists before the audience of some 40 influential U.S. government bureaucts and journalists.


Our agenda tonight is "Views from Abroad: International Perspectives on the United States," or how the world views the United States. Before answering this question, I would like to ask you "What does the United States expect from Japan today?"

My observation is that Japan-U.S. relations are in trouble because Japan cannot see what the United States wants us to do. From our viewpoint, that of a Japanese NPO, U.S. President Barack Obama is a respectable leader. However, it is regrettable that since the birth of his administration, we have not heard any words from him regarding what the United States expects from Japan.

Just three days ago, we observed the anniversary of the tragic Great East Japan Earthquake. I still remember that the American troops stationed in Japan and many American citizens extended great relief to the quake-hit areas. An overwhelming majority of Japanese, including me, feel deeply indebted to the Americans for their heartfelt support. A friend in need is a friend indeed! Many Japanese feel that way about our alliance with the United States. On the other hand, what we see in U.S. diplomacy toward Asia is the strategic dialogue between the political leaders of the United States and our neighboring China.

In Japan, the prime ministership seems to change hands almost every year, and eventually the existence and influence of a Japanese prime minister in the world has been obviously diminished these days. In fact, there hasn't been a Japanese prime minister's official visit to the United States for the past two and a half years since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power.

I am very apprehensive about what I term "the vacuum of dialogue" between Japan and the United States regarding the security issue in the Asian region and Asia's future. The absence of dialogue is apparent not only at the government level but also at the private-sector level.

I want to emphasize that Japan and the United States are now in dire need of freer and more active bilateral discussion regarding the future of Asia and the Pacific. I fully understand that the priority of U.S. diplomacy is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region. In terms of security, the dispersed deployment of the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific would eventually thrust Japan to the forefront of the new strategy vis-à-vis China.

As an ally, it is natural for Japan to keep pace with U.S. moves, but I don't feel any serious efforts are being made between the governments of the United States and Japan to build consensus regarding the security strategy in this part of the world. In the long run, we don't see what the United States expects Japan to do on this matter. Does the United States want Japan to boost its defense spending or to shoulder more defense and security obligations, or to remove restrictions on the conduct of joint U.S.-Japan military action? While these important matters are kept invisible and unclear, the cutting of the funding for the transfer of U.S. Marines to Guam from Okinawa is making headlines in the Japanese media. Even now, there are people in Japan who discuss this issue on a par with the controversial relocation of a major U.S. base in Okinawa's Futenma. Is it really all right to allow Japan-U.S. relations to continue this way?

Strategically, the question of ensuring regional security in Asia is developing into a new and different dimension in the wake of a major change in the direction of U.S. defense policy, which results in the heightening of tension in relations with China. I should say that the intentions of China's stepped-up military expansion and its maritime activities in waters surrounding Japan are hardly transparent, and I myself am alarmed by the risks Japan may face in the future. Nonetheless, such uncertainty over the Chinese moves is not necessarily a new concern. In such an uncertain phase, there is a high chance that military pressures alone would only make the situation much worse.

My conviction is that it is necessary for us to conduct dialogue with China through various channels, in particular, private-sector dialogue. As I myself have experienced, to have a dialogue with China is no easy task. It takes considerable time to establish relations of trust and endurance is essential to accomplish it.

In an unstable country, the authority tends to make political use of confrontational nationalism to contain social woes. Eight years ago, anti-Japanese protests mounted in China's major cities. To contain the demonstration, Chinese Communist Party leaders had to persuade youths to calm down. If tension should mount, we cannot deny the possibility of Chinese nationalism being ignited anytime. The anti-Japanese sentiment was refueled by the so-called history issue between the two countries.

At that time, I visited Beijing alone, and talked with the Chinese government and many research institutions. Out of the serious talks was born the Tokyo-Beijing Forum, a non-governmental, high-level dialogue, which The Genron NPO has been organizing every year. Some 100 representative opinion leaders from each country participate in this annual event to exchange views candidly on various issues, including bilateral economic relations and sensitive security matters. Along with the forums, we have been jointly conducting an opinion survey every year to deepen mutual understanding between the peoples of both countries.

Our private-sector dialogue later paved the way toward the resumption of the long-suspended summits of both governments, and China now officially recognizes the dialogue of this kind as part of its public diplomacy. Eight years ago, I was seriously pondering who could break the impasse in Japan-China relations. Government-to-government dialogue was suspended and Japanese economic circles remained mum in the face of intensifying nationalistic storms. Many opinion leaders and media reports in both countries only fueled confrontation.


In retrospect, we were in a phase in which ordinary citizens stood up with courage. And I moved into action. I do feel that the present situation in Asia resembles the situation at that time. Each country maintains strong ties with China in economic terms and this situation has passed the point of no return. If such is the case, I consider it most important to manage the military and institutional risks via diverse means.

It is my conviction that for regional stability in East Asia, it is of vital importance to create a multilateral framework of government-level dialogue involving not only the United States and China, but also Japan and other countries. It is also my firm conviction that more important is the facilitation and reinforcement of private-sector dialogue in Asia. If the Council on Foreign Relations has an interest in such dialogue, we, The Genron NPO, are ready to launch preparations for the creation of a venue for high-level and private-sector dialogue among Japan, China and the United States.

In connection with the before-mentioned "vaccum of dialogue" between Japan and the United States, I must also refer to another aspect. That is the problem of Japanese politics. Provided that the "vaccum of dialogue" results from a lack of mutual trust between the governments of both countries, I must inform you about a big change that is going to emerge on the stage of Japanese politics.

I mean Japanese politics is undergoing a fundamental change. To describe the conclusion first, Japan won't change under the present structure of party politics, whoever becomes the next prime minster. The Genron NPO is the sole think tank in Japan regularly and professionally carrying out the evaluation of policy agendas by the government and political parties. After conducting the evaluations for the past 10 years, I have an acute feeling that Japanese political parties are not aligned with ideals, visions and policy directions. They are nothing but a group of people who just desire to seize power or to stay in power.

This is why they are unable to create an intraparty consensus on key policy matters and are repeating compromises. I hate to say this, but this is the reality of Japanese politics today. As a result of the general election in the summer of 2009, a change of government occurred in Japan. On that historic occasion, we conducted an evaluation of the election pledges, or so-called manifestoes, by major political parties. The score was only 20 out of 100 points for the Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power and 20 points for the Liberal Democratic Party, which lost power. The results show that each party made empty and meaningless promises without proposing effective policy directions, and measures to implement them.

Nonetheless, many Japanese voters pinned high hopes on the change of government and eventually were betrayed. For instance, the DPJ government came out with an unrealistic proposal regarding the relocation of the U.S. Marine Futenma Air Station, which was not even included in the party's manifesto, and ruined the outcome of the past strenuous efforts by the Japanese and U.S. governments to move the military base. As this episode shows, Japanese political parties have ceased to function effectively. In other words, it is high time that a sweeping political realignment be made by regrouping political parties along the lines of policy directions.

In fact, moves toward political alignment are gaining momentum on two fronts. One is within established political circles. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appears to be struggling to dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election, but my observation is that his hidden intention is to pave the way toward a major political realignment. The primary aim is to create a new political setup, which can squarely address Japan's pressing agendas, including fiscal reconstruction with recourse to a hike of the consumption tax. Another aim is, I suspect, to break up the powerful intraparty group led by a very powerful leader.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Noda's attempt would succeed. My observation is that the only chance he has to remain at the center of Japanese politics is either to resort to a general election or to boost his/his Cabinet's low public support rate. Within the LDP, the largest opposition party in Japan, elements are emerging from behind the scenes to push for political realignment.

Another development is in the pipeline in Japan's second-largest city -- Osaka. Toru Hashimoto, a young and popular former governor of Osaka, and now the city's mayor is set to create a new political party to field many candidates at the next general election. Because of his immense popularity and strong leadership, all the existing political parties are quite uneasy. My observation is that his moves would likely develop to the point of seizing power at the national level, given the ever-mounting public distrust of the existing political parties.

Then, how do Japanese intellectuals, scholars and other opinion leaders observe these ongoing developments in politics? The Genron NPO conducted a survey in late January covering some 2,000 opinion leaders, and 500 people responded. To our astonishment, as high as 70 percent of the respondents replied the established political parties are hopeless. And some 50 percent are pinning their expectations on a major political alignment in the wake of the next general election, which is likely to be held sometime this year, while another 50 percent predict the political stalemate would deteriorate further. And about half the respondents said they would welcome new political movements not involving the existing political parties. However, a majority of opinion leaders are non-committal about Mr. Hashimoto.

To be frank with you, I feel his moves are a little dangerous. I am not sure whether Mr. Hashimoto is aware of it, but his political style is somewhat demagogic in that he is garnering support from those who are frustrated with politics by intentionally stirring up a hornet's nest with well-planned assaults. A close look at those who are supporting him shows that a majority of his backers harbor frustration with the existing political parties while he is not winning so much support from those who are seriously seeking solutions to Japan's pressing national tasks, such as fiscal reconstruction, national security and the aging society.

Mr. Hashimoto's proposition is mostly centered on a change in political institutions, which requires revision of the Constitution, and nothing but a list of policy tasks, which are overtly obscure. Regarding national security, his policy smacks of an inclination toward "self-defense," and he considers the Japan-U.S. alliance as "an axis" so long as Japan does not possess "independent and autonomous" military might.

I gave more attention to another finding of the survey. Asked who should rebuild Japan, some 60 percent of the respondents cited "voters." This means that Japanese people think they can no longer leave Japan's reforms to politicians -- their substantial criticism of politics and their true voice are seeking a substantive change.

I should add that a big change is beginning to occur among voters and the general public. In the event of the megaquake and tsunami, and the nuclear accident a year ago, many citizens stood up and worked for the relief and support of the victims in the disaster-hit areas. The overwhelming energy of the people at that time is beginning to be channeled toward a wholesale review of the reliance on nuclear power generation, fiscal reconstruction and the care of the weak in society.

There is a very good chance that these grass-root movements will lead to the formation of a new political setup. This is another promising change in Japan today. The Genron NPO is determined to stand on the side of these citizens' moves.

The word "genron" in our organization's name means "responsible opinion and debate embracing a sense of responsibility," utterly different from an emotional and sentimental one. My long-held thought is that Japan desperately needs this kind of sound and responsible opinion to create a future-oriented country. Democracy is a fragile institution in that the public tend to be influenced by popular sentiment or atmosphere and pin too much hope on one particular politician. The Genron NPO is determined to make Japanese democracy function well and open up a new horizon for Japan on the strength of responsible policy debates.

Faced with the rise of China and the ongoing changes in Japanese politics, our drive is entering a crucial and difficult phase. But I firmly believe that Japan could be changed by overcoming our difficulties. I hope you will continue to monitor closely Japan's ongoing changes.

Thank you for listening.

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