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Disparate values may still a democracy make

by Roger Pulvers

US President Lyndon B. Johnson used to say of people, “Once you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Such a blunt, corporeal philosophy may have worked for LBJ, but how do politicians capture the hearts and minds of the populace in Japan?

This week and for the next two, I will be considering the emotional and intellectual context of politics in the United States and Japan, and what motivates citizens of those countries to choose one type of candidate over another. What is the effect of political speeches, slogans and sound bites? And why compare the two democracies in the first place?

The reason for the comparison stems from two things.

On the one hand, Americans are always talking about the universal values shared by democracies — but do the Japanese people really embrace these “universal” values?

On the other hand, Japanese are constantly pointing out the uniqueness of their societal makeup — but is it truly unique? And if the society and culture are different from elsewhere, does this mean that democratic values cherished in other countries are not amenable to Japanese reality?

A new book has been published which analyzes and dissects American political culture from the standpoint of its emotional parameters. The book is titled “The Political Brain” (PublicAffairs, 2007), by Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. However, the book’s subtitle, “The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” sets the theme: That voters make decisions on the basis of their feelings; that passion for people and ideas drives them to choose one candidate over another.

There is no need to look further than the meteoric (quick, full of fire and about to plunge to Earth) career of George W. Bush, the shogun of smear, for proof of this particular pudding. He and his retinue — from Cheney to Rove, from Rumsfeld to Rice — have invariably employed the language of Jeffersonian idealism to justify their self-serving skullduggery at home and abroad.

Buzzwords and phrases

“Freedom,” “liberty,” “protect the American people,” “the right to this and the right to that” . . . we all know the script. Deliver such buzzwords and phrases while looking resolutely ahead, fire up passions with religious cliches and political ideal-speak . . . and the hearts and minds of Americans are yours.

But what of Japan? How do Japanese politicians persuade the public that they have the right stuff to lead the nation?

Westen’s main thesis is that the political person is not dispassionate. For the U.S., he’s no doubt right. But in Japan I believe the electorate is dispassionate when it comes to political issues. Not only that, they are also conspicuously disinterested in what Americans call “the big issues,” and are disinclined to get involved personally. Generally speaking, Japanese people do not discuss politics among themselves, save for the odd comment about personalities or the fate of an individual. And the rhetoric of Japanese politics is, by and large, kept low key to suit this active public disconcern.

Japanese politicians do not often resort to hyperbolic, idealistic harangues because they know the public is not interested in political ideals. Politicians here comprise a professional class of dour, earnest managers, and they are expected to run the country in the way senior executives run a company. As long as their hypocrisy is not exposed through any gross personal misstep, they are left alone to go about their business unimpeded by electoral whims.

This, perhaps, is the most fundamental difference between the American electorate and that in Japan. Americans are expected to have clear views and strong opinions on a variety of political and social issues. Their ability to articulate them is valued. You have to be able to “put in your 2-cents-worth” for democracy. American politics abhors a vacuum because a vacuum is silent — and silence to U.S. voters indicates a lack of commitment to public duty as a citizen.

In contrast, Japanese culture cultivates silence. Being noncommittal is one of the strongest stands a citizen can take in this country, as it accords an aura of thoughtfulness. Not having an opinion is a statement in itself. In Japan, the majority really is silent!

This is why the Japanese electorate is often characterized as being “cynical” — but if they are cynical, then their cynicism is born of apathy rather than design. Look at the language of the citizen in the street who is interviewed by chance on television.

“I wish [the leaders] would do something about the old-age problem.” “I am hoping and expecting that the rise of crime will be stopped.” The common sight accompanying such statements is of a man or woman smiling and using the phrase shite itadakitai (I would like [them] to do something). They speak in the passive voice in more ways than one.

Citizens as masters

Americans usually don’t ask; they demand. They, like most citizens in a Western democracy, believe that sovereignty resides in them and that they are, ultimately, the masters of their public servants. Japanese democracy, however, has not developed within this tradition of individualism and personal rights. Sovereignty, like power, still flows down. The leaders may notionally derive their power from the ballot box, but the authority to change things resides on high with “them” — not down below with “us.”

Is the discrepancy between the humble request of the Japanese citizen and the forthright demand of the Westerner merely a semantic difference of style? I don’t think so.

The point is that Japanese people believe the business of politics is out of their hands. Just as the practice of medicine is something reserved for doctors, they regard politics as being the preserve of politicians, who are a class unto themselves.

The key word here is “class.” Japanese politicians form an elite class of people, and recruitment to their ranks is highly restricted, though a little less so recently than in the past.

Of course there are dynasties in American politics, too, from the Adamses to the Bushes and Kennedys, with a number in between. But it’s nothing like Japan. Most political leaders in this country count lineage as almost a sine qua non of attainment of high office. Scions start the race laps ahead of parvenus: Japanese politics is the nepotist’s delight.

Compare this to the rags-to-riches, anybody-can-be-president ideal of America.

There is no reason why any two democracies should be alike, and I believe that Japan has pioneered and is developing an Asian model. There is also no reason to assume that one system is better than the other. If anything, the Japanese form of democracy, not the American one, may emerge this century as a model for other Asian countries.

In the coming two weeks, I will return to that model as it exists in Japan, and the hearts and minds that underpin and inspire it.