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.

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