Yayoi Tanaka, a director of The Genron NPO, spoke to Yasushi Kudo, the president of The Genron NPO, about our plans for 2015.
Tanaka: Kudo-san, happy new year. 2015 is now upon us, what are your thoughts for the year ahead?
A new direction for a decisive year
Kudo: As expected, I think this will be a decisive year for the future prospects of both Japan and the world. Of course, we say this every year so there may be some people who say "again?" but I think we have got to a stage where if we don't take a new direction then it is difficult to say what the future holds for us. This is a year when ordinary citizens, the electorate, must start to promptly recognize this situation, look at every aspect of it, and speak out.
Tanaka: Your resolution and determination are unchanged but I think the focus of the Genron NPO's work is expanding, particularly with respect to matters discussed on the world stage. You have been participating in debates conducted by the [American] Council on Foreign Relations, I wonder if you could tell me what is currently on the agenda at this forum?
How can Japan contribute to resolving the issues that face the world?
Kudo: Last year a questionnaire came from the Council on Foreign Relations. It was sent to the heads of think tanks in 23 countries, including me. There is a global initiative to ask groups like us for our views of global challenges and how we think they should be resolved.
Tanaka: So exactly what kind of things are coming up?
Kudo:The biggest issue that came up at the Council of Councils (the conference of think tanks sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations) was that the institutions of global governance are not functioning effectively. In other words, although globalism has increased and various issues have taken on a global scale, the institutions in place to manage these are failing to do this. For example, various bodies of the United Nations are not operating effectively; the interests of the newly developed countries conflict with those of the advanced countries and an adequate consensus is not being reached. The impact of this extends to areas that include the environment, health, trade, security and governance of the internet. The latest questionnaire covers changes in the international economy, such as US interest rate hikes and their influence there-on, which one expects, plus terrorism from the likes of Islamic State, the Russian currency, international trade (which includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the TPP), the WHO (which includes the Ebola virus), the Ukraine, environmental change, cyber-terror, territories in the South and East China Seas, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and poverty (which would include the Millennium Development Goals). These issues are all interrelated and people in the world are beginning to speak up and take action.
Tanaka: I think globalization is a word that is familiar to Japanese people but when it comes to resolving these issues, what Japan thinks and how it can contribute, I have heard criticisms that Japan has no presence on the world stage, or at least, it is not very vocal. What is your opinion of these criticisms?
Kudo:I have been to quite a few meetings overseas and I feel that Japan, and this is true not just of Japan but other countries too, does not so much lack a voice as one voice dominates: only one arm of the government is heard and it is mired in conflict. There is also a definite problem that Japan's opinion on global issues is not heard.
If we take climate change as an example, when the weather gets as irregular as it has then, just as I go about my daily life wondering "what is going on?", I really think we need a lot of other people coming up with answers to that question. However, it is not very easy for ordinary people to see how the Japanese government is dealing with that issue.
On the other hand, there are not-for-profit think tanks like us, NPOs, NGOs and all kinds of researchers and medical doctors acting globally to deal with issues that governments cannot address alone. Unfortunately, very often these experts are not very good at communicating with ordinary people and that, I think, is why we can't hear the views of ordinary people on global issues.
Tanaka: So, in other words, there are people in Japan who properly understand these global issues, and what is more, there are certainly people working to resolve these issues. But, as things stand, they are not getting through to the international audience as part of the voice of Japan.
Japan's voice on global issues and the role of The Genron NPO
Kudo:Yes, that's right. And to find that voice, going forwards, that kind of debate must happen in Japan. Civil society in Japan must go through a cycle in which the issues of the day are debated, both in civil society and in our democratic institutions, and the electorate have to be asked how they want the government to respond to these issues. One of the problems of the international community is that it is difficult for its citizens to have a political discussion. It is also true that there are not many academics who, once they have analyzed the world's issues, are able to tackle them, but they do exist. Ordinary people find out about issues such as a currency crisis in Russia from television. When a terrorist threat is broadcast they understand, "Ah, so that is what is going on." Now, among the ordinary people, there are some who grasp issues and try to resolve them, and some of them are Japanese, but if there is no domestic debate their views will not be reflected in public opinion or the "voice of Japan". At The Genron NPO, we are trying to have exactly that debate but it has not yet become a big movement... and that is why people often say that, from point of view of the rest of the world, Japan's position is not clear.
Tanaka: Finding those talented people and creating a kind of "pipe" that will carry their message to the international community is a big challenge but isn't that exactly what The Genron NPO has to make every effort to do?
Kudo:To be quite honest, I didn't have a strong awareness of global issues until about four years ago. But, I learnt from attending all kinds of international conferences that there are clearly regional and global issues that cannot be solved by the government alone. These include issues such as climate change, which we mentioned earlier, and some of these issues are in Asia. One of changes taking place in the world is that a range of people, that includes both academics and citizens alike, are setting up their own networks to tackle these issues. In one sense, these issues transcend international boundaries. The problem is that there are no institutions to coordinate cross-border solutions or govern how these issues are resolved.
I feel this keenly as a result of my participation in international conferences and we, a private civilian body, will try to fulfill this role. But we are not just going to deal with international issues and that is why we spent quite a lot of time at our Japan-China and Japan-Korea Forums last year tackling peace in Asia.
Tanaka: Ah, now we have got around to talking about The Genron NPO. Could you tell me, what are The Genron NPO's themes for 2015?
What is on The Genron NPO's agenda for 2015?
Kudo: We carried out an evaluation of the government and the political parties' policies at the time of election, at the end of last year. I felt quite keenly then, and I still feel now, that Japan is at a crucial juncture, not just with respect to its ability to be heard in the international community, but with respect to its own future. The ageing of the population is still a big issue. I have a concern that this country will be unable to provide social security and fund the public budget. Japanese politics is not addressing this concern, and what is worse, the regions, with their declining populations, are crying out in pain. Now we have got into this situation, I am conscious of the risk that if politicians do not grit their teeth and take action to reconstruct our public finances and system of social security then, in all likelihood, the country is completely blind to its future. We cannot just leave this to the politicians. The electorate have to confront them because if they do not make the effort to recognize and tackle these issues themselves, then there will be no movement in Japanese society to resolve them. At The Genron NPO our role will be as one the initiators of this movement, bringing people together to consider the issues and communicate their opinion. This has become our main vocation.
Tanaka: So, please could you give us some of the highlights in your plan for this year?
Kudo: I am going to be in India and Indonesia next week but at the moment it is preying on my mind that this year it will be 70 years since the end of World War II. We feel that we are being asked to look at matters such as "How can Japan contribute to Asia and the international community?" and "What can we do to build a lasting peace in North East Asian?" Normally this is the role of the government but in situations where national emotions run high, private civilian organizations have to take on that role: During the course of the year we are hoping to initiate a multilateral dialogue on the construction of a lasting peace in Asia.
Another area we want to address is democracy. Do the political parties in Japan have the problem-solving abilities required of them? And not just that but do the parties really seek to resolve issues in full view of the people? In other words, we giving serious thought as to whether our democracy functions in a transparent way. We thought this was a concern at last year's election: Party politics is focused on resolving issues and this has not been sufficiently represented to the people.
The long and short of it is that this situation will not change until the electorate get stronger and form a groundswell to reform politics. To resolve issues, we must start from a position of knowing more about them. To do this, we hope to create the kind movement where we hold many debates and arrive at a plan, to resolve the issues we have recognized, which we can then pitch against our politicians.
When democracy works well, politics will work for Japan's future. I think we must make this a year when we start on a course toward that kind of democratic politics.
Tanaka: I think you are taking on some terrific topics. I wish you all the best and please take care of yourself.
Kudo: Well, from here I am going to Asia so I shall do my best and be careful what I choose to eat.