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