Sunday, April 8, 2007

The heart of the matter

What Japan Thinks published the results of a survey by the Cabinet Office of what the Japanese people think about their society.

In part two, posted here, the survey found that approximately 75% of respondents answered in the negative to the question "do you think the government takes into consideration its citizens' opinions and thoughts." The answers to the subsequent question -- "how do you think the government could most take into consideration its citizens' opinions and thoughts" -- show, however, that there is little consensus on how to change this state of affairs.

These questions get to the crux of Japan's political problem. As I argued in this post, genuine political change will not come about as a result of a new series of top-down grand reforms, a twenty-first century sequel of the Meiji Restoration. Japanese politics will change only if it ceases to be a spectator sport, in which the governing class talks amongst itself while the Japanese people look on, occasionally excited, occasionally agitated, but mostly bored. The tantalizing promise of Koizumi was that he might break the cycle by getting the Japanese people to take an active interest in how their country is governed; that promise was, of course, unrealized.

But the problem remains. Popular discontent with political parties and politicians of all stripes remains high, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions from Sunday's local election results. I strongly doubt whether any political party will be able to channel that discontent into a popular movement capable of taking power (in a manner similar to Hosokawa Morihiro's path to power in 1993). More than a decade later, the Japanese public seems more cynical, more worn out, and less likely to embrace a reformist alternative to the LDP uncritically.

In other words, the Japanese people will have to take power themselves, by voicing their discontent through protest votes (and protests), by running for office themselves or supporting other citizen candidates, and by demanding openness and accountability from governments local, prefectural, and national. At every turn Japan's governing elite need to be reminded that their mandate comes from the Japanese people and that they must ultimately be accountable to the Japanese people. Democratic governance requires a constant conversation between government and governed; it's time the Japanese people took their proper place in that conversation.


Lionel Dersot said...

But Tobias, what are the conditions for protest to happen? Is the average Japanese citizen equipped with a minimum of dialectical capacity, will and conscience to argue?

Japan Observer said...

No, I don't think so.

I should have emphasized my pessimism about Japan's political future, because I don't think Japanese citizens are educated to be citizens -- you're absolutely right. A revolution from below is unlikely because people are incapable of articulating their misgivings about the political system.

And I don't think Abe's education reforms are going to do anything to change that.

David said...

Unfortunately (or fortunately) Japan is not the only country experiencing this phenomenon.

"Popular discontent with political parties and politicians of all stripes" is occuring in many (if not the majority) of the rich and industrialized countries of the world.

I'm not sure whether or not the Japanese are "incapable of articulating their misgivings about the political system".

However, I tend to believe they haven't had a good enough reason to start getting agitated.

Just like in all the other rich states out-there, there's plenty of food, shelter, money, freedom, vices, creature-comforts and so on.

To the average citizen, what is the incentive for demanding political change?

Of course, I'm not an expert in this sort-of-thing, it's just my opinion.

(By the way, great blog!)


David said...

Oh! I forgot to ask...

What are your thoughts on that "baby hatch" project?

Just curious.


Japan Observer said...

David, thank you for reading.

I think the Japanese people have had plenty of reason to be agitated, which is why you've been hearing reports of the death of the LDP for decades (all of which have, of course, been greatly exaggerated).

Japan's political system was, in effect, designed to extract rents and divide them among sectors and constituencies that support the LDP. You see this kind of behavior in all democracies, but I would argue that Japan's political system has been uniquely tainted by rent seeking.

It was not an issue as long as Japan continued to grow -- it ensured social peace in a time of plenty. But as soon as Japan faced real problems, Japan's governing class and the political system they operated have proven utterly incapable of making a break with the past and forging a political system designed to consider Japan's national interests and formulate policy with the country's interests as a whole in mind.

There have been clear signs of a vague discontent with the political system, particularly rampant corruption, but vague discontent has not solidified into serious calls for change.

Japan, of course, is not alone in having a political system and a governing class unable to meet the challenges of the present. I think France may be the closest analog, although Lionel may have more to say on that.

David said...

Thanks for responding. I am by no means an expert on Japan's political system, so I appreciate your insight.

Are you saying, if Japan was to enjoy another period of growth (if things got really good again) the system would once again function properly?


Japan Observer said...

No -- the old system will not work even with growth, because the challenges faced by Japan have changed.

The old 1955 system was perfect for a period of relatively little (or gradual) change. The international environment was stable, and economic growth, while substantial, was managed the windfall spread around the country via pork barrel spending.

The old ways won't work anymore. Japan's population is aging and shrinking, its position in the region is being undermined by the emergence of China, and the long-term prospects of the US-Japan security relationship are unclear. These challenges demand creative, flexible policymaking with a view to Japan's national interests.

Political reform is necessary if Japan is to retain power and influence.