The Paris-Tokyo syndrome

Andrew Stevens
7 June 2007

Japan rarely affords comparison with other countries, though inevitable efforts are often attempted in relation to neighbouring east Asian societies and other Group of Eight (G8) liberal democracies. The putative influence of shared "east Asian values" - acceptance of a strong state's authority, political gerontocracy, or social collectivism, for example - places the country in the context of neighbouring China and South Korea; while the island monarchy governed by a parliamentary democracy often invites comparisons with distant Britain. A less obvious connection is that Italy and Japan have the largest number of Communist Party members and elected representatives in the G8, though Italian pragmatism here contrasts with the staid mindset of their Asian comrades.

However, the election of Nicholas Sarkozy in France and the emerging interest in each other on the part of the two right-leaning governments, expressed by "Sarko's" claims towards "affinity with Japan" ahead of the first bilateral talks between him and fellow G8 newcomer Shinzo Abe, which took place on the sidelines of this week's summit, not to mention the forthcoming elevation of an overtly pro-China British prime minister in the form of Gordon Brown, invite more concrete analysis.

Andrew Stevens is an adviser for a Japanese research centre based in London and also political editor of www.CityMayors.com

He writes in a personal capacity

Also by Andrew Stevens in openDemocracy:

"Japan's fifty-year political itch"
(10 August 2005)

"Japan's first presidential election" (12 September 2005)

"The Koizumi legacy and Japan's future"
(21 September 2006)At first glance, it can seem as if France and Japan - bonds between cinéphiles, academics and tourists (including those Japanese visitors who succumb to a distressful "Paris syndrome") notwithstanding - exist in a state of mutual indifference. At a political level too, France's forty years of quasi-independence from the United States-centric western military alliances have placed it in a different plane from a Japan still intimately (if with increasing reluctance) tied to a defence relationship with the US.

Where foreign-policy interests have begun to overlap is over Japan's efforts to address its energy dependency, its interest in exploring the possibility of a more independent military stance, and a new emphasis - evident in Taro Aso's tenure as foreign minister - in diplomacy in the middle east as a means of demonstrating Japan's unique role in world affairs (particularly in a region where it is historically untainted).

Parallel worlds

There are more tangible overlaps in the respective apparatus of the two states and the cultures of their post-war governing centre-right leaderships. During the Meiji reconstruction, Japan's expansionism was fuelled by the wholesale adoption of European modes and practice. The existence of prefectures - a Meiji-era borrowing - is another obvious distinctly common feature, though Japan's have been directly elected only since the introduction of the US-written post-1945 constitution.

The comparison even works by default into the modern age: Japan's combination of a nominally republican system of government alongside the imperial household (imposed by a reluctant administrator-occupier in the form of General MacArthur) is echoed in the fuzzy compromise over the distribution of authority (including a quasi-monarchical president) in the French fifth republic.

In the 1980s, it became briefly fashionable to see affinities between the longstanding single-party hegemony of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party and Britain's Conservative Party (a tendency reinforced by the populist nationalism of the then respective leaders, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Margaret Thatcher). A comparison could equally be made between a France and a Japan where the political elite has cemented its rule by obtaining the support of civil servants, and where the existence of expansive public services and a pervasive state has (even for economic liberals) long been unquestioned.

Moreover, Japan's upper chamber of parliament (the House of Councillors) is as full of former mayors and regional governors as France's senate, though unlike in republican France they must resign before seeking national office. Japan's elected mayors, like their French counterparts, truly lead their communities and act as an integral and valued part of the political system; compared to the fractious relations in other multi-tiered systems of government, Japan's local, regional and national politicians act in a spirit of national purpose akin to an informal version of the grands électeurs which bind the various elected elements of the French state.

Nicolas Sarkozy's liberal economic rhetoric has not yet been tested by reality, but a shift in this direction would invite comparisons between the new French president and Shinzo Abe's flamboyant reformist predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Here, however, the link fails to work, as Abe - a political scientist raised in a family of LDP grandees, lacking in charisma and evident popular or even much intra-party appeal - bears little similarity to either man.

Koizumi's identification of Japan's public-sector dependency as a key obstacle in overcoming a decade of sluggish economic performance, and his ability to persuade the public of this, is echoed in Sarkozy's political project far more than in Abe's. In addition, Abe's early tests of leadership offer a further point of contrast. His first cabinet was notable for its allocation of ministries to factional interests and time-servers rather than ambitiously reform-minded legislators; Sarkozy's relish in taking an axe to the Chirac era and confounding the left (by his appointment of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister and in Rachida Dati as justice minister in particular) shows a different political touch.

A second failure was the refusal to comment on sexist remarks by his own health minister, suggesting an attitude of reverence or at least apprehension towards the old guard. A third was the suicide on 28 May 2007 of agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka - implicated in an expenses scandal - which followed the prime minister's attempt to ride out the scandal (Alain Juppé's shameless rehabilitation is another example of how the French do it differently).

A converging trend

But could friendship be built on having similar enemies? Abe and Sarkozy have both been painted as dangerous nationalists and authoritarians presiding over drifts to the right, and the former's allies would surely have noted Sarkozy's proclamation to an election-eve rally that he wanted to "talk about the nation without being called a nationalist".

The Japanese constitution, the sixtieth anniversary of whose enactment (on 3 May) was celebrated three days before the decisive round of France's presidential election, is where the parallels on this issue seem closest. The document - in particular Article 9, which forbids the use of armed forces in combat, is ripe for the first tabled reform; a referendum bill on revising its pacifist provisions was passed in both houses of parliament in April and May 2007.

No one would begrudge the Japanese the right to amend their constitution, not least because of the obvious flaws in the drafting in English and subsequent translation. The problem for many is the role of the elderly but still influential Nakasone in this process; he has spearheaded new thinking on the Japanese constitution on behalf of the LDP and chaired an influential panel of current and former legislators.

The worry is increased by the panel's proposed preamble - declaring that "the Emperor is the symbol of the unified public" and that Japan shall "protect its independence through the solidarity of the public who love the nation" - which might strike many as an exercise in constitutional authoritarianism. This is not mere alarmism: LDP lawmakers have openly discussed curbing the "excessive freedoms" of the Japanese people under the existing document, and the panel's draft commands that they would "be obliged to exercise their rights in ways that would not go against the public interest and public order."

If this sounds more Singaporean than the Rights of Man, perhaps it is not all that different from Sarkozy's pre-election battle-cry to liquidate the "legacy of May 1968" as the long-awaited key to shaking France out of its own declinisme.

Britain and Japan have spent the last decade and more in a state of mutual admiration. Now, the prospect of a new government headed by Gordon Brown that preaches the discipline of work and looks to develop economic ties with rising China (a process already begun under the foreign office's reorientation towards the "Bric" countries) suggests the potential at least of a change of emphasis. The French government's comment on the European Union embargo on arms exports to China - that it was "important to hear Japan's stance" - is a small but significant indicator that Shinzo Abe and Nicolas Sarkozy might have some grounds to develop a special relationship of their own.

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