Thinking about Japanese democracy

With the Upper House elections now a week away, it is worthwhile to step back and think about Japan’s political system. At least that’s what I did recently, reading Bradley Richardson’s Japanese Democracy: Power, Coordination, and Performance — this month’s recommended book.

Published in 1997, Richardson’s book is obviously not the place to go for analysis of the latest developments in the Japanese political system. Rather his book is useful for his elaborate illustration of what is enduring in postwar Japanese politics. How is power distributed in the political system? How do actors reconcile clashing interests? What role for special interests? Political parties? Bureaucrats? Richardson provides a thorough portrait of the 1955 system, and with the LDP reverting to old ways, perhaps his book might be becoming more current by the day.

My biggest problem with it is that Richardson spends the book demolishing a straw man. He conceived the book as an argument against the idea, popular among polemicists in the 1980s and early 1990s, of a monolithic Japan, Inc. in which bureaucrats, the LDP, and big business collaborated to formulate policy that would make Japan “number one.” While that idea may have gained popular currency at one time, enough academics — Richardson’s audience, for this is an academic book — had done work illustrating the various ways in which Japanese politics were more pluralistic than commonly thought. As such, Richardson wastes plenty of ink explaining the straw man of a top-down, monolithic, “undemocratic” Japan and then demolishing it, when he would have been better off documenting the problems with Japanese democracy as he describes it (more on this later).

The thrust of his argument is that although the long, uninterrupted rule of the LDP made Japan appear to be less than democratic, the reality is that at each stage in the policy making process the LDP dominance was challenged and the party was forced to compromise (and even with the LDP there were, and are, considerable divisions that frustrate efforts to impose policy top-down).

For our purposes, the most useful chapter in this book is probably the second chapter, “Political Culture and Electoral Behavior.” With scores of data breaking down Japanese voting patterns throughout the postwar period, Richardson provides an excellent look at how Japanese voting behavior has changed and become more unpredictable, concluding that there is considerably more to how the Japanese vote than economic actors lining up behind different parties, especially as Japan has urbanized. His discussion of “political alienation” in Japanese political culture particularly resonates for us watching this Upper House election campaign, with the two major parties both struggling to overcome strong negative perceptions among voters. His section on mobilizing Japanese voters is also useful, supplementing and updating the description of Japanese campaigning found in Gerald Curtis’s landmark study Election Campaigning Japanese Style.

Meanwhile, one table — “Cosmopolitanism Versus Parochialism in Japanese Political culture” — suggests that the LDP may really be in trouble next week, with Mainichi finding the DPJ leading the LDP 31% to 21%. Why? Because according to Richardson’s data, only 29% of voters surveyed said they voted on the basis of the candidate in Upper House elections, as opposed to 49% saying Lower House elections and 57% saying Prefectural Assembly elections. Of the 29%, slightly above-average percentages were found among farmers and those living in rural areas (as opposed to urban areas). In the years since Richardson compiled that data, I have to imagine that that figure might be even lower as party identification has fallen. All of which leads me to wonder if we might be witnessing the beginning of a new, more competitive era in Japanese politics (or perhaps it began earlier but had been obscured by Prime Minister Koizumi, and is now returning in his wake).

The most interesting thing about this book to me, however, is what’s missing. Namely, the phrase “liberal democracy” does not appear outside of being part of the name of that impeccably liberal organization, the Liberal Democratic Party. It seems that the absence of liberalism would be worthy of comment, but Richardson is silent on this score. The differences between liberal democracy and plain, old democracy (or illiberal democracy or whatever other variety of democracy imaginable) are substantial, and if Richardson had taken his argument in this direction this book could have made a valuable contribution to discussion about democratization. It is this absence of liberalism — which for our purposes can be thought of as the expression of the individual citizen and his or her rights in politics — that makes Japanese politics problematic, especially when American advocates of democratization try to use the US occupation of Japan as an example of successful democratization (not to mention when the Japanese government talks about democracy promotion; I don’t think this is what most people have in mind). In fact, Richardson’s “bargained distributive” democratic Japan owes much to a style of social organization that existed in prewar Japan. For you see, it is groups that matters in Japanese democracy, even as elections are apparently decided on the basis of personality. The mechanism has worked to resolve differences between parties, interest groups, businesses, and government ministries, and the individual has been forced into the background.

This is not meant to be taken as criticism, but I still find that the absence of liberalism in Japan is not easily explained. Richardson indirectly points to that absence, but does not get any closer to giving a convincing account of why it’s the case. Is it culture? Political culture? “Sticky” institutions? Education?

This is not merely an academic question. With politicians struggling to figure out how to make Japan a dynamic economy in which individuals “can challenge again and again,” answering the question of why Japan is not a particularly liberal democracy can help predict whether and how efforts to reform the Japanese economy along more individualistic, dynamic lines can succeed.

(I will pick up this thread in my next post.)

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