Friday, January 9, 2009

"It's the institutions" (Noah Smith)

Hi! First, of course, to introduce myself. My name is Noah Smith, and I'm an economics PhD student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (specialty: urban economics and macroeconomics). Between college and graduate school I lived in Osaka, Japan for 2.5 years, from 2003-2006, where I worked as an editor and also a research assistant at Osaka University in Suita. I've been interested in Japanese politics, economics, and society for a while now, so I was happy when Tobias asked me to be a guest contributor.

Tobias's primary focus is on Japan's electoral politics and foreign policy, two areas about which I know relatively little. Like Tobias and many here, I'm eagerly awaiting the shape of a Japanese political "realignment" that I think must be coming soon; the pressure is building inexorably. But I think there's a big question that should be on our minds: If and when that realignment occurs, how will the victors — the DPJ or some new party or coalition — use their mandate to change Japan?

That is the question I want to try to answer.

True political revolutions bring not just a change in the style of management, but reforms to the institutions that shape the day-to-day workings of a society. Economists have long studied the importance of institutions in developing countries (see Dani Rodrik and Daron Acemoglu for example), but I see no reason why they should not be of crucial importance in rich countries as well. If we look at Japan's history, we find that its periods of greatest advancement — the Meiji and Taisho periods, in particular — involved big, sweeping changes to the institutions that governed Japan's economy and society. Those changes befell not just the institutions most commonly studied by economists — the electoral system, courts, public schools, and the bureaucracy — but social institutions like religions and the family. And, of course, it included the military, an institution whose importance would grow to encompass nearly all of Japanese life during the 1930s, only to vanish almost completely after World War II.

Today, Japan faces the problems of the twenty-first century with institutions that, in large part, were developed in the nineteenth and early and mid twentieth centuries. As challenges shift, institutions must keep up — but, as economists often note, institutions are "sticky." They don't like to change. Which is why the coming post-LDP political realignment is such an important moment: it will give Japan's leaders what is probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revamp many of Japan's institutions.

How should Japan's institutions change?

Effective institutions are a mix of what worked in the past and what seems wise for the future. Japan needs a political system that gives people more confidence in the leaders they elect and the parties to which those leaders belong. It needs a court system that is more participatory, and that elevates the rule of law above informal patronage- and status-based relationships. It needs a bureaucracy less corrupted by conflicts of interest. It needs universities that are more independently funded and more focused on research and undergraduate education. It needs religious organizations to take more active roles in building communities and providing social services like child care. It needs families that have enough time to spend together, where fathers are not separated from their wives and children by the demands of work.

If the party and leaders who take power after Japan's "realignment" can make these changes, I think Japan will be one of the world's leading nations in the twenty-first century, as it was in the twentieth.

Of course, that's just my opinion and my guess. But in the end, opinions and guesses are the driving force behind political change. I hope that mine, combined with what modest expertise I possess, can add to the discussion here at Observing Japan.

- Noah Smith

8 comments:

Janne Morén said...

Hi, and welcome!

Interesting first take. I have a few reactions to it (well, of course; I wouldn't be posting otherwise).

First, assuming that DPJ wins an election, I'm pretty sure the first order of the day will not be changing Japan, but a fairly rapid dissolution of the political structure. DPJ is a marriage of convenience to an even greater degree than the LDP, and I see a distinct possibility that politics here will devolve into the kind of revolving coalitions you have in Italy for instance. Expect to see the next ten years with the political world in a state of churning chaos, with little time or inclination to actually grapple with issues outside the political sphere. And as Italy's example shows, there's no reason for it to stay at ten years only.

"It needs universities that are more independently funded and more focused on research and undergraduate education."

As opposed to the current focus of ..what, exactly? Is there a major university pickle-farming industry here I don't know about? If you mean reforming the academic power structure so it doesn't give disproportionate influence to a small number of academic and research leaders, and change to a more merit-based rather than patronage-based system then I'm with you all the way.


"It needs religious organizations to take more active roles in building communities and providing social services like child care."

No, it doesn't. You're trying to transplant a particular organization from a culture where it fits great to a culture where it doesn't fit at all. In the US, religious organizations are a deeply integral part of the social fabric, and the vast majority are religious. Japan is more like Sweden in this regard, with most people not actively religious and the organizations have little day-to-day relevance for people.

If you want to transplant a social organization from the outside, you'd find a better match with something like the Scandinavian safety-net systems.


"It needs families that have enough time to spend together, where fathers are not separated from their wives and children by the demands of work."

And I need a pony. No, sorry, that's a bit trite. But while I agree that work demands are too onerous here, and that it is bad for families, its not really the time that is the main problem. There's other countries with even longer working hours after all, and those ridiculously long work weeks you hear about here are after all only suffered by a comparative minority of career professionals.

The larger problem lies in things you brought up, like lack of access to good, inexpensive day care, lack of opportunity for women to keep their career even with children, lack of things like paternal leave and sick leave for children. And when you have two working parents you don't need to work as long and as hard to make ends meet.


"If the party and leaders who take power after Japan's "realignment" can make these changes, I think Japan will be one of the world's leading nations in the twenty-first century, as it was in the twentieth."

Assuming, as I said above, that the party/parties and leaders don't set up a ten-year long circular firing squad. I'm not holding my breath on that one.

MTC said...

"It needs religious organizations to take more active roles in building communities and providing social services like child care."

You are kidding, right? Where do you think most private group childcare facilities are located? And what do think the chōkai and its rural equivalents are?

Noah said...

MTC:

I've seen one or two Christian day care centers, and I've heard of some co-ops that use Buddhist temples to provide day care, but from what I've seen it's pretty few and far between.

Do you have info on Buddhist day care centers? And do you know if any Shinto organizations offer day care services at all? I'd be interested to know.

Anonymous said...

Most of the "yochien" and "hoikuen" in Japan are run through Buddhist temples or other organizations. There are a million "yochien" guide books out there in Japanese.

MTC said...

Noah -

Buddhist temples have long been the dominant hosts of the childcare business in the rural areas. Hence the jungle gym, the merry-go-round and the swing set inside many temple precints.

Noah said...

MTC & Anonymous - Thanks much. I will definitely look into this. The scarcity of nonprofit private daycare that I observed and read about may be partially a function of the decline of support for Buddhism in Japan. The high urbanization rate may also play a big role.

Anonymous said...

Welcome Noah

Janne
I'm with on the religious front. It simply wont wash here, different culture. In the sense that Japanese are not "faith based" and conduct their whole life's as Americans on their religious faith.

As for Universities, again, concur. When you compare some of the basic facts it is very illuminating.

US and UK universities, for example, use about 5~15% of the student fees to pay for the establishment of the Uni. In Japan it is between 60~80%.
The top 20 universities in the world, only one is Japanese. Of the top 50 only 2 are Japanese.

Universities in Japan are ostensibly seen to be more of a "cultural" pursuit rather than an educational one.

Why do you think companies such as Honda/Toyota etc do so well?..not because of their employees university, but because of their vast R&D departments. A large portion of this type of research is generally farmed out to Universities in the US and UK. That is where uni's get their funding from, not students. It then broadens the appeal and attracts better Professors too, and so on. But that is merit based, again, somewhat of an anathema in Japan.

If the number of students in Japan falls, so will many of the universities, as their main source of funding is removed.

Kajira2 said...

I've always thought being Japanese was the only religion that mattered in this country.

But seriously, the "institution" that needs shaking up is the "general public". Why should the nation's leadership submit to institutional reorganization when the general public has no real political power, let alone organization?

What will it take to get the public off the sidelines and into the game? Or, given this nation's history and culture, is a clean break from the feudal past too much to expect?