The forthcoming election in Japan has been billed as a referendum on that country’s appetite for nationalism.
Not just because Prime Minister Toshiko Noda looks like being toppled by a predecessor, Shinzo Abe, and needs an issue to boost his prospects, but also because Japan is at a crossroads.
It has chosen to resist territorial claims over groups of islands with both China and South Korea. This is because Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which long ruled Japan with virtually no opposition, wants greater recognition as a military power, a long-running issue in Japanese politics.
On the economic front, the LDP also wants to exercise more power over the Bank of Japan and its monetary policy. This echoes Labour and the Greens wanting an easier money in New Zealand with their calls to change Reserve Bank policy.
Mr Noda’s ruling Democratic Party is behind the in the polls and has led a push for Japan to move into a free trading bloc. This, too, is roiling the political scene as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is like a red rag to some.
Japan is under pressure to commit on the TPP, and make it real economic force in Asia, as well as respond to other initiatives, such as the RCEP, which is a parallel partnership that, unlike the TPP, includes China.
The 16 RCEP (regional comprehensive economic partnership) members include the Southeast Asian nations as well as India, China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand but notably not other Pacific rim powers such as the US, Canada or any country in Latin America..
The RCEP is due to begin negotiations early next year and has as its goal reduction in tariffs and liberalised investment rules, though not as ambitious as the TPP.
Clash of opinion
Whatever the electorate thinks, and Japan’s is generally suspicious of free trade, privatisation and other forms of neo-liberalism, businesses big and small realise their export prospects depend on change.
An editorial in the Daily Yomiuri says:
The firms could also find it easier to develop international supply chains, which would link their production bases at home and in the RCEP region. This could pave the way for them to exploit Asia's dynamics to shore up their businesses.
On top of this, Japan has also agreed to take part in a trilateral free trade agreement with China and Korea, which is one the least liberalising countries in Asia.
Ironically, China is leading both this initiative and the RCEP as a buttress against the American ambitions with the TPP. And more confusing, just about everyone – the US included – is also talking about a 21-member Free Trade Area of Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which shows little prospect of getting off the ground due to the rising tensions in Asia, both political and economic.
How foreigners rate
A virtual consumer boycott of Japanese cars, electronics and other goods exists in China over what Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, pushing down sales and profits of major corporations.
Japanese public opinion has reciprocated with an annual Cabinet Office survey showing 80.6% “harbour no sense of friendship toward China,” as the Jiji news agency phrased it. This is up 9.2 points and is the highest since the survey started in 1978.
Those who were friendly toward China fell to a new low of 18%.
Meanwhile, antipathy to South Koreans is also rising, though by not to the same level. Some 59% says they are not friendly toward Koreans, a jump of 23.7 points from last year.
Positive feelings sank 23 points to 39.2%, the first dip below 40% in 15 years.
The shifts in opinion came after the August visit by South Korean President Lee Myung Bak to the islands known to Koreans as Dokdo.
By contrast, the US under President Obama enjoys an 84.5% rating as a friend of Japan, a rise of 2.5 points. Those holding negative views fell to 13.7%.
Opinion leaders such as Yomiui are urging Japan put the TPP first and then deal with the others. A third party, Japan Restoration, which is already second in the polls to the LDP, is a backer of the TPP.
Meanwhile, opponents of the TTP are joining the election fray in another political alliance.
This one based on an anti-TPP platform and encompasses at least one minor party called People’s Life First. The alliance’s two other main planks are overturning a rise in consumption taxes and ending nuclear power generation within 10 years.
The election campaign starts on Monday and runs for nearly two weeks until the ballot on December 16.
Skytree pulls them in
While the political action and wider Asian issues dominate the news here, ordinary Japanese showing other ways to reassert their country’s profile as a ghigh-technology leader.
Among the recent achievements has been the building of the Tokyo Skytree, which was still due for completion when I was last here in January.
The Skytree opened six months ago and is far exceeding its visitor expectations. So far, just on 2.8 million have been up the tower to the observation deck.
Visitors have to wait several hours on weekends and more than an hour of weekdays to buy the 10,000 one-day passes available each day.
The one-year estimated number of visitors has been lifted to 6.4 million. Among other claims, the Skytree is the world’s highest free-stranding broadcasting tower at 634m.