Can you imagine two terms of Jimmy Carter's economy immediately followed by two terms of an Obama recession? The Japanese voter can. Since the early 1990s, Japan has gone from recession to recession. Japan is currently in its third recession since 2000. After more than two decades of disappointment, the sun may indeed be rising over Japan.
Defeated in the Second World War, Japan – backed by American largess – recovered and became an economic superpower that only recently ceded the rank of world's second-largest economy to China. Beginning in the 1990s, the Japanese economy began to sputter. The central bankers did not have an answer. The population began to age. The other Asian countries that formerly quaked at the power of the economic samurai began to catch up. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore became the new Asian Tigers. But the political elite in Tokyo continued to allow Japan to slip behind. With interest rates effectively at zero and little to show for it, the bankers were losing their mystique. The American people should have learned from the Japanese example; alas, the Fed continues to hurl the dollar over a cliff. The Japanese people looked behind the curtain, and they were not impressed.
In Japan the voters' disappointment has reaped changes. The Japanese dumped the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2009 and elected the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ); this was the first clear defeat for the LDP since in the history of democratic Japan. In elections on Dec. 16, the Japanese returned the LDP to power, but also sent a new third party to the Diet – Japan's parliament – with a significant following.
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Many Japanese voters believe that an alternative path has arrived in the form of the Japan Restoration Party (JRP). The JRP was founded this year by the maverick mayor of Osaka, Tōru Hashimoto, a charismatic politician whose father was a gangster. Mr. Hashimoto has an ambitious reform agenda that should have the long-term attention of Barack Obama's foreign-policy team. Mr. Hashimoto believes he is the man to bring Japan out its two decades of lackluster economic performance. While some might quip that he appears to be starting a Japanese "tea party," one should be very careful about eagerly assuming that his reform-minded agenda springs from the same fount. He has been blunt: "What the country needs now is a dictatorship." Though exactly what he means by that is debatable.
The JRP has wasted little time. Eleven sitting members of the Japanese House of Representatives defected to join the new party before the elections. Mr. Hashimoto has even created a think tank to educate the alternative elite he wishes to present to the Japanese people. The new Restoration Political Institute he founded is designed to turnout smart political candidates for the JRP. The party fielded 300 candidates for the House of Representatives in its first electoral contest.
The question American politicos should ask is what is attracting the 20 percent of Japanese who support Mr. Hashimoto's party, according to some polls. The party wants to abolish the House of Councilors – the upper chamber of the Japanese parliament. Mr. Hashimoto has gained admirers and detractors for facing down the Osaka teachers union and forcing the teachers to stand and sing –enthusiastically – the Japanese national anthem "The Emperor's Reign." However, keen observers might wonder what the intent of such theater is. Mr. Hashimoto also wants to give more power to Japan's regional governments while reducing the size of the House of Representatives by half. That is quite an ambitious platform for a party that was only founded on Sept. 12. Though one must admit that JRP proved itself on Dec. 16 when it emerged with 53 seats in the lower house, placing them only four seats behind the second-largest party, the formerly governing DPJ. The LDP won 294. The House of Representatives has a total of 480 seats.
Mr. Hashimoto will not lead the JRP in the parliament. He has left that to his new partner, Tokyo's former governor Shintaro Ishihara, the fellow who provoked China by purchasing a group of disputed islands from their private owner. Ishihara is an interesting choice of a partner for Hashimoto, who prefers to remain mayor of Osaka and continue his agenda there. While he was Tokyo's governor, Ishihara gained notoriety for stating that the 1937 Rape of Nanking where the Japanese Imperial Army slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians was a "fiction." He has also lamented that Japan should be more assertive and stand up to the United States and China. Ironically, Ishihara's long-term goals may be helped by the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who wants to amend Japan's constitution to allow for collective self-defense and a military that can project force abroad.
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As it stands the United States should keep its eye on the new nationalist political party that is taking root in its most important Asian ally. The Japan Restoration Party wants a decentralized Japan that projects power abroad, while refusing – after 70 years – to come to terms with Japanese atrocities in the Second World War. That is cause for a watchful eye. However, the tea party in America might also take note and learn a lesson on how not to set the bar too low in its ambitions. The JRP knows what it wants and is not afraid to take the establishment head on. The admiration ends there.