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Japan’s deficit in visionary thinking

by John Edward Philips

Special To The Japan Times

Two failed attempts to replace Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party raise the question of why opposition parties are so unsuccessful in Japan. The Japan Socialist Party and the Democratic Party of Japan have collapsed in the polls and become almost irrelevant after failed attempts to govern. The recent publication of a comparative global study of public policy research organizations, better known as think tanks, may provide some answers.

Think tanks are important for democracies because they help bring expert opinion to policy issues and help develop academic research into policy alternatives that can help solve problems. They are part of civil society, a necessary part of the infrastructure of democracy. They are an interface between experts and policy-makers. Their importance has grown in the last decades as policymakers and the general public have increased need for useful and reliable information for formulating policies that can meet the increasingly difficult demands of a complex world that has problems more difficult to understand than problems faced before.

An example from the United States would be the way the health care reform eventually known as Obamacare originated in a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, as an alternative to the Clinton administration’s proposed reform, better known as Hillarycare.

First enacted as Romneycare in Massachusetts, the reform, a mandate to purchase health insurance without a public option being provided by the government, was eventually adopted at the national level, not without controversy, ironically largely from Republicans. Without alternative policies from think tanks, though, it is unlikely that any health care reform would have passed.

Think tanks are not only conservative organizations. The Institute for Policy Studies, founded in the 1960s, has formulated alternative policies for Congressional Representatives in the Progressive Caucus and works on the left of the U.S. political spectrum.

Other important U.S. think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, are bipartisan and work with conservatives and liberals alike to develop policies. The existence of many independent think tanks ensures that whichever party is in power in the United States, the opposition will be supplied with alternative ideas so that they will be a credible force to take over the government and change its course.

The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania recently studied think tanks around the world and published their findings. Thousands of think tanks from hundreds of countries were evaluated. Journalists, scholars, private donors and others helped evaluate and rank think tanks.

For a developed country, Japan’s think tanks were underrepresented. While the United States had 1,823 think tanks, and the European Union 1,457, Japan had only 108. Thus Japan, with over a third of U.S. GDP and over a fourth of the U.S. population, had less than a tenth of the think tanks. Italy, with about half the population of Japan and far lower GDP, had only one fewer think tank than Japan. China, with only a slightly larger GDP, had 429, almost four times the number in Japan.

Likewise Japanese think tanks had difficulty breaking into the top ranks worldwide. The highest ranked Japanese think tank in the study, the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIAA), was ranked 16th worldwide in a virtual tie with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The next ranked Japanese think tank was the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI), which was ranked 32nd.

No other Japanese think tanks made the top 100 think tanks worldwide.

Both are highly regarded think tanks. The JIAA is an independent think tank founded by the legendary Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru (1878-1967) with many corporations and individual members providing support. The ADBI is not an independent think tank, but was founded and financed by the governments of Japan, Australia and South Korea. It could better be thought of as an international wing of the bureaucracy than as an independent policy research organization.

The same is true of other think tanks in Japan, which often function as parastatals in relation to the Japanese bureaucracy, rather than as independent organizations. These think tanks are not enough to develop adequate independent policies for the needs of contemporary Japan, and the number, level and size of the remaining think tanks in Japan is scandalously low.

Clearly Japanese opposition parties’ failures to develop alternatives to LDP policies has nothing to do with an intrinsic inability of Japanese to think differently, but is institutional and could be overcome with effort. There have been glimmers in this direction as when, several years ago, the education ministry sponsored an international conference on area studies, promising that Japan would move into the vacuum created by the decline in area studies in the U.S.

Little was done, and nothing like the network of Foreign Language and Area Studies centers created in the U.S. during the Cold War was created in Japan, even on a smaller scale. Neither was anything like a Japanese Fulbright Program created.

Often when I point this out to Japanese I have been indignantly informed that Japan participates in the Fulbright Program. It seems that many Japanese do not even realize that it is an American program run with nearly every other country in the world, not just Japan. The small size and number of Japanese think tanks and the resultant inability to develop alternative policies affects not only international affairs, but domestic affairs as well.

The nuclear question continues to generate more heat than light, and will do so until competing think tanks develop policy alternatives that can be debated by the public and in the Diet. Critical problems such as the collapsing birthrate and tension with most of Japan’s neighbors can only be solved if several different policy proposals are developed, proposed and debated.

Given the centralized nature of the Japanese state, this cannot be done locally but must rather be done nationally, by think tanks that develop alternative policy proposals that can be discussed and debated nationally, not only in the Diet and the media but also by ordinary Japanese on the streets and in their living rooms and workplaces.

The problem of funding is, of course, crucial, but with increasing tax incentives for nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations it can be overcome.

Surely if a visionary like Shigeru Yoshida can found an internationally respected think tank, independent of the government and the bureaucracy, Japan can produce other visionaries who can create more public policy research organizations that could provide policy alternatives for the future of Japan. Without them there may be little Japanese future to provide for.

John Edward Philips is a professor in the Department of International Society, College of Humanities, Hirosaki University.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.north1 Scott North

    To envision a better future requires first that one critique the present, which is also an implicit criticism of the past. Japan’s cultural habit, however, is to put a lid on things that smell bad. Those who try to raise criticisms or point out flaws have a hard time finding an audience. The general attitude seems to be, “If your experience was bad, why should we listen to you?” There are surely visionaries in Japan, but to gain an audience they must couch their views in acceptable terms, which is pretty much the same thing as endorsing the status quo. Tax funds are probably available for that.

  • http://twitter.com/Zetzunai Zetzunai

    What’s Japan’s biggest problem? It’s pretty simple: the country is owned and run by a small group of conservative geezers who speak no language other than Japanese and know nothing about the wider world. The majority of these men can be found in the ministries. They form the unelected government of Japan. These are the clowns who, for instance, sit on the Mombusho and preside over an English education system that produces graduates who place LAST in the world on the TOEFL IBT speaking section. That’s right: last. These are the clowns who brought you Fukushima Dai-ichi, Monju and Tokaimura. These are the clowns who have turned Japan from one of the world’s most beautiful countries into one of its ugliest, through the tools of concrete, dams, retaining walls and tetrapods.

    The ministers’ partners in crime are the large companies that insist on hiring graduates in mass hiring ceremonies, rather than adopting flexible hiring practices like those of major companies elsewhere in the world. The result is an educational system geared entirely to getting hired straight out of a good school by a large company. For the vast majority of students who fail at this goal, they are ruined by the process. All of their spirit and creativity is beaten out of them (the same, of course, can be said of those who succeed in getting hired by the big companies, but at least they get lifetime employment). The educational system is designed to serve the needs of large companies, not the people of the country. Look at the passive, risk-averse, uncreative graduates of Japan’s educational system. What good will they do the country? What good will they do themselves?

    It really doesn’t matter. Nothing can change this. In a short time, Korean, China, Singapore and Hong Kong will eat Japan for lunch and spit out the bones. Japan has created the perfect perpetual motion machine: a system which produces passive slaves who are trained not to rock the boat. It works until it is too old to work, or gets taken over or bought by a more dynamic and healthy culture. That’s all there is too it.

    The proof of just how well Japan’s educational system works at mid-educating the people is the Shukan Josei article referenced above: Japan is right now in full-spectrum collapse, with an aging population, radioactive food, an unelected government, vast national debt etc, and the author of an article on Japan’s biggest problems honestly believes that poor bicycle manners and hungry wild boar merit inclusion in the list of Japan’s top 10 problems. That, right there, tells you how badly they have been done in by their government and their educational system.

  • トム ( Tom )

    Welcome to the results of bad education…. Although we have been there for years… Maybe we should ask the Nederlands for an update

    • nobuo takamura

      Can I ask an update story of the Nederlands more? Some hints would be enough to enhance Japanese education in a sense, though it is sure to take much more time for it to emerge as one model.

      • トム ( Tom )

        The current educastional model is a failing… And the Monbuka can’t change it… The system worked after 1950s but the same system won’t work now…

        A big problem is the educators… Many teachers don’t become better teachers over the years. Teachers in Japan of today are the teachers of yesterday… Will more restrictions and pressor of being better teachers… The Japanese (Ganbaru) *Just go to work everyday from 7:30 am till 10:30 pm and … You become a good teacher because of (Ganbaru)… This is pointless
        But getting back to the topic..

        The Unversity system has failed many students… Thus making bad educators. Who only learn how to become teachers while working at the schools. But they never learn how to become different from the older teachers…. Thus making worst students…

        Unversties need to actually teach students how to think and learn…

        This same system is making the leaders of the Japanese Goverment .. Company leaders…
        Etc etc…

        Now Japanese companies are trying to hire foreigners to lead companies… Just because they can think…

        I might have a bad view of thinks … But from what I have learned, read, seen and feel from living in Japan the past 6 years…. I feel alot of this is true..