It’s not just the economy
Post-war ambition in Germany and Japan
Prime Minister Abe and his LDP deserve a lot of credit. Just as Japan appeared to be slipping off towards global political irrelevance, Abe’s landslide victory managed to re-engage Japan in the global political and economic debate. Whatever your politics, you cannot accuse Abe’s LDP of lack of ambition: yes to economic growth, yes to constitutional revision, yes to strong top-down leadership. Make no mistake – Abe wants a strong Japan, because only a strong Japan can be a contender on the global scale.
My Japanese friends tell me Japan had one clear goal after the war – to catch up to the American standard of living. They agree the nation was extremely proud to have achieved this, but they also lament that after the goal was hit, there has been a void – no clear goal, lots of little achievements, but nothing really standing out as a unifying theme to be proud of as a nation.
Indeed, amongst my younger friends it almost works towards the opposite extreme. They worry that Japan has become nothing but a “negative example” to the world – stagnation, deflation, record debt, record suicide rate, and a downward spiral of national fatalism and decline. While the baby boomers were able to focus on and be proud of their economic catch-up, the younger generation has recorded no comparable achievement.
As many of you may know, I am from Germany. Much has been made of the comparison between Japan and Germany. In economic terms there is great similarity with both countries strongly focused on catching up to America as well as driving to perfect manufacturing industries; but the more interesting comparison is in post-war history and intellectual development. Indeed, a sharp contrast emerges very quickly: as soon as the second world war was over, right from the outset, the German elite focused on going beyond mere economic goals.
They were very much ashamed of ther fathers and grandfathers and vowed to design a post-war system that made a future war impossible. Thus the foundations of the European Union were laid, initially with the coal and steel union between Germany and France. The German post-war elite set a goal of integrating Europe. This goal was achieved, with the Germans and other Europeans giving up their own national currencies.
The second goal the Germans set for themselves came in the early 1960s, when the division between East and West Germany was set in stone by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Again, the elite vowed to work towards unification – a clear national goal that was achieved eventually. It is something that Germans of all ages are very proud of.
The elite set goals, but what about the people, particularly the younger generation? Both Germany and Japan share a powerful “counter revolution” experience. Indeed, the student revolts in both Japan and Germany were some of the most energetic and violent of all that swept the world in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In both countries, the post-war generation initially showed its leadership ambition by organizing radical and extreme domestic terrorism coming out of the student revolts.
But in Japan, nothing ever came of this – the terrorists were crushed and the student leaders basically got absorbed back into the mainstream of Japan’s political economy. In contrast, German student leaders got organized and developed clear strategies for trying to change Germany’s political economy using democratic institutions. They seized on the developing debate on ecology and the environment and set up the Green Party. Importantly, this Green Party became the rising star of German democratic politics in the 1980s, and by the end of that decade, the Greens turned into the de-facto “king maker” coalition partner for the Social Democratic Party.
In sad contrast, Japan’s student revolt basically fizzled into nothingness and created no concrete democratic political dynamism or institution, Germany’s post-war boomer generation built its own political force and institution. Their goal was to change Germany’s political economy, promote “green” policies, and do so in the democratic (rather than terrorist) way. In doing so, they managed to make politics attractive and relevant for the younger generation. In contrast, Japan’s political apathy amongst the young may very well be rooted in the unwillingness and inability of the “baby boomers” to channel the energy of the student revolts towards something constructive in Japan’s political economy.
Here lies the real challenge for Prime Minister Abe: top-down leadership to revitalize the economy and end deflation is a good start, but clearly the real target must be to inspire the young next generation of Japanese to dare to dream and be ambitious. Make no mistake – Japan deserves a goal that goes beyond mere economics.