Tsunami crisis will test an already ailing Japan

Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:37 PM

THE EARTHQUAKE and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11 damaged a nation already weakened by man-made problems. Japan has been stagnating, economically, politically and demographically, for two decades. Its national debt is roughly twice as big as its economy, which has been overtaken, in size, by China's. Meanwhile, a new political force that rose to power two years ago, the Democratic Party of Japan, has yet to deliver the fresh policies the country needs.

To the contrary, when disaster struck, Prime Minister Naoto Kan - the country's fifth chief of government in less than five years - was beset by quarreling within his party and with the formerly dominant Liberal Democratic Party. Seiji Maehara, the promising 48-year-old foreign minister, had just been forced to resign because he had accepted campaign funding from an ethnic Korean resident of Japan. The episode seemed to epitomize Japan's bad political habits, from inveterate partisanship (not unknown in this capital) to exaggerated suspicion of foreigners. Mr. Kan's low popularity rating was echoed by unease on the financial markets, where hedge funds had begun to bet against the erstwhile juggernaut once known as "Japan Inc."

The question is whether this trauma, the worst in Japan's post-World War II history, will weaken the country further - or galvanize it. Like all of Japan's friends around the world, we earnestly hope for the latter, even as we recognize that unity born of disaster can be fleeting. In the United States, spontaneous flag displays after Sept. 11, 2001, soon gave way to politics as usual. And remember how New Orleans was going to be rebuilt as a high-tech showcase after Hurricane Katrina? Still, the unity and renewed sense of purpose that those devastating events awakened have not faded completely. Americans inspired to service by them have done much good.

So far the world has seen much to admire in Japan's response to the crisis. Even amid unfathomable destruction and suffering, Japanese people have remained neighborly, calm and disciplined. For all the well-publicized failures to deliver food and blankets to the tsunami zone, the Japanese government and Self-Defense Forces have probably responded better than they did to the far smaller 1995 Kobe earthquake. And this is in the context of a nuclear crisis that, amid fears of aftershocks, makes it almost impossible to turn to thoughts of rebuilding.

Japan still has deep resources - financial, human and technological - upon which to draw. Once it masters its acute needs, the question will be how to grapple with chronic problems of governance. Reconstruction will not be possible without a credible long-term program to finance the country through some instrument other than endless government debt. Fresh thought must be applied to old problems such as trade protectionism, subsidized agriculture, the low birthrate and Japan's role in East Asian security. The weaknesses of Japan's plodding, consensus-oriented leadership style have been on full view in sometimes confusing and euphemistic official statements on the nuclear accident. That aspect of political and corporate culture will have to adapt as well.

As it happens, Mr. Kan had become controversial partly because his policies - especially support for a U.S.-backed trade liberalization program known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership - addressed real issues, threatening entrenched interests. The quake and tsunami prompted a truce among the politicians. How well they unite and make tough decisions once that truce fades will help determine whether democratic Japan can, as it has so many times before, turn crisis into opportunity.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company