Commentary Magazine


Two Collapses

Japan, according to Thursday’s New York Times, is in “disarray.” Its government, rocked by a series of resignations, has fallen apart. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, in office for only a year, checked himself into a hospital for stress after announcing his intent to step down. The country may be on the verge of a historic transfer of power: the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed the country almost continuously for a half century, looks exhausted after its crushing defeat in elections at the end of July. There will undoubtedly be a period of extended infighting, even after a new prime minister is finally selected. The financial community seems to think the stock market will fall and the economy will stumble. Foreign investors look as if they will flee. The outlook for Japan is grim.

The country’s prospects may be even darker than that. Yuichi Yamamoto, a Tokyo blogger, thinks Japan has already collapsed. The old system has failed, he notes, and the nation resembles the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. If he’s right, then the only reason the Japanese aren’t surrendering to neighboring China is because they’re too moribund to raise the white flag.

The Chinese, in comparison, look full of vim and vigor. They are also heading to a political transition. The so-called Fourth Generation leadership, led by General Secretary Hu Jintao, is beginning to select the Fifth. The Communist Party will hold its elaborately staged 17th Congress next month. When the last speech is finished to great applause—as such speeches inevitably are—we will know the lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee and thus be able to guess who is in the running to succeed the inscrutable Hu at the 18th Congress, scheduled for five years from now.

Although their governments are completely different in structure, both Japan and China will pick their next leaders in backroom deals arranged by heads of factions wielding immense power. Both governing systems are rotten in their own ways, and both are fragile. The only difference is that the breakdown of Japan’s “1955 System”—yes, it’s that old—is taking place in public view and change will eventually come at the ballot box. In China, the Communist Party will not give up power without the loss of even more life.

So Japan only looks like it’s failing. We are seeing the regeneration of politics in Japanese society as the old is reluctantly making way for the new. In China, the transition to the next form of governance—coming soon—will not be as smooth.