Consensus or confrontation?

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The popular image in Japan is that Britain is a society governed by confrontation and that this has been the source of British failures. Japan, on the other hand, is a society where consensus prevails, and this has led to harmony and to economic success. The popular image is at best a caricature and many increasingly acknowledge this, but the Japanese belief that consensus is always better than confrontation needs to be questioned.

While confrontation has been damaging in labor relations in Britain, it has become much less prominent in recent years. Unions and employers in Britain have become much readier to seek mutually acceptable solutions than in the past, and strikes that used to damage the British economy are far less frequent. Indeed, the British labor-relations record is now among the best in Europe, despite or perhaps because of the comparatively greater flexibility of labor regulation in Britain than in Europe. Of course, there are still some pockets of imbecility, especially in nonprivatized industries such as the London subway system or the British postal system where unreconstructed Old Labor unionists exercise undue influence, but surely their days are numbered.

Political confrontation in Britain is often criticized by foreign observers who compare some of the antics in the House of Commons to that of unruly schoolchildren in a school playground. In fact, the present situation in Parliament is no worse than it used to be. Many of the antics can be written off as simply excessive exuberance intended for show.

The importance of confrontation in ensuring good government in Britain is symbolized by the fact that the chamber of the House of Commons is a rectangle with two opposing sides. It is not a semi-circle as are the two houses of the Japanese Diet and the U.S. Congress. The British Chamber is too small to provide seats for all members and this ensures an element of intimacy and informality in the proceedings belied by the British love of pomp and despite the frequent demands for order by the speaker.

The British love an argument, and in the British Parliament there really are debates. Set speeches are frowned upon except when a government minister is making a formal statement. Even then he is expected to give way at times to interruptions. An important criticism of the current Parliament is that the Labor Party’s majority is too large and too many of its members appear to prefer sycophancy to the leadership to exposure of government mistakes. Whatever his faults as a party leader, William Hague, the leader of the conservative opposition, has shown himself an able debater and has often forced Prime Minister Tony Blair onto the defensive. He learned the art of debate at school and university. Debating societies have an important role in British educational institutions. In Britain, being a good debater is a mark of distinction.

The British electoral system almost certainly gives too much power to the government, and the party whip system is often used to suppress criticism. Personally, I should like to see many more occasions on which members of Parliament vote in accordance with their conscience rather than in accordance with the dictates of their party leaders. The fact is that few things are as black and white as party politicians pretend they are. I would also like to see more consultation before policies are announced rather than after they have been criticized, often devastatingly, by the experts. If that means a little more consensus, that would be no bad thing for Britain, but I do not want to see argument and debate curbed or less outspoken.

It sometimes seems to me that the Japanese worship of consensus is more “tatemae” than “honne.” What does Japanese consensus mean in practice? In the Diet, if the government had a firm majority in both houses, government policies would be passed more quickly. No doubt for the sake of appearance, at least the opposition parties would be consulted and allowed their say. Perhaps a few minor concessions would be made, but these would be more token than real and would be intended to bolster the government’s appeal to the electorate.

Much is made in Japan of the democratic nature of the “bottom-up” system in the bureaucracy and in business. But the bottom-up system is not unique to Japan. Indeed, in any large organization there has to be considerable delegation, and much work, whether in the British civil service or in business, has to be on the bottom-up principle.

The “hanko” and “nemawashi” systems are often described as the most important elements in forming a Japanese-style consensus. But how real is the consultation process? And how many of those who stick their seal of approval on a paper really understand what it is all about, and, if they do understand and disagree, would be willing to stand up and assert their opposition when they know that their seniors or even a majority of their fellows have agreed to the proposal? Would they not be then considered the nail that sticks out, and will they not then be hammered down when, for instance, questions of promotion arise? Consensus politics and consensus business can soon become not the highest common factor but the lowest common denominator.

In Japanese ministries, so much time is spent providing often meaningless answers for ministers or senior officials to use in interpellations in the Diet, that little time can be given to resetting priorities. If cuts have to be made, the simple way to do this is to follow the principle of equal misery. How often do bureaucrats ask whether a certain program is really beneficial to Japan, or question whether it would not be better to ax that program and devote the resources to a more worthwhile project?

During the bubble years, Japanese firms over-invested in plant and facilities but also spent huge and unnecessary sums on such fripperies as golf-course memberships — which now have become of little or no value. How many Japanese executives who put their seals on such purchases questioned whether they made sense for the company or were in the interests of the shareholders? How many such investments remain carefully hidden in Japanese accounts and have not been realistically revalued, since this would show up, at the very least, errors of judgment? How many Japanese executives knew of the payoffs made to “sokaiya?” How many objected? If so what happened to them?

If seeking consensus means greater and wider consultation, then I am in favor of it, but if, as so often seems to be the case in Japan, it is simply a way of evading responsibility for bad decisions and ignoring the interests of the other stakeholders, including the shareholders, then I am against it.