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Japan quietly seeks global leadership niches

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But Japan's cultural dynamism stands in sharp contrast to its domestic political and dip- lomatic profile – one that hampers Japan's ability to wield clout in more traditional spheres of influence.

That's something Ichiro Asahina, an idealistic and animated 30-something official with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, hopes to change.

After a stint at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Asahina concluded that Japan's bureaucracy, long the destination for the best and brightest, was failing to help blaze a path out of Japan's domestic economic and political troubles.

He and like-minded colleagues started brainstorming how best to nudge change within Kasumigaseki, Japan's ministerial hub. In 2005, Project K, as the group dubbed itself, ratcheted things up – publishing a book that pitched mission statements, a national strategy office, and other reforms to help ministries become more dynamic and open to frank discussion. They developed an acronym – PEATH, for peace, environment, art, technology, and human resources – to describe where the group, which now claims some 50 members, thought Japan could be most influential.

Their activism proved a magnet for criticism – and plaudits. "Things are moving toward change," Asahina asserts, noting that their tome sold a surprising 10,000 copies. "Many Japanese young people want a stronger role for Japan in the world – we think Japan can do a lot for the world's prosperity."

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