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Can Japan open up under P.M. Naoto Kan?

Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister, likes to cast himself as an ‘Action Man’ bent on churning out new policies to tackle the country’s problems. And to his credit, one cannot say that Kan has done nothing since taking office in June. He has dealt with a crusty China over disputed islands, repaired ties with Washington, and dispatched a key political rival. Thus, it is not surprising that Kan has started the new year with a fresh, two-pronged initiative: opening up Japan to global trade and reforming the country’s farming sector.

The prescription is apposite, since it would enable Japan to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes Singapore. But Japanese farmers are a spoilt lot. Tariffs on polished rice, for example, are as high as 778 percent. The farmers and their political allies have pooh-poohed the TPP proposal, so much so that it has been put out to grass.

Nonetheless, Kan should persevere, given the high stakes involved. A November poll found that 60 percent of the country favors trade talks to boost the nation’s flagging economy. Japan ― which has long fashioned itself to be an economic leader in Asia ― lags behind other powerhouses such as South Korea, which has sewn up a string of free trade deals covering more than a third of its global trade.

Prising open its economy is but one of the many challenges facing Japan. Kan’s Cabinet is also grappling with chronic deflation, a rapidly aging population and a crisis of confidence in politicians. By far, however, the biggest problem facing Japan might be one of mindset. Previously, the Galapagos syndrome referred to mobile phones in Japan, which were technically superior but disconnected from the rest of the world’s markets. Now, the same term could be applied to the country’s general psyche as well.

As such, it is heartening that when Kan took office, he likened his Cabinet to the ragtag militia that helped overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate at the start of the Meiji era in the late 19th century. Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships might have deflated Japanese pride, but the resultant Meiji Revolution opened Japan up and put it among the first-rank powers by the early 20th century.

In similar fashion, Japan desperately needs another leap into modernity, this time via vigorous trade liberalization. It was Kan’s predecessor, the feckless Yukio Hatoyama, who had called for a “bloodless Hensei revolution” under the current era of Emperor Akihito. Kan needs only to be mindful of one thing: revolutions are never tea parties.

(The Straits Times, Jan. 10)
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