Is Japan a democracy?
Yes, of course, obviously. Voters vote, demonstrators demonstrate, critics criticize. These are the vital signs, and they’re positive.
Just look at the government scrambling to blunt the charge of an anonymous blogger venting rage at being unable to get her child into day care. She’s a single mother earning a precarious living and she may have to quit her part-time job, a victim of the government’s failure to concern itself with the basic needs of its citizens.
Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s initial attempt to brush her off backfired. An aroused populace is demanding action, and action, with Upper House elections looming this summer, is suddenly on the government’s agenda. This is democracy in action. It’s very satisfying.
Doubts arise, however, all the same. There are anomalies that invite them. A one-party democracy seems an oxymoron. Opposition parties function after a fashion, but fleeting interludes aside — the lengthiest being the three-year span under Democratic Party of Japan leadership in 2009-2012 — the Liberal Democratic Party regime, all but unchallengeable for 60 years, remains so for the foreseeable future.
A second anomaly is a puzzling and persistent rift between the high support ratings enjoyed by the Abe administration since its inception in December 2012, and the marked unpopularity of its signature policies. It is one thing for peaceful citizens to submit to legislation they disapprove of, if they can’t change it. It is quite another for them to support the government responsible, as they consistently tell pollsters they do.
Earlier this month the Asahi Shimbun published the results of one of its own polls. They are baffling. Are they sinister too?
Question 1: “Do you support the Abe Cabinet?” Forty-four percent of 1,882 respondents do, 35 percent do not. This is hardly Abe-mania, but it’s solid. A leader registering 44 percent approval after three years in office might reasonably claim to be giving voters what they want, executing the people’s will.
But is he? Further down we read: “Do you feel the economy has recovered since the Abe administration took office?” No, say 76 percent; yes, say 17 percent.
“Do you think Abe’s economic policies have led to higher wages and more jobs?” No: 62 percent. Yes: 24 percent.
“Are you hopeful regarding Abe’s policies to encourage child-rearing?” No: 58 percent. Yes: 26 percent.
“Do you view Abe’s ambition to revise the Constitution in a positive light?” No: 49 percent. Yes: 38 percent.
“Do you think Abe’s nuclear power policy reflects the lessons learned from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster?” No: 60 percent. Yes: 23 percent.
So, yes — baffling. Why such firm support for a leader whose policies cut so sharply against the popular grain?
“Sinister” may be too strong a word, but when you pose the question that naturally arises — to wit, “What is there to like about a government leader whose policies you don’t like?” — you inevitably find yourself thinking, somewhat uneasily, about a point the business magazine President made earlier this year. The magazine contrasted the dismal failure of Abe’s first term in office in 2006-7 with the striking electoral success, so far, of his second. Its explanation, given the strong continuity between his policies then and now, centered on Abe’s mastery, this time around, of the art of image politics. He has learned to gesture, to make eye contact, to speak rhythmically and expressively, as opposed to woodenly while reading from notes. “Non-verbal communication” is the technical term, and it’s said to account for 70 percent of a speech’s effectiveness.
President sees nothing sinister in that — on the contrary, it advises we all study nonverbal communication in order to succeed in business — but the critical (or maybe merely anxiety-ridden) reader can hardly help seeing, or at least suspecting, that, at the political level, nonverbal communication is, purely and simply, the manipulation of public opinion, a more sinister term for which, if we want to get sinister about it, is “brainwashing.”
Earlier this month, as part of its commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and its attendant catastrophes (including the meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1), the Asahi offered two contrasting perspectives, one from documentary filmmaker Tomoko Kana, the other from Tokyo University political scientist Izuru Makihara.
Before the cataclysm, Kana says, “Many people thought along the lines of, ‘If the government says it, it must be true; the government will protect us.'” She noticed afterward an attitude shift to “We’d better think for ourselves.”
Suddenly, she says, “People who had never taken an interest in anything besides fashion were studying issues relating to nuclear power, demanding answers from officials about the (radioactive) content of school lunches and so on.”
Makihara’s take is different, though not necessarily conflicting. In uncertain times, he observes, people gravitate to leaders who can project strength. The uncertainty of our own time is certain — it may be the only certain thing about it. The “Lehman Shock,” the rise of China, the 2011 earthquake, international terrorism, all suggest a world spinning — if not spun — out of control. And at Japan’s helm stands Abe, declaring firmly and repeatedly, “This way” — his way — “is the only way.” He has used the phrase with reference to his controversial Abenomics economic recovery strategy, his controversial state secrets law, his controversial plan to revise the Constitution, his controversial handling of the military base issue in Okinawa, and his controversial nuclear restart initiatives. It’s risky — it sounds arrogant and authoritarian. It might alienate those whom Kana says are newly learning to think for themselves. But so far Abe seems to be reading the public mood correctly. People may not like his policies but, broadly speaking, they like the way he pushes them — like a bold and determined leader who knows what he’s doing.
Does he? Time will tell. Do we? Have Abe’s supporters adequately taken the measure of the man and his government? Resolute leadership is good up to a point — but up to which point? How much confident exercise of power can democracy stand? Is the recent threat by communications minister Sanae Takaichi to annul the licenses of broadcasters whose coverage she deems unfair an assault on democracy, or is it an example of the bold leadership we crave in uncertain times?
Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is on sale now.