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To embrace political renewal or cling to continuity

by Roger Pulvers

Every four years Americans want to believe they can reinvent themselves. Elections for the presidency offer them the opportunity, as they faithfully see it, to renounce the past and “get this country moving again.”

Campaigns are quasireligious revival gatherings on a grand scale. That is why so much election rhetoric sounds as if it is coming straight off the top of the pulpit. By contrast, Japanese elections are mere formalities. The Japanese feel they neither want nor need reinvention of themselves or their national identity. Judging by the past century and a half, Japan politically reinvents itself about once every 50 years: in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) and after World War II.

Our day should, by all rights, be another opportunity. Circumstances are certainly ripe for a half-century reinvention. But like the next big Kanto earthquake, this major revival is quietly overdue. Last week in Counterpoint, I mentioned Drew Westen’s exhaustive analysis and dissection of the American electoral process, “The Political Brain.” Westen argues that Americans vote with their passions, on how they feel about the candidates, who unashamedly brandish their most idealistic hopes under the noses of the voters. In their campaign speeches, candidates quote lofty precepts and homilies of past presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (for Democrats) and Ronald Reagan (for Republicans). American voters respond to the rhetoric, not to the substance of the speeches. When a lady assured presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson that “every thinking person will be voting for you,” Stevenson apparently replied, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.”

Candidates in American elections are obliged to stress their patriotic credentials and their faith in God and His exclusive blessing over the 50 states. They must assure the public that the United States is the greatest country in the world (or, as Bill Clinton claimed, “in the history of mankind”) and will remain, under their administration, the most powerful. An election campaign is an emotional appeal to Middle America in which candidates position themselves as the voice of the middle against the “special interests” that would love to get their hands on the White House.

Japanese, however, distrust sweeping abstractions, as their rejection of Shinzo Abe’s “beautiful country” slogan attests. Religion plays little or no part in a Japanese election campaign, and any candidate who introduced so much as the whiff of faith into a campaign would look a fool. With the exception of far rightwing candidates, the sloganeering of the patriot, particularly when it is tied to military might, is absent from campaigns. This is a hangover from the war years. Japanese people overwhelmingly reject any military role for their country that smacks of aggression.

In the United States, many candidates present themselves as distrustful of Washington. They run as “outsiders.” This was especially the case for Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, but others, Clinton included, gained momentum for their campaign by posing as someone who was not part of the system (and, hence, able to renew and reinvent politics once in the White House). This is unthinkable in Japan. No Japanese purporting to be a prime minister would present themselves as an outsider or as someone spearheading an attack on Tokyo. Proving that you have clout in Tokyo and are a consummate insider, even if, like prime minister Kakuei Tanaka from the ’70s, you weren’t exactly part of the old-boy club, is what stands you in good stead in an election.

Japanese want a prime minister who knows the ropes; and having ties in Tokyo, if you will, is what gives you that knowledge. During elections, Americans claim that they are keen on learning candidates’ stands on “the issues.” Oh, I love this phrase, the issues! And what are the issues in the United States of America? They run the gamut from the economy, health care and foreign policy to guns, abortion and gay rights, to name a few. A candidate must take a stand on every single issue and appear firm and forthright.

In Japan, guns, abortion and gay rights are not even remote election issues. Japanese candidates, like their American counterparts, appeal to the emotions of the populace. But Japanese voters are wary of anything that sounds like an empty promise. They want their candidates to appear humble before them. Their “firm stands” must be prefaced with statements of intention like the following: “Kokumin no minasamagata no shinrai o ukenakereba naranai (We must gain the trust of the Japanese people)”; “Kokumin no minasama no rikai o motometai (I want Japanese people to understand [what I am on about])”; “Kokumin no kitai ni kotaetai (I want to respond to the expectations of the Japanese people).”

If George W. Bush had made these common Japanese sound bites the thrust of his campaign in 2000, he would have been sent packing to Texas on the back of a hanging chad. Americans seek renewal at election time; Japanese continuity. The Japanese people want to be reassured by their potential leaders that everything is going to be essentially the same. A comparison of the culture surrounding elections in America and Japan shows that the institutions, customs and trappings of democracy in the two countries vary widely; and that this is due, naturally, to the vast differences in the two countries’ history and society.

Creating a truly democratic nation may be a shared goal, but the definition and practices of democracy are not. The attempt to make this claim and force it on others — as contemporary America so conspicuously does — merely uses the language of idealism to mask the pursuit of the narrowest national and corporate interests.

George W. Bush told the electorate, before the mid-term 2006 election, “As you go to the polls, remember we’re at war. And if you want this country to do everything in its power to protect you, vote Republican.” The voters in that election rejected this glum exhortation and put a Democratic majority into the Senate. Perhaps this indicates that the presidential election of 2008 will be one of those rare occasions in the history of the country when genuine renewal and reinvention is possible.

As for Japan, it remains to be seen if the electorate will once again opt for continuity by giving its support to the Liberal Democratic Party that has ruled the nation for over 50 years, or if that rare moment will come when they’ll all say, “Shake it up, baby,” and the political lay of the land will change overnight. Keep your seismometers switched on.