Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why don't Japanese take to the streets?

The Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer has an op-ed in the IHT in which he argues that despite widespread pessimism among Japanese regarding their country's future, things may not be so bad. Basically he suggests that the DPJ may well be learning to get along with business elites and bureaucrats, Japan and the US may be rebuilding their relationship after a remarkably bad year for the alliance, and, finally, the Japanese people have not taken to the streets in opposition to their government.

I'm not sure I buy his argument, at least not entirely. His first two arguments are more or less acceptable, although I find little to praise in how the Kan government prevaricated and ultimately failed to lead on the issue. And I don't think Japan's foreign relations follow the "China down, US up" pattern Bremmer suggests — the Kan government is no less committed to fixing relations with China than it is committed to maintaining a healthy relationship with the US, consistent with the DPJ's position that Japan is not in a position to choose between the US and China.

What I'm interested in is Bremmer's argument about the relative stability of Japanese politics as measured by the lack of demonstrations, riots, and rallies with people carrying signs likening the country's leader to various twentieth-century dictators. In this superficial sense he's right: over the past two decades Japan has seen none of the upsurge in extra-parliamentary politics that one would expect a country in dire economic straits to experience. Bremmer's argument — that two decades of stagnation — is perfectly reasonable. It is difficult to see how a deflationary economy would lead people to take to the streets, particularly without the benefits cuts that have produced demonstrations and riots in Western Europe. 

Would Japanese continue to abstain from extra-parliamentary politics if, say, the Kan government pursued austerity with the same zeal as the Cameron government? And if they would continue to stay out of the streets, why? What's so different about Japan that the Japanese people seem content to express their dissatisfaction in public opinion polls and in the voting booth (which they have done regularly for decades, for despite the LDP's success in general elections there is a history of the LDP being punished in local and upper house elections)? I don't know the answer, and I certainly can't hope to come up with the answer in a blog post. However, the decline of Japanese extra-parliamentary politics since the 1960s, particularly compared with other rich democracies, is one of the more interesting puzzles in postwar Japanese politics and I don't think this puzzle has an obvious answer.

Is it political culture, for example the lack of an anti-government subculture like in the United States? If so, what changed since the 1960s? The decline in the kind of organizations that might facilitate collective action (student groups, unions, etc.)? The lack of the kind of welfare benefits that, when cut, can cause to demonstrations in defense of the status quo? The result of a half-century of LDP rule, which habituated citizens and interest groups to a certain approach to politics that left little room for public demonstrations? 

If Japan is in fact more stable than other rich democracies, it would be helpful to understand why, not least because if Japan were to pursue benefit cuts in order to shrink the deficit, it might enable us to predict whether Japanese politics will continue to enjoy "relative domestic tranquility."


Richard Green said...

I think the key is the lack of a catalyst, like pension or public service cuts in Europe, or Hu's death of racist sentiment in 1980s China. Without these specific issues for initial organisers to gather around, there's no catalyst for a broader movement which might gather miscellaneous disaffected or professional protesters. There just hasn't been one in Japan's last 20 years, particularly because state inertia. It's much harder to get worked up about a sin of omission than one of commission, particularly when your own self interest isn't at stake.

I don't buy a cultural explanation at all. Japan has such a rich history of assasinations and political violence, even if it hasn't been visible since the late 60s. I can't see that an absolutely foundational cultural change has occurred in that period

katiesjapanfiles said...

It is strange that very little anti-government demonstration in Japan. Though there certainly are anti-policy groups that take to the streets in large numbers. Perhaps the fact that many of these (that I hear about) are related to racial tension and attempts by the government at multi-culturalism are simply more inflammatory than inflation and foreign policy?

Maybe there are enough perceived 'enemies within' that the government is treated more like an unwelcome house guest.

Lionel W said...

agreed with Richard Green "It's much harder to get worked up about a sin of omission than one of commission"

If since 1990 there had been a succession of Japanese Prime Ministers and govts who had proactively dealt with the economic and systemic problems, then I have no doubt we'd see far greater political activism and protest in Japan, even if the country ended up much better off because of govt reforms

Unfortunately the Prime Minister I consistently hear my peers complain about is Junichiro Koizumi

Martin J Frid said...

But they do, is he not paying attention at all?

Farmers, consumers, co-ops, no-gmo activists...

Case in point, in Nagoya on October 10, more people took to the streets than 2 years ago in Bonn, at the Convention on Biological Diversity...

Tobias Harris said...


I've been thinking of linking to your post on the farmers as a rejoinder to Bremmer.

The question here is what does it mean for a country's politics to be stable or unstable. How do we measure stability?

Martin J Frid said...


Yes, the large demonstrations recently among farmers against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a very good example. A "catalyst" as Richard Green puts it.

Another case in point - 90,000 people in Okinawa protesting earlier this year against the US military bases.

Tobias Harris said...

I am reluctant to include Okinawa because Okinawan politics is to a considerable extent distinct from politics in the rest of the country, and its political culture is shaped by distinct factors. That being said, the degree to which Okinawans have used demonstrations and other forms of extra-parliamentary politics provide a means for thinking comparatively about the factors that shape contentious politics in Japan.

Fernando said...

Martin is right. In addition to the protests he mentioned, there have also been two demonstrations right in Tokyo against media bias in favor of prosecutors.

For footage of the Nov. 5 protest, see

No surprise that these kind of events don't get much mainstream coverage in Japan. But, from what I have read, this sentiment is not totally confined to the fringes.

balexp said...

In your third paragraph, you operationalized the stability variable according to "the lack of demonstrations, riots, and rallies". Martin offered empirical evidence on that variable. Also, if Okinawa is not to be included within the Japanese case, then is it a case unto itself? Strange methodology. For more empirical evidence, don't forget the Article 9 movement that saw 20,000 people show up for a conference on the topic in the spring of 2008.

Tobias Harris said...


For the sake of argument I assumed that Bremmer's point was right. And despite the evidence provided, I think a case could still be made that Japan has had fewer demonstrations/riots/etc. than, say, a selection of European democracies over the past twenty years [arbitrary scope condition]. We would have to develop a way of counting, but I think providing an absolute number would not be enough. We would also want to tabulate the number of casualties in riots, the value of property damage, estimates of the number of participants per capita, and so on. If this were anything other than a blog post and were the list of articles that I'd like to work on (oh, and that pesky dissertation) not already lengthy, I would gladly write it.

For now, another idea on the list I guess.

CEJ said...

Americans certainly don't protest very much. In fact their demonstrations are very much like the Japanese ones--staged for visuals, not spontaneous, and ineffective. They are often timed to distract from the 'burning' issues. The politics are largely inane.