Politics in Japan Series #2. The history and culture surrounding politics in Japanese democracy.

-#2: The history and culture surrounding politics in Japanese democracy.

Written by Michiyo Terasaki, Crossing Borders National Coordinator for Japan.

Japanese democracy began gradually during the Meiji period (1868-1912) when Japan was struggling diplomatically with foreign countries and needed to be recognized as democratic. There were some civil movements during those years, but the democracy back then was based on imperial sovereignty, and full voting rights for men and women first came in 1947, after WWⅡ, and brought by the United States, meaning it is an imported custom from overseas, applied by government in a top-down way, and not something which citizens won through struggle like in many western countries.

Japan is very good at adapting and enjoying imported culture from overseas, in its own way, so we celebrate Christmas with a fancy illuminated tree and city, chicken and cake even though most Japanese people are not Christian, and you can also enjoy food from almost all over the world in Tokyo, with some Japanese-taste adjustment. But in terms of democracy, we haven’t been able to build our own, which means we haven’t changed the way of following one authority, and although the right to resist exists, it is not widely exercised.

For example, if you think about the fact that the Japanese main party (the LDP, Liberal Democratic Party) has been dominating for more than the 50 years since WW2 (there are only a few exceptions: 1993-6 and 2009-12). In a way, you might be able to say that LDP dominancy in the parliament has been working for Japan in an economical sense so far, but since Japan has been facing the “Lost-decades” of economic decline for almost 30 years now, people have started to realize that Japan needs to change.

But a multi-party system in Japan will not come easily. Looking at the recent case in 2009, whereby the second biggest party, DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan), became a major party and the balance of power between LDP and DPJ finally changed. It has been widely acknowledged for a long time that one of the reasons that the Japanese government can’t make major policy changes is due to the excessive strength of bureaucracy, and DPJ ran a big campaign to change this and got a lot of support. But what happened was that the DPJ didn’t have enough experience and skill to implement new policy, and unfortunately due to a lack of cooperation by bureaucrats this ended in a lot of confusion. This incident meant that Japanese citizens experienced trauma and disappointment in voting for a main opposition party.

When LDP came back into power in 2012, they responded to the issue of the power that bureaucrats had by setting up the Cabinet Personnel Management Agency, so now the top bureaucrats are essentially selected by the government. This strengthened LDP’s hold on power a lot more.

As you can see, Japanese democracy is still in the phase of power-struggle, and is far from a stable and healthy parliamentary government. Political apathy is rife amongst Japanese citizens, and confusion is one of the principal reasons for this.

Political apathy has been a particularly serious issue in Japan among young people; statistics[1] show that the voting rate for people in their 20’s, for the upper house election last July, was 32.8%. That election was the first time that the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18, with the government widely campaigning for young people to take part in the election.

But why didn’t they go to vote? One of the reasons could be that they don’t have much opportunity to have political conversations at home, at school and among friends, so there is little interest in forming opinions. Therefore, it is hard for them to believe that their one vote might have power and influence. Another explanation could be that young people are practical, in that they don’t act unless they are sure what they can get.  In fact, some statistics show[2] that about 60% of young people feel they don’t have any power within the political decision-making process.

The reason Japanese people do not have the custom of talking about politics at home (or in general) could be, I think, related to the fact that Japanese democracy is something “imported”; a concept from overseas, and not something citizens fought for over many years. It has therefore not reached the level of all citizens, especially at home. Moreover, originally Japan is a hierarchical culture and society, so speaking up with your opinion towards the society or authority is not considered as a traditional or polite thing to do.

There still are some demonstrations, but the number itself and participants are limited, and lower compare with other countries. Moreover, the term “Political activist” in Japan sounds dangerous (at least to me) and gives off ideas of ultra-right/left wing driving propaganda trucks with a lot of noise, but is generally, not common or familiar to most people.

Japanese people become interested in politics usually when they are adults, and government policies start to affect their lives to some extent, such as in social welfare and tax. But in most of the cases their interest and knowledge are limited, and the media plays an important role in affecting them.

[1] http://www.soumu.go.jp/senkyo/senkyo_s/news/sonota/nendaibetu/

[2] http://www8.cao.go.jp/youth/english/survey/2013/pdf/part2-2.pdf

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