Japan’s ‘helplessness’ crisis


I invited professor Gerry Stoker of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom to speak at a symposium in September on the theme of how to overcome people’s disenchantment with democratic political systems. He is far from alone. A number of British political scientists in recent years have published a series of books discussing the paradoxes of democratic political systems.

The paradoxes of democratic political systems can be roughly summarized as follows: Democracy spread across the globe after the collapse of one-party rule in the former Soviet bloc countries in the early 1990s. Democratization made headway in East Asia, Latin America and more recently in the Middle East. As if in inverse proportion to such progress, however, people in democratic nations are becoming increasingly disenchanted with politics and are drenched in a feeling of powerlessness.

When asked why British political scholars are paying attention to such a phenomenon, Stoker’s answer was that the scholars themselves became disenchanted after witnessing what eventually happened to the Labour administration that swept to power in 1997. I myself observed how Tony Blair took office with great fanfare when I was studying at Oxford University. That experience led me to make various proposals back home to turn the Democratic Party of Japan into a political force like New Labour and enable a change of government in Japan. After witnessing the final result of the DPJ-led change of government, I felt the same sentiment as Stoker and the other British academics.

In Japan’s case, the 2009 change of government was greeted with a sense of excitement so great that people’s disappointment with the ultimate outcome was all the more grave. In reality, the DPJ administration achieved some major policy turnarounds in the fields of social security and decentralization. It also paved the way for the possible eventual phaseout of nuclear power generation.

But despite such achievements the DPJ was labeled as a party lacking in governance capability —an accusation that overshadowed policy issues — and the DPJ government suffered a crushing defeat in last year’s Lower House election.

Moreover, the negative image of DPJ rule swept away any idealistic thinking among Japanese voters that they could change policies and create a better society by changing the political landscape.

What we’re seeing in Japan today appears to have gone well beyond disenchantment. A strange euphoria, in which people do not seem to care about the illnesses or contradictions in society, has swept the country.

A survey carried out by Asahi Shimbun in early October is most revealing. It showed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet has an approval rating of 56 percent, roughly unchanged from a month earlier. Fifty-three percent of those who approve of him stated that the biggest reason why is because they think his policies are good. Yet many of these poll respondents went on to disagree with a number of his specific policies.

For example, just 51 percent supported the prime minister’s decision to raise the consumption tax. And 56 percent opposed abolition of the special corporate tax to fund 3/11 reconstruction efforts — more than double the percentage of respondents who supported the abolishment. Only 21 percent believed that Abe’s policies to support businesses will help improve workers’ employment or wages, while 63 percent did not believe so.

As much as 76 percent did not believe in the prime minister’s statement that the situation at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is “under control.” When asked what impact Japan’s hosting of the 2020 summer Olympics would have on disaster reconstruction efforts, 46 percent said they believed that the reconstruction efforts would be put on the back burner — far more than the 37 percent who thought that the successful Olympic bid would add momentum to reconstruction.

According to the survey, people do not have any illusion that Abe’s business-oriented economic policies will benefit their own lives. They see through the words of government leaders and realize that the government remains helpless in coping with the aftermath of the nuclear mess. They know that they have to bear the burden of the consumption tax hike, which is coupled with cuts in corporate taxation, and yet support the Abe administration.

They know that the nation’s top leader is telling lies — irrespective of whether he is doing so intentionally or not. But this knowledge does not lead them to criticize the prime minister.

People think that Japan’s “national interests” lie somewhere not related to their own lives They are resigned to think that for the sake of such interests, they have no other choice but to shoulder an increased burden while big businesses receive more benefits. This is the logic under which they accept policies that bring them disadvantages yet voice their support for the Abe administration.

In a healthy democratic political system, an administration that has won the people’s mandate in an election carries out its promises and then the voters evaluate its achievements in deciding whether to vote or not to vote again for the administration. But this cycle has been broken in Japan. The current “euphoria” may last as long as the effects of “Abenomics” continue — or even until Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics.

At a time when most Japanese people feel powerless toward politics, the Abe administration is trying to pursue major policy turnarounds — changing the government’s interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense, pushing for a bill to protect government secrets that will lead to restriction of the freedom of the press, a full liberalization of agricultural trade under the Trans-Pacific Partnership scheme — things that previous LDP administrations could not achieve.

Even as there is no end in sight to the nuclear woes at the Fukushima plant, the Abe government is taking steps toward the restart of other idled nuclear power plants. These are all major issues that could influence the very fate of the nation — and should be hotly debated in the Diet and in the media. However, Japan’s political world and media remain eerily calm. This is extraordinary and abnormal.

The biggest crisis in Japan’s democracy today is that people have given up even imagining alternative ways of politics. Doing so does not require tens of thousands of people demonstrating on the street or taking part in massive rallies. Healthy political tension could develop if just one out of every four people who have expressed support for the Abe administration in opinion surveys start to say otherwise. But for that to happen, the opposition parties and the media need to make vigilant efforts to point out the problems in the Abe government.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.

  • There is powerlessness because everyone knows the outcome is basically the same, no matter who your vote for.

    So the front is democracy, but the choice is between statist Party A, B, or C. And then, the result is really no different than what was escaped from in the first place; just a slower progression to totalitarianism, sanctioned by “vote” instead of an iron fist.

    • zer0_0zor0

      But just considering one point of difference between the DJP and Abe shows that all decisions are not the same. I do not support the LDP, generally speaking, but under Noda, the former Finance Ministry official with close ties to the finance sector, the exchange rate of the yen soared, hurting everyone, most of all the broad-based consumer constituency that support the change that put the DJP into power in the first place.

      Abe has succeeded in reversing the image of the LDP as the party of the corrupt wealthy by simply reversing the pernicious policy of the Noda administration toward the yen. Noda, conversely, served the interests of the international investor class, which seems to comprise a group of people that pays taxes nowhere and is beholden to the interest of no state, if not opposed to the interests of the nation state in general.

      So I’m not sure “statist” is the most accurate way to characterize the interests being served by a given administration, especially with the increasing reach of globalized financial markets.

      • The deliberate inflation of the yen is theft. It is is yet another tax. How we pay for it is through higher prices and decreased buying power.

        The politicians all serve some “class” or some “interest” other than the individual and his right to what he has earned. They all sanction the use of force to secure their desired ends, whatever those ends happen to be. As one rights violation paves the way for another, they all move inevitably towards the same goal, they just begin in different places. Image may play a role in how people feel about whom they vote for and those who rule over them, but it doesn’t change the end game, nor does it change the means to get there: coercion.

        If politicians were not in the legal position to give out special interest favors, all of this corruption would end, and no amount of lobbying and money changing could do a damn thing about it.

        The interests that benefit from the system as it is are focused on power. The people themselves sanction the system by moral approval, they wish to see a different end, but no other different end is possible.

        More concretely, everyone believes that altruism is a moral good, so they enact it by varying degrees by force through government. People are made to sacrifice for the good of their brothers. But where there are people making sacrifices, (being forced to pay into a system to make life easier for others, to subsidized housing, welfare, social security and other such things) there are those who wish to collect those sacrifices. Those who wish to collect are not just the ever growing class of dependents that this kind of system nurtures, it is those who wish there to be further dependents so the vote of those dependents may maintain the power of the status quo. Who is going to vote away the collection of goodies that makes their life easier? It is the destruction of a democracy. It is the creation of a cultural environment where only political pull matters. What is left is the form and shape of a democracy, the political process that makes everyone feel more comfortable as the noose tightens around their neck.

        A democracy without consistent respect for individual rights is a totalitarian state in the making.

  • Jeffrey

    Everyone has opinions, they are free and in most even nominally democratic countries you are allowed to express them openly. In Japan, however, putting your opinions into action is likely to be met with mostly apathy and enough official resistance so that nothing changes.

    As for your second point, was that a send-up of language or . . . ?

  • Christopher-trier

    Abe has the support he does largely because he is seen as doing something, taking action, taking initiative and implementing radical changes — albeit not too radical. For better or worse, something is happening in the government at last and Japan has for the first time since Koizuimi a prime minister it largely can tolerate for an extended period of time. Some of Abe’s policies will work, some will fail. As for the LDP, for its faults it does know how to play politics. The DPJ are much like the Green Party in Germany. A respectable protest vote which on occasion gets heard politically, but no more than that. Give them power and they don’t know how to use it or how to govern — much like the failure of the Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Yes, but not in the USA, for example, where there are partisan media outlets for the respective parties that are not beholden to the party in office when it happens to be the other party.