A silent revolution in Japan?

People like me have been spilling a lot of ink (and blogspace) over events in out-of-the-way places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and the like, and I’m not going to apologize for it. But I sometimes think this illustrates the tendency for humans to focus on what is urgent or vivid instead of what’s important. People ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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581470_090901_walt2b2.jpg

People like me have been spilling a lot of ink (and blogspace) over events in out-of-the-way places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and the like, and I'm not going to apologize for it. But I sometimes think this illustrates the tendency for humans to focus on what is urgent or vivid instead of what's important. People dying and things getting blown up rivet our attention, but sometimes the calm workings of a democratic process might be of greater long-term significance.

Consider the recent Japanese election. I'm far from being an expert on Japanese politics, but I do know there are good reasons to think that genuine reform will be as difficult to enact there as it is here in the United States. (Among other things, entrenched bureaucrats in powerful ministries will be hard to weaken or dislodge.) Nonetheless, if the defeat of the LDP and the emergence of the more populist Democratic Party of Japan leads to the emergence of a genuine two-party system, makes Japanese political institutions more accountable, and generally opens up a set of sclerotic policies, the impact could be far-reaching.

People like me have been spilling a lot of ink (and blogspace) over events in out-of-the-way places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and the like, and I’m not going to apologize for it. But I sometimes think this illustrates the tendency for humans to focus on what is urgent or vivid instead of what’s important. People dying and things getting blown up rivet our attention, but sometimes the calm workings of a democratic process might be of greater long-term significance.

Consider the recent Japanese election. I’m far from being an expert on Japanese politics, but I do know there are good reasons to think that genuine reform will be as difficult to enact there as it is here in the United States. (Among other things, entrenched bureaucrats in powerful ministries will be hard to weaken or dislodge.) Nonetheless, if the defeat of the LDP and the emergence of the more populist Democratic Party of Japan leads to the emergence of a genuine two-party system, makes Japanese political institutions more accountable, and generally opens up a set of sclerotic policies, the impact could be far-reaching.

After all, Japan is still the world’s second largest economy. Its military spending ranks fifth in the world. It has a highly educated populations and many advanced industries and scientific establishments (including the potential to get nuclear weapons very quickly if it wished). It is the location of several key U.S. military bases, and is bound to Washington by a long-standing security treaty.   

All this means that if Japanese economic and foreign policy were to change significantly, the effects would be quite far-reaching. I’m not saying they will, but I am planning to spend a bit more time keeping an eye on events there.

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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