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.”