Revolution from below

This article at Mainichi online, on ceremonies to commemorate Northern Territories Day, caught my eye for a couple reasons.

The first is that I can’t help but wonder if a push to resolve longstanding territorial disputes with Russia is driven by rising fears of abandonment in the government of Japan. Outside the alliance with the US, after all, Japan is short on reliable friends, and perhaps Abe reasons that, with this irksome issue resolved, Russia might be open to cooperation on initiatives in East Asia, especially regarding China (don’t forget about those Chinese migrants flooding into the Russian Far East). Russia, of course, is no substitute for the US in Japan’s foreign relations, but better relations with Moscow would at least somewhat mitigate a sense of isolation.

I found, however, that more interesting than the strategic reasons behind this campaign is the language used by Abe to promote this effort.

The territorial issue is a matter of national concern, and it is important for each person to be interested in the problem to mobilize efforts.

There, in one sentence, can be found the reason why Japan’s political system has proven so resistant to change, and points to the kind of change needed.

The Meiji Restoration looms large over the Japanese political system; both parties struggle to claim the mantle of the proper heir of the restoration’s legacy. But the Meiji Restoration was a top-down revolution, and the modern state to which it gave birth has been indelibly marked by its origins at the hands of the Meiji elite. Even after the “second opening” that was the US occupation of Japan, the outlines of the state shaped during the Meiji era remain. All the US did was change the content of the state, infusing it with a touch of New-Deal liberalism without destroying the fundamental character of the Meiji state: change would be managed and directed from above, by bureaucrats and their politician allies.

Accordingly, overriding national goals have had considerable resonance in Japan in the past, as in the 1960s, when rapid economic growth was the great national project that moved all.

All of this was supposed to have changed in the 1990s, when confidence in the bureaucracy collapsed following the bursting of the economic bubble, the mismanagement of economic recovery, the woeful response to the Hanshin earthquake and Aum subway attack in 1995, and so on. In place of bureaucrats, power was supposed to shift to politicians — and in some ways, it has. But that’s precisely the problem. Substituting politicians for bureaucrats without changing the way Japanese society thinks about policy and governance simply substitutes a new class of corruptible leaders for the old (cue The Who).

Hence the title of this post. Politicians’ appealing to the Meiji Restoration misses the point, which is that rather than have yet another top-down revolution, as Abe intends with his talk of dismantling the postwar regime, the Japanese people need to step up and claim the political system for themselves. Instead of talk of national goals about which “it is important for each person to be interested in the problem to mobilize efforts,” it is time that the elite step back and let the people learn to speak for themselves.

Anything short of that will simply invite the same problems with corruption and stagnation that Japan has experienced in the recent past. Politicians of all stripes may talk about dynamism, but a truly dynamic Japan will only emerge if the system opens up to competition in policy and politics, as well as economics, if the Japanese people claim leadership of society.

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