Correction to This Article
Previous editions of this article in print and on the Web misstated a measure of Japan's economy. Japan's accumulated government debt is more than 170 times its gross domestic product, not its fiscal deficit. This version has been corrected.


By Michael Zielenziger
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Just a few weeks ago, the Bush administration seemed convinced that it could rely on a newly assertive Japan to contain China's rise and help prosecute the global fight against terrorism. Then last weekend, Japan's voters just said "No." The stinging electoral rebuke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (which lost control of the upper house of the Diet for the first time since the party was founded in 1955) does more than usher in a new era of drift and unpredictability in Japanese politics. Abe's drubbing should also dispel some dangerous misperceptions about today's Japan:

1. Japan is a strong, rising power, ready to assert new influence across Asia.

Even before the Bush administration came to power in 2001, many members of its kitchen cabinet were arguing that an assertive new Japan was ready to become the United States' chief surrogate in checking Chinese expansion. Japan would no longer be a "free rider," they said, in contrast with its behavior in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Tokyo merely wrote a $9 billon check to help protect its oil supply.

Sure enough, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi dispatched peacekeeping soldiers to southern Iraq, ostensibly to conduct "humanitarian relief," in defiance of Japan's pacifist constitution. Koizumi's hand-picked successor, Abe, went further still, pledging to revise the constitution to eliminate the clause renouncing Japan's willingness to wage war. He also promised to work ever more closely with the Pentagon on missile defense and logistical support for U.S. combat troops, and he toed a more strident line against North Korea.

But Abe's eagerness to draw closer to Washington and rewrite the constitution clashed with the will of the people. While most Japanese citizens tell pollsters that they believe the post-World War II constitution (written by U.S. occupation forces in 1946) ought to be updated, most also reject expanding the nation's military muscle. And a majority of voters older than 60 -- the aging nation's most important voting bloc -- say that the constitution's pacifist Article 9 remains the most important legacy from the debacle of World War II.

So while U.S. military planners want Tokyo to seize more responsibility as the U.S. military is stretched thin, Japan now seems likelier to back away. A counterterrorism measure that permits ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force to refuel U.S. naval convoys is up for renewal this fall and may not pass. Don't be surprised if Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the newly emboldened opposition Democratic Party of Japan, uses this as a lever to break up the Diet and force new elections.

2.Japan has shed its economic blues.

More than 15 years after its bubble economy burst, Japan may be groping its way back toward sustainable growth. But despite the stunning export success of carmakers such as Toyota and electronics firms such as Canon, the nation's domestic consumption remains anemic.

In fact, anxious voters rebelled against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in part because they believed Abe had put economic reforms on the back burner. (The fact that his government apparently lost 50 million pension records, and that three of his ministers faced campaign funding scandals, also didn't help.)

Today, most Japanese seek economic renewal, not military revival. The nation's giant banks still generate tiny profits, consumer prices continue to fall, domestic demand remains feeble, and real interest rates are nearly zero. The yen is weaker than even the U.S. dollar, and that's saying something. The nation's accumulated government debt tops 170 percent of gross domestic product, while the population is shrinking because women won't marry and bear children. That translates into a nation that will soon make South Florida look like a youth hostel. Japan should be welcoming immigrants to nurse its elderly and wooing foreign investors to restructure its service economy, but it still can't muster the courage to see its culture altered by globalization.

In fact, as a result of Abe's stumbles, Japan can no longer even be counted on to support a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States or help revive the Doha round of global trade talks; the weak domestic economy forces politicians to pander to local concerns.

3.Japan has reconciled with its neighbors.

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