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The spirit behind Japanese cohesion

by Jeff Kingston

Building Democracy in Japan, by Mary Alice Haddad. Cambridge University Press, 2012, 270 pp., $20.34 (paperback)

Mary Haddad seeks to refute those non-Japanese scholars who are dismissive of Japanese democracy because it doesn’t measure up to western standards. She argues that they overlook and marginalize the consequences of everyday actions and grassroots dynamism and fail to appreciate the distinctive ways in which democracy has flowered in Japan.

Perhaps, but this hardly seems the most propitious time to publish a book on the vibrancy of Japanese democracy and how local developments are sparking massive changes in national politics.

“While Building Democracy” makes a convincing case about scholarly bias, its not only outsiders who are disappointed in Japanese democracy. Public opinion polls show that the Japanese public is also dismissive of their politicians and consider Japanese democracy dysfunctional according to local standards. Post-3/11 discourse in Japan reveals considerable contempt for politicians and their prioritizing party interests over promoting recovery in Tohoku. The national government has also appeared deaf in listening to local voices about recovery efforts and nuclear energy.

The central and local governments have derailed referendum initiatives on nuclear power precisely because they believe this is far too an important decision to leave up to the people. The recent decision by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to restart nuclear reactors ignored polls showing overwhelming opposition driven by concerns that the lessons of Fukushima are being ignored and safety is still being shortchanged. The recent Diet investigation into the Fukushima meltdowns suggests that the earthquake damaged cooling pipes before the tsunami hit, meaning that all of Japan’s reactors are vulnerable and require retrofitting. This raises questions about the government’s hasty decision to restart the Oi reactors even though they met only 20 out of 30 safety guidelines. The powerful nuclear village exercised its veto power over energy policy, one that calls into question Haddad’s glowing portrayal of Japanese democracy. On the other hand, the large demonstrations involving tens of thousands of citizens outside the prime minister’s office and in Yoyogi Park show that the spirit of democracy in Japan remains alive and well.

Haddad argues that “Japanese democracy has found ways to combine liberal democratic as well as indigenous political institutions, values, and practices into a coherent political system that is simultaneously democratic and Japanese.” She writes about “a dynamic tension between democratic and indigenous political values” suggesting these have been increasingly harmonized in the early 21st century. She notes that Japanese democracy is infused with Confucian values such as the emphasis on harmony, hierarchy and propriety, but is no less democratic for that. The author argues that culture is not a causal agent, but rather a context that shapes how democracy evolves.

How do nations reconcile their traditional political practices and norms with democratic ways and institutions?

Haddad focuses on the actions of individual leaders and their civil and local government organizations. She suggests that the gathering momentum in Japan’s democratization is due to a generational tipping point as, “gradual value changes created by the rise of the new democratically educated generation led to slow changes in practices on the ground in government and civil society organizations.”

Her argument is interesting, but also raises concerns about the possible consequences of the recently enacted patriotic education legislation and how this may impact evolving democratic values.

The Democratic Party of Japan landslide victory in 2009 raised expectations that have gone largely unfulfilled.

Haddad, like many others, overstates the “sweeping changes to long-standing political institutions” and buys into the regime shift analysis that asserts the DPJ tamed the bureaucracy. Recent Diet battles over issues such as taxes, nuclear energy and social welfare reform suggest that bureaucratic prerogatives remain largely impervious to political theatrics.

WikiLeaks reveals that Japan’s diplomatic corps betrayed former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in negotiations with the United States over the fate of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, while Prime Minister Noda is often portrayed as a finance ministry flunky in pushing through the consumption tax increase and abandoning social welfare reforms.

Haddad argues that grassroots initiatives by traditional community-based organizations are having national repercussions. In her view, critics of Japanese democracy err in overlooking the democratizing role of community groups such as neighborhood associations, gender and age-related organizations and social service organizations. She concludes that community organizations are reshaping the relationship between citizens and the state by cultivating civic engagement and propagating liberal values while also maintaining core Japanese values.

Examining gender and democracy, Haddad finds that women have more access, but less power. Drawing on a fascinating set of interviews with four women, she finds that democracy has been emancipating in many respects even if it has not led to significant policy reforms aimed at reducing various disparities that disadvantage women. She concludes, “It may be that gendered perspectives on policy issues are less salient than they used to be.”

I imagine other women might have a different view just as many Japanese might quarrel with the Japan that emerges from these pages. In my view, this book is well worth reading because it brings lofty discussions into the trenches where democracy is embraced and contested. In the process, the author draws our attention to the communities and networks that are the basis of Japan’s remarkable cohesion.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan