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13 - Japan's Triple Tsunami

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2015

Kishore Mahbubani
Affiliation:
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policies
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Summary

INTRODUCTION

Over 20 years ago, in the fall of 1992, I published an article in Foreign Policy entitled “Japan Adrift”. As a friend of Japan, I warned that the post-Cold War era had created an uncomfortable geopolitical environment for Japan. I urged Japan to engage in fresh thinking and to change course. Sadly, my warnings were not heeded. Now, as a result of the failure to adapt over the past 20 years, Japan faces an even more difficult geopolitical environment. The goal of this essay is simple and clear: to save Japan from another 20 years of geopolitical drift.

In 1992, I began my essay with a Japanese folktale. Let me repeat it here: “A Japanese folktale tells of a young boy who lives in a coastal rice-farming village. One autumn morning, walking alone to work in the fields, he sees, to his horror, an approaching tsunami, which he knows will destroy the village. Knowing that he has no time to run down the hill to warn the villagers, he sets the rice fields on fire, sure that the desire to save their crops will draw all the villagers up the hill. The precious rice fields are sacrificed, but the villagers are saved from the tsunami” (Mahbubani 2005, p. 124). In this essay, I may make some inflammatory comments, but I hope my Japanese friends will understand that my goal is to help Japan.

In 2014, Japan will have to deal with not one tsunami but three. These three different tsunami will collide with one another and aggravate Japan's difficulties. The first tsunami is geopolitical. The new balance of power is working against Japan's interests. The second tsunami is political. At a time when Japan needs unified political leadership to cope with dramatic new challenges, the Japanese political system has never been more divided. The third tsunami is demographic. Japan has one of the fastest ageing populations in the entire world. Hence its relative “weight” in the international system will steadily decline. All these three great challenges will be discussed in detail in this paper.

Nonetheless, the conclusion of this paper is optimistic. Japan is not without options as it tries to steer a course in the 21st century.

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ASEAN-Japan Relations , pp. 266 - 283
Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2013

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