09/22/2008 - With international financial markets in turmoil, it was not surprising that the selection of Taro Aso as the new leader of Japan's long-time ruling party played out against a backdrop of national apprehensiveness and pessimism. Yet even if international financial markets had not been in turmoil, it would have been suprising if Monday's selection had been framed by anything other than a backdrop of national apprehensiveness and pessimism.
The country's most recent prime minister, Yasuo Fukada, resigned after less than a year, driven from office by rock-bottom approval ratings as was his similarly short-termed predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Now the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan almost continuously since its creation in 1955, is hoping that its next choice of a prime minister will recapture the popularity enjoyed by Junichiro Koizumi, the popular LDP leader widely credited with reinvigorating Japan's economy after he took office in 2001.
And, indeed, Japan's economy has performed quite impressively in recent years. While China's fast growth has captured the headlines, Japan's people continue to enjoy a world-class standard of living. Its Gross Domestic Product is topped only by that of the United States and while the U.S. runs a mammoth deficit (upward of $700 billion a year) in its account balance with the rest of the world, Japan continues to run a hefty surplus, topped last year only by China and Germany.
Moreover, as the Economist magazine recently observed, while America's average GDP growth over the last five years outpaced Japan's (2.9% vs. 2.1%), thanks to its low birth and immigration rates, Japan's GDP per capita has outpaced that of both the U.S. and Germany. As the Economist notes, "contrary to the popular pessimism about Japan's economy, it has actually enjoyed the biggest gain in average income among the big three rich economies."
Judging from the findings of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, however, the country's relative prosperity has not been reflected in the perceptions of its people. For example, while satisfaction with the direction in which their country is headed has risen from a rock bottom 12% since 2002, fewer than one-in-four (23%) among the Japanese public said they were satisfied with the country's direction in last spring's survey. And while dissatisfaction with their country's direction has risen in some other developed countries, in the 2008 poll only in the U.S. (70%) and France (71%) did levels approach the 74% recorded in Japan.
Read the full report A New Leader for a Chronically Gloomy Japan on the Pew Research Center Web site.