“First mover” is often associated with positive connotations. The first firm to enter a market with scale economies or network effects – such as operating systems or internet search – can benefit from sustainable competitive advantages. Nations that develop breakthrough military innovations – from the stirrup to stealth aircraft – enjoy a battlefield edge against potential adversaries. First-ever achievements like the Tale of Genji and Sputnik are celebrated as a matter of national status and pride.
However, being early also brings nontrivial challenges. Policy innovation, like innovation in the private sector, is a messy process requiring experimentation and many dead ends. Being early has important implications for how we understand and assess policymaking in contemporary Japan. The country faces unique challenges that might be called the “harbinger’s curse.” Even if Japanese policymakers achieve a measure of success in responding to novel challenges, they will appear incompetent and slow compared to their international peers. It is important to recognize and acknowledge this dimension when we assess contemporary Japanese policymaking.
In a recent article in the Japanese Journal of Political Science, I argued that Japan is often a harbinger state, which engages in the politics of particular issues prior to other countries. This makes Japan a compelling country for scholars to study: it offers an opportunity to develop new theories and conduct early research about issues that will eventually emerge elsewhere. Being early also has important implications for how we understand policymaking.
Even if Japanese policymakers achieve a measure of success, they will appear incompetent and slow compared to their international peers
The basic idea of Japan as a first mover is certainly not new. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan became the first non-Western country to industrialize and join the ranks of the great powers. This came with distinct challenges – among other things, adapting Western institutions and technologies in a new social and cultural context, gaining status and acceptance in an international system dominated by the West, and confronting racist hierarchies and white supremacy. Similarly, Japan’s postwar developmental state and industrial policy offered important lessons for other countries seeking to engineer rapid economic growth.
Japan’s era of miracle growth is now a thing of the past, but the country’s status as a harbinger remains as relevant as ever. The “lost decade” of the 1990s became a crucial source of lessons as policymakers across the world confronted deflationary financial crises of their own after 2008. Japan is at the forefront of demographic shifts that will have serious implications for economic growth, public finances, and the global balance of power. The country has also been compelled to respond proactively to the rise of China on account of its geographic proximity and sources of friction such as territorial and history disputes.
In 2007, the former president of the University of Tokyo, Komiyama Hiroshi, described Japan as a Kadai Senshinkoku, an advanced country in problem-management. This language has often been incorporated into subsequent Japanese public policymaking. More recently, journalists have described Japan as a “Country on the Frontlines” and observe “Japanification” as other countries belatedly encounter problems that initially appeared uniquely Japanese. Examining Japan today often helps us understand tomorrow’s challenges.
Japan is at the forefront of demographic shifts that will have serious implications for economic growth, public finances, and the global balance of power
However, being early can also be a curse. In a 2013 article, Hirofumi Takinami and I argued that Japan’s response to the 1990s financial crisis was affected by “first-mover disadvantage.” There are a variety of plausible explanations for the ineffective response to the crisis, such as macroeconomic policy mismanagement, institutional rigidities, and structural problems. However, Japanese policymakers also struggled because they confronted deflationary stagnation that could not be easily resolved using conventional policy tools. Japan’s policy innovations like quantitative easing were adopted only after a long period of policy experimentation and failure. In contrast, US financial authorities quickly implemented the same measures at large scale in 2008, explicitly drawing lessons from the Japanese experience.
Japan confronts a similar “harbinger’s curse” across several domains today. For example, Japan’s demographic transition to an aging society foreshadows analogous shifts elsewhere among many high-income countries and China. However, countries that grow old later will have the benefit of learning from Japan’s mistakes, selectively adopting solutions and innovations that demonstrate success. Japan does not have this luxury. The story is similar for social issues that appeared early in Japan – initially attributed to cultural idiosyncrasies and popularized with phrases like parasite single, hikikomori, soshokukei, kodokushi, kasoshuraku etc. – which have now emerged across a wide range of countries.
The harbinger’s curse presents a major challenge for Japan, but it can also be a source of opportunities. Being an early testing ground for innovation can confer economic advantages if Japanese firms get a head start in new markets with global reach. However, Japanese firms have a discouraging track record of “Galapagos” innovation – cutting-edge Japanese products often fail to expand beyond the domestic ecosystem and get wiped out once global competitors catch up. Japanese Galapagos keitai (Galapagos cell phones) were driven to near extinction by the iPhone and Android despite a formidable head start, and products like high-definition televisions, e-readers, and IC cards have followed similar trajectories. Reversing this track record will be crucial for Japan to turn its curse into a blessing.
Countries facing similar challenges will have the benefit of learning from Japan’s mistakes – a luxury that Japan itself did not have
There are similar opportunities in foreign policy. Japan has a long track record of promoting regional initiatives with a mixed record of success. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) can be counted as success stories, but there were many notable flops like the Asian Monetary Fund proposal and the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity. Japanese policymakers traditionally pursued quiet diplomacy and consensus-building behind the scenes rather than seeking to emphasize their country’s leadership.
In recent years, Japanese foreign policymaking has become more dynamic and proactive – initiatives like the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue have gained substantial international support and buy in. As countries across the global belatedly reorient their foreign policies around new realities in the Indo-Pacific, Japanese initiatives have increasingly attracted attention. This is in no small measure because Japan has been at the forefront of responding to geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts in the region, including the rise of China.
How Japan responds to the harbinger’s curse will influence the country’s position within the 21st century international order. Will Japanese firms occupy center stage in new and dynamic markets? Will Japanese policymakers exert domestic and international leadership in confronting consequential challenges? The stakes are high not only for Japan but also for others following closely in the country’s footsteps.
Phillip Y. Lipscy is professor in the department of political science at the University of Toronto and professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Tokyo. He is also director of the Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto. His research addresses substantive topics such as international cooperation, international organizations, the politics of energy and climate change, international relations of East Asia, and the politics of financial crises. He has also published extensively on Japanese politics and foreign policy. His website is http://www.lipscy.org/