Democracy in Japan
Democracy in Japan-1
November 11, 2005
I've long wondered if Japan represents a new form of 1.25-party democracy, or if it is maturing into a two-party system. A third alternative, of course, is that Japan is a peculiar example of a non-democratic, but free, society. That, too, requires some thought.
The achievements of Japan's economy and society are stunning. The society is safer, cleaner, healthier, and in some respects more sophisticated than any other. Crime rates are rock bottom, while the performance of the economy in achieving low poverty, top-notch products, and high-tech innovation, are the envy of the world. The country has some sordid attributes, though: perhaps the most opaque economy that could possibly exist, with organized crime acting as a sort of informal adjunct central planning (to enforce mandates the WTO bars MITI or the Finance Ministry from implementing).
The Japanese voters have for some years exhibited an enthusiasm for convincing reforms of the financial system, and small wonder: the latter is prone to funding costly boondoggles to "create jobs," but also to reward the powerful construction lobby and push economic stimulus. The latter, in turn, hides the fact that large swathes of the Japanese economy have essentially withered, but will not die.
After the war, the US and British occupational authorities in the developed countries devised different schemes for former fascist countries to prevent the re-emergence of fascist parties. In Germany, they devised two parallel systems of electing members to the lower house of parliament, thereby forcing strong parties to form alliances with weak ones. In Japan, they created numerous districts that had multiple representatives (this system, while altered in the 1990's, survives; moreover, the party divisions have jelled), and merged the two main non-Communist, non-militarist parties: the Liberal and the Democratic Parties.
Here, there was less a concern that the militarists would return; the constitution not only restricted any potential re-armament, but Japan was dotted with US military bases of several services. The militarist movement did not have deep roots; it was tied closely to the actual military, which in turn was both a new institution for Japan (as opposed to the samurai caste) and a massive state enterprise. With the raison d'etre of the military gone, the Japanese did not have a context for far right ideology; the concept had no organic relation to Japanese identity. On the other hand, Communism did represent a very serious danger to American policymakers in Japan, in large masure because it held out the hope of collective redemption of the Japanese in the eyes of their Asian brethren.
So while the Italian and German constitutions were designed to prevent the emergence of a single powerful party, the Japanese constitution ensured it. With the multi-seat constituency, the LDP could campaign against itself: contrary to intuition, this was an advantage. The top two vote-getters won the two seats for that constituency, which meant the LDP had to fight for both 1st and 2nd place, stimulating an internal evolution of political alliances. In the firms, workers were obligated to campaign for their employers' men, and party politics took on many of the coercive, all-pervasive, issue-free characteristics of a totalitarian state. Yet Japanese citizens enjoyed freedom from state-imposed persecution (aside from the company-inflicted coercion mentioned). LDP-vs-LDP races invariably required huge infusions of cash, since both candidates came from well-funded parties, and in fact, Japanese politics became dominated by huge infusions of corporate money, far larger (as a share of GDP) than the USA has ever seen.
But while the ruling party became a terribly cautious, obsessively insecure, monster institution, the political system coddled it by encouraging the formation of many rival parties. In countries like Italy, where the Christian Democrats rn the country for two generations, political analysts refered to the system as a 1.5 party system, with one party that ruled, and an opposition that had no hope of ever forming a government (except, perhaps as part of a coalition). Eventually that coalition did appear, but it was stymied by the great ease with which the members could fall out. In contrast, Japan had a 1.25 party system: the LDP, plus a huge galaxy of parties that categorically rejected any hope of coalition.
Political parties in Japan became a hobby of dilettante motivational speakers and cranks; the Japan Communist Party was no exception, afflicted as it was by extreme tendencies that periodically ruptured with the parliamentary group to wage people's war. Other parties, like Komeito ("Clean Government Party") seemed to exist merely to blackmail the ruling party. (A lot of far-right nationalist parties, which have power far beyond their mindshare, are created through a strategy of minbo, or "winning through intimidation"—by organized crime).
While these splinter groups made the Japanese perennially indifferent, or hostile, to politics, they were vaguely aware that their political system was unresponsive. At various times, the LDP could sweep into office with an invincible mandate, then suffer massive demonstrations. The Japanese with whom I have spoken, or visitors to Japan, tend to mistrust the police and seem reluctant to report crimes; there is widespread indulgence of petty wrongdoing in Japanese society, which seems peculiar in a country where the crime rate is the world's lowest. Likewise, organized crime is often regarded as a sort of Robin-Hood, preying on hypocritical politicians while handing out assistance to the indigent, or promoting pro-Japan ideology (many Japanese are reluctant to openly express nationalist sentiments; the Yakuza and their political shills do the job instead).
In recent years, with the economy slowing down, Japanese voters have developed a stronger taste for introspection and mature political debate. Extreme political parties have fallen by the wayside, while the pointless celebrity parties have fallen under sharper scrutiny. "Reformist" parties spouting platitudes about this or that reform not being adequate, are more likely to be seen as collaborating with the status quo against moderates. In the fullness of time, this can lead to only one outcome: the unification of the opposition into a coherent alternative.
The barrier to this has been embarrassment at nationalism. Like the USA and Germany, Japan's educators and intellectuals tend to be skeptical of nationalistic pretensions; this puts them at odds with the industrial managers, who have successfully tarred the liberals and leftists as "masochistic" or "anti-Japanese." The Korean left, in contrast, suffers no such problem; it can always appeal to nationalist grievances against the USA and US-ally, Japan.
In the 1990's PM Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore declared that Western critics of his human rights record were racist. It was an absurdly self-serving apologia for the autocratic ruler of the tiny city state, no stranger to racist views of his own. But the remarks touched off a flurry of essays and acrimonious debate among Asians as to whether democracy was alien to Asia, or if Asian democracy was destined to take a new form. The debate was no doubt stimulated by the fact that the Cold War was over, so elites were now less tolerant of the egregiously racist European-North American hierarchy of the Cold War than they were in the 1960's. Vietnam and China were about to jettison Communism, and Japan had entered a recession. Its politics were becoming "Europeanized."
I remember this vividly; I had a housemate who was a very nationalistic Japanese veteran of the Zengakuren demos. She had blended in her mind leftist ideology of the Zengakuren with the ultranationalism of Shintaro Ishihara; to both of us, the purported distinctions between these two ideologies seems entirely artificial (I just happen to find them both horrifying). She was also irritated by the notion she seemed to observe, that Japan needed to absorb Western notions of democracy. Like so many Asian op/ed writers of the day, she was convinced there was an Asian version of democracy. What it was and how it worked was, however, a mystery.
Now that I am old and in my dottage, I suspect I can outline the distinction between "Asian democracy" (actually, Sino-Japanese democracy) and the type known in other societies.
In other societies, democracy is manifested by multiparty elections and a state subordinated to procedure. The state must obey the polity, as manifested by a constitutional procedure (juries, elections, parliaments). It's possible a frustrated party could arrange an "election" by distributing gigantic numbers of questionaires to the general population, selecting a constituent assembly, and convening a rival "government" in another city from the accredited one. This has nearly happened in a few cases, but generally this sort of fantastical scheme never gets anywhere because people accept that the legitimate government is derived organically from the one before it.
But the system loses traction as more and more political issues are resolved for all time. Increasingly the US government is constrainted, either consitutionally or by the institutions our polity has spawned, from creating a socialist state. The capitalist ownership of the means of production (to name one example) is embedded in our political institutions; indeed, a specific variety of capitalist ownership is embedded (barring German stiftungen, for instance). Even barring corruption or or insidious breakdowns, Western norms of democracy tend to break down as each generation seeks to impose its judgments on all subsequent ones.
SJ democracy, in contrast, tends to mean all institutions are in play; it's not just the government that is under the control of the polity. Business enterprise is also. The educational system is not merely a pedagogical system, but a socializing one; as such, it too is under the rule of the polity. However, initially the state has to control these institutions in order to achieve a commitment to the state by all classes; otherwise, society will be like a marriage where the vows are binding only on one spouse. Once mutual class solidarity is established, then democracy emerges in all institutions. The ruling party may or may not have a tenable opposition; in China, the ruling party enjoys a monopoly. However, that means that the ferocious, unconstrained hatred that the US right (for example) harbors for liberals, is not possible in Japan or China; there, oppositionists cannot "get out of hand" so there's no need to fear they might. The people express their preference through a laborious process of consultation, not through ballots.
Having sat through a few of these Japanese meetings (my Japanese is poor, and no, I couldn't understand what my colleagues were saying), I have to acknowledge that the process is not natural for Japanese either. The Japanese take long meetings to reassure each other of their commitment and goodwill, then establish the right to disagree and the merit-value of their point of dissent. Then they establish a sort of Scottish verdict and conclude with protestations of mutual respect. "Leaks" are taboo (meaning, a Japanese person leaving a meeting cannot mutter loudly, "x is such a pecksniffian bitch, I hate her"). In order for a Japanese person to confide such a thing, the confidante must first establish her own discretion beyond a reasonable doubt.
There's no doubt the Sino-Japanese system cultivates a more admirable character; the Japanese are afforded more personal dignity, and learn concepts of self-sacrifice, care in self-expression, personal insight, and tact. There is also a keener sense of nuance, and a more sincere understanding that the modus vivendi is unfair. (By contrast, a Westerner, especially an English-speaking one, is more likely to assume that "the rules" not only are fair, they define fairness.) However, so far, it's difficult to establish if the SJ democratic system is, or ever will be, democratic. III. JAPAN IS NOT DEMOCRATIC?
One could merely declare that Japan is not democratic, the personal freedom notwithstanding. Usually, non-democratic societies are repressive; the idea of a dictator allowing free expression, for exapmple, seems like a contradiction in terms. Likewise, the Japanese do have multiparty elections and they are not stupid. Constitutional quirks or no, they could have voted in an opposition party that made popular reforms. They never did, possibly because they are stopped from doing so by some other barrier.
The barrier might be the obligations employees have to campaign for the company's man; it could be the marginal role politics plays in Japanese society. I'm reminded of the scene in Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty, in which a professor describes a party where the guests sit at toilets around a table and defecate while discussing their vacations, then retire to a dining closet to eat in privacy. Where politics is like eating (in Europe), done openly and proudly, in Japan it is considered unseemly and even a little bit tasteless. In Europe, the EU, the Council of Europe, and each national government have complexes of magnificent stone buildings that celebrate the political process; the US capital, likewise, is a sort of temple-complex of democracy. In Japan, the political process is confined to a single unprepossessing stone building.
Because culture teaches the Japanese that politicians are squalid and dishonest, if not actively vicious; because political discussion is usually very vague and riddled with surreal platitudes; because of cultural taboos against candid, spontaneous expressions of disagreement; and because Japanese institutions involve concentric circles of power, with each one watching candidates for admission to ensure they are team players, it would appear that the Japanese have been very slow in developing the concet of a meaningful political opposition. The fear of a virulently anti-Japanese liberal opposition seems unspoken, and hence unaddressed by the liberal opposition. So while the Japanese excel at everything else, in politics they are chronically retarded. Energetic, independent-minded Japanese are recruited by the state or the large keiretsu as national champions, not oppositionist politicians; successful businessmen do not go into politics. Japanese meritocracy does not cross polinate across walks of life; recruits for promotion are properly vetted by expert observers.
At this time, I am agnostic about these options. I'm interested in establishing if any of them are an accurate description of Japanese political life.
Democracy in Japan-2
November 13, 2005
In part one, I discussed the possible explanations of Japan's political evolution: maturing democracy, "Asian democracy," or no democratic credentials at all. However, in order to help readers understand the signs of democracy (as opposed to a latchkey state), I'd like to discuss some of the key political divisions in Japanese politics.
First: the main players.
The Liberal Democratic Party (Jiyū Minshutō) takes its name from a merger of two pre-War bourgeois parties that merged in 1955. If one counts the Liberal (c.'46) and Democratic (c.'47) parties as LDP, then the LDP has governed continuously from 1946 to the present, with only three brief intermissions (8, 8, and 18 months). Part of this is facilitated by the fact that the LDP does not merely encompass a huge segment of the political spectrum; it occupies a giant swathe covering the middle, meaning that the opposition consists of the left and the extreme right.
Japanese politics has many strong similarities to US politics, such as the generally conservative character of political debate; except for an entirely marginalized groups of militant Communists, the Japanese political continuum can be described as liberal, LDP (i.e., very conservative), and right (EXTREME right). As in Greece, the Japanese hard left is essentially hypernationalistic, and hence, rightwing in all but self-identification. However, there are some glaring exceptions. One is, since 1971 Japan has enjoyed universal health coverage, and several other European-style social welfare benefits. The country's social welfare system is only very slightly more expensive than that of the USA, albeit far cheaper to run. Also, unlike the USA, religion plays a minor role in politics; when it does, its influence is similar in outlook to the Unitarian Universalist Church, not the RCC or the Southern Baptists. In other words, its influence is generally pacificistic and socially compassionate. Nonetheless, social traditions in Japan are, like the USA, highly patriarchal and pro-capitalist, and were so long before the USA had a significant influence.
I. THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY/LDP
As I mentioned above, the LDP utterly dominates Japanese politics, to such a degree that the country's democratic credentials are ambiguous. In the early history of the party, it was heavily assisted by US money and experts, and since its inception it has enjoyed a gigantic stream of cash from the major Japanese firms. Indeed, Americans complaining about money in our politics would be utterly astounded to learn that in Japan, corporate campaign contributions are orders of magnitude greater than in the USA.
The Library of Congress article on the LDP is an excellent introduction, so I'll quote from it:
By the early 1990s, the LDP's nearly four decades in power allowed it to establish a highly stable process of policy formation. This process would not have been possible if other parties had secured parliamentary majorities. LDP strength was based on an enduring, although not unchallenged, coalition of big business, small business, agriculture, professional groups, and other interests. Elite bureaucrats collaborated closely with the party and interest groups in drafting and implementing policy. In a sense, the party's success was a result not of its internal strength but of its weakness. It lacked a strong, nationwide organization or consistent ideology with which to attract voters. Its leaders were rarely decisive, charismatic, or popular. But it functioned efficiently as a locus for matching interest group money and votes with bureaucratic power and expertise. This arrangement resulted in corruption, but the party could claim credit for helping to create economic growth and a stable, middle-class Japan.
The LDP is so powerful and so durable we must focus on the political divisions within it. There are, of course, durable factions that take the name of their key patrons:
[Ibid]: Over the years, factions numbered from six to thirteen, with as few as four members and as many as 120, counting those in both houses. The system is operative in both houses, although it was more deeply entrenched in the House of Representatives than in the less powerful House of Councillors. Faction leaders usually are veteran LDP politicians. Many, but not all, have served as prime minister.According to the Wikipedia listing, the most important of these were/are:
There is, however, an inevitable division of ideology that occurs ad hoc. For example, for people who are totally ignorant of the objective constraints binding Japanese executives and managers, an ideological difference might consist of faction A favoring Marxist-Leninism and faction B favoring absolute laissez-faire capitalism. Given a more detailed understanding of what is immediately possible in Japan, members of A and B would sharply moderate their positions, until they were identical except for highly nuanced details of policy application. In LDP factions, however, the difference is the awarding of porkbarrel spending that favors a particular niche of the industrial system; say, spending on a spur of the national bullet train, or multi-use dam. Or, conversely, it's a battle over the deregulation (translation: withdrawal of massive state subsidies) of a particular sector of the economy. For example, while Koizumi is known to the outside world as the great free market reformer, the main effect of his reforms to liquidate rival powerbases within the Japanese civil service (JapanFocus). According to the article cited, though Koizumi is the firt LDP politician in decades to represent any sort of ideological affinity, he is essentially determined to erradicate rival internest groups within the LDP and professionalize Japanese politics (as opposed to its current, stability-seeking, feudal structure).
II. THE JAPAN SOCIALIST PARTY/SDP
The Japan Socialist Party (Nihon Shakai-to) was once the main opposition, receiving at one point 24% of the vote; in 1996 it was dissolved and replaced by the somewhat more conservative Social Democratic Party of Japan (Shakai Minshu-tō) and has suffered a severe decline in support. This may reflect the fact that the political left in Japan, both Communist and Social Democrat, tended to idealize Leninist dictatorships, whereas European and US leftists tend to deny or minimize the authoritarian characteristics of leftwing regimes. In Japan, people are rather less likely to insist they are in favor of some type of democracy; moreover, there is far less regard for democratic forms and institutions in Northeast Asia than in the West. A European critic of US democracy is likely to insist that our democratic pretensions are invalid; a Japanese critic is likely to say our history "proves" democracy is bad.
This is important because of the most burning political issues of Northeast Asian politics is the Korean Question. There, political analysts must decide if the Seoul government is a US puppet (and therefore imperialist, and evil) or else, an enclave of prosperity and personal freedom. The left in Japan has tended to embrace the position of the Pyongyang regime, insisting that the Seoul government is merely a tool of American imperialist aggression. Evidently, this has been a disastrous position for the Shakaishugi Kyokai, a 70,000-member socialist association that had decisive control over the JSP/SDP, because the Pyongyang regime has launched terrorist attacks against Japan (e.g., sending submarines to Niigata on the country's west coast to kidnap civilians and take them to North Korea). Evidently, Japanese citizens feel the same way about this as Americans would, even if the former are more reluctant to spell it out.
III. THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF JAPAN
The Minshutō ("Democratic Party") is one of several in Japan's history; I've already mentioned that Tanaka Kakuei, the decisive figure in postwar Japanese politics, was initially a member of the Demcratic Party that briefly teamed up with the Socialist Party to beat out the Liberals. The modern-day Democrats, like the Democrats of the USA, may be vaguely characterized as being progressive in political orientation, and popular with younger, female, and urban voters. It was formed in 1998 from four relatively progressive or social democratic parties, and generally represents views similar to those of, say, very moderately progressive Europeans and North Americans. Like the LDP, it has factions, but these are very slight; moreover, they have distinct ideological proclivities.
The Minshutō is the first party to seriously challenge the LDP for control of Japan's politics; in the past, the LDP was displaced by highly unstable coalitions of parties to the right and left, or else, in the case of PM Katayama Tetsu, of a social democratic party and a petit-bourgeois party (i.e., doomed to move to the far right). In the elections of September '05, the new party was severely thrashed because turnout was much lower than usual. Snap elections in parliamentary democracies appear to have about the same effect on voter turnout as midterm-primary elections in the USA.
I do not use "bourgeois" as an endorsement of Communist ideology or historical explanations. Rather, this is a standard sociological term of art that is useful for describing political associations. social welfare: according to one document I saw, Japan's social welfare system accounts for a somewhat larger share of the national income than that of the USA, but much less than that of Germany's:
The size of Japan's social security benefits was 83.6 trillion yen in 2002, or 23.03% of the national income. Corresponding percentages (based on International Labor Organization standards) were 16.43% in the United States (1995), 37.68% in Germany (1996), and 44.00% in Sweden (1996). Of Japan's 83.6 trillion yen in benefits, pensions accounted for 53.1%, government-provided medical expenditures for 31.4%, and other welfare-related expenditures for 15.5%. In 2002, the percentage of private citizens' contributions in the national income was 36.1% (including 23.5% from taxes and 14.3% from social insurance contributions). OECD data for 2001 shows corresponding ratios of 35.2% in the United States, 55.3% in Germany, 63.9% in France, and 74.3% in Sweden.I get the impression that Japan is a perfect example of the virtuous cycle of high social welfare spending in prior periods of the economy: [possibly] because of past spending, social problems like crime and teenaged pregnancies are of far smaller magnitude than in the USA, meaning that a slightly larger amount of social welfare spending furnishes a proundly higher safety net for Japanese citizens.
Democracy in Japan-3
November 18, 2005
Japan's Post Savings System is the largest bank in the world. It has $3 trillion in deposits and serves every community in Japan. It was founded in 1875 and has been the backbone of the most successful savings mobilization in history. In fact, many countries have had a PSS, including the USA, but few ever became the bedrock of industrial and financial administation that the PSS was in Japan. In fact, the importance of the PSS in the management of Japan's massive imploding banking system was the primary motive for reforming it.3.1
In the early 20th century, many nations in the developing world used postal savings banks as their deposit insurance scheme. The PSS would lend money to illiquid banks, thereby preventing the risk of a general run. In Japan, the massive and opaque use of the financial system to administer industrial policy, contributed to the largest ever banking crisis in world history. Worse, as the banking system wrote off tens of billions of bad assets with each passing year, and the money supply contracted, frantic bailouts failed to check the spread of balance sheet rot. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro argued the problem was that the Japanese government was competing with the very industry it was trying to save, and focused on the liquidation of the PSS.
This seems like an odd way to begin the third installment on the postponed advent of democracy in Japan. But the protracted recession/slump in the world's 3rd largest economy, festering since 1990, has started to alter the character of the country, thwart traditional career expectations, and confront Japanese policy makers with the limitations of the social welfare system. The government has run consistently huge public debts, tying up scarce capital. And all the while, the problem of an unaccountable political system has become harder to ignore. Finding a solution to Japan's banking crisis was job one for incoming PM Koizumi, and the challenge still hanging over his head. Getting the Japanese public to accept his explanation of the problem as the true one, and his solution the correct one, has been a major public relations battle not merely for the world financial community (including the IMF), but also for Japanese voters.
In August, Koizumi had won lower house support in the Diet for his reforms; the upper house balked, and Koizumi opted to call a snap election, scheduled for 11 Sep '05. The performance of the LDP was impressive: its 2nd largest majority since 1955, and sweetest of all, massive inroads into seats held by the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party. Gavan McCormack summarizes the outcome:
Elections since 1994 have been based on a system that replaced Japan's old multi-member electoral constituencies with a mixture of 300 single-member, first-past-the-post seats and 180 filled by proportional representation. Koizumi’s LDP won (in the proportional section of the election) ...38.18% [of the vote], ... Overall he gained 61% (296) of the seats, and his coalition partner, the Buddhist Komeito,... with ...13.25% ...took an additional 31 seats, giving his government a two-thirds majority, 327 seats in a 480 seat House. ...By contrast, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), despite its ...31% of the electorate, saw its representation slashed from 177 to 113 seats. Its share of votes in the single member constituency section declined by only one per cent, from 37 to 36%, but its share of seats was halved, from 35 to 17 per cent.Mr. McCormack includes a chart that makes it clear to me that the main reason for the peculiar disparity in seats awarded and number of votes received is not so much constitutional as mechanical: the LDP has mastered the technique of horsetrading its way into a plurality of votes in most of the single-seat constituencies.
What must have made the victory so sweet for Koizumi, though, was the fact that he took the high-risk strategy of sacking Diet members who opposed his PSS reform plan, then running candidates against them; 26 of the candidates were women, mostly news anchors and other high-visibility figures. These candidates were known as "assassins" and the mainstream media has tended to treat them frivolously:
Washington Post: Armed to the teeth with blood-red lipstick and a killer smile, Yuriko Koike stormed the streets in a working-class neighborhood here with rapid-fire handshakes and a brigade of young campaign aides wearing hot-pink T-shirts and waving rose-colored flags. One of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's hit squad of female "assassins," the former anchorwoman vowed to take no prisoners in Japan's nationwide elections a week from Sunday.
The candidates did quite well in the multi-seat districts, but fared poorly in single-seat ones (Wiki). This was evidently part of the plan; the youth and urban voters whom the LDP must court were evidently pleased at the option of voting for very high-profile, female celebrities, even if they were likely to retain traditional loyalties to local candidates.
This leaves Koizumi free to implement the reforms he has long insisted will restore vibrancy to the Japanese economy and accountability to the financial system. Already there is talk of him stepping down in '06. Businessweek, perhaps more than any other publication, has adamantly supported the privatization of the gigantic Japan Post banking system as a panacea:
It took a while for Koizumi to get a grip on this crisis. One problem was that Japan's regulators had a reputation for being too cozy with banks. So much so that in 1998 several Finance Ministry officials were arrested for supplying banks with details of upcoming audits in return for bribes and expensive nights on the town. But starting three years ago, the strike force led by Takenaka, a Keio University professor with no ties to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, forced the big banks to write off their bad loans and cut off loose companies that couldn't pay their debts. His Financial Services Agency, which took over from the Finance Ministry as banking regulator in 2000, also began demanding far greater levels of openness from banks as part of a tough inspection regime.This is an exasperating piece of drivel, the sort of thing I read so you don't have to (actually, it's because I'm a masochist). It's pretty much post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning; in any event, the Japanese banks were going to have to write off their bad debts, so they work out their own solvency with the Ministry of Finance—and the IMF/BIS. The thing being whitewashed here is that the archvillain blamed for everything is the touch of Satan: the "socialist" PSS, with its bank in every one of the 24,000 Japanese post offices, providing reliable banking services to populations of isolated communities in every corner of the country.
The financial services industry is a solid schmmozy bunch, and no mistake: it rallied around the Japanese industry's plaint that the public-sector PSS, with its state subsidies, was contributing to overcapacity in the banking industry. The 20.8% of deposits going into the PSS was somehow strangling the poor dears running global giants like Sumitomo (which, incidentally, is the main bank of a keiretsu dating back to the late 16th century). Now it stands to make a bonanza as financial services offices of unusual size are placed on the auction block. There's no doubt that the decades-worth of accumulation assets by the PSS, accumulated by the Japanese taxpayer slowly, will be sold at something far below its true value. The "market value," of course, is a function of the buyers, and there aren't many who can affort a franchise like the PSS. So the national patrimony will go for a tiny fraction of what it is worth, by any valid accounting metric.
It's hard to say exactly what the buyers of the PSS will get; I'm not sure what method will be used to restructure the system. However, if the Businessweek article is any indication, and the financial services community looks on the PSS as a "relic of socialism" (created by the pro-business LDP), then look for a Yeltsin-style liquidation, at immense (hidden) cost to the Japanese taxpayer.
SOURCES: "Why the Japanese System Isn't True Democracy," Okabe Kazuaki; "Principle Institutions," "Changing Bank Industry," "Scope of Business," "Stabilizing the Banking Industry," Japanese Bankers' Association (Zenginkyo); "Veteran banker to oversee breakup of Japan Post," The Standard (HK);
Democracy in Japan-4
November 21, 2005
Using Japan's postal savings system (PSS) as a case study in the relative democratization of that country's political institutions is unfair in many respects. First, it unfairly and fashionably leaps on the "anti-liberalization" bandwagon, using the doubtful grounds that any reform of the PSS will necessarily screw the Japanese taxpayers. I don't want readers to imagine I'm opposed to liberalization per se: sometimes it's needful. Nor should readers suppose I'm an enthusiastic admirer of the Japanese PSS in its present form. I do think, however, that the privatization scheme that has been Koizumi's lifelong obsession is, in fact, a lot like the Bush Administration's efforts to privatize Social Security (actually, to abolish it).
Naturally, this leads us to another matter on which my reference is not terribly fair: after all, we are now accustomed to ruling parties using political machinery to survive elections, while doing things the population hates anyway. I doubt there were any constituencies of the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, Norway, or the NL where the recent invasion of Iraq was acceptable to the electorate as an approach to any problem. All of those countries' governments have contributed troops to the invasion or occupation of Iraq (Global Security). I would hesitate to question the democratic credentials of the NL or Denmark, but those countries did the same as Japan and the RoK, sending contigents of soldiers to the country.
Why so many western European countries dispatched soldiers to Iraq for inconsequential tours of duty is something of a mystery. Possibly having a token force in support of the Coalition served the purpose of a bargaining chip with Washington. The professional politicians who made the decision in their respective countries to send soldiers to Iraq probably shared the disdain of their compatriots for the Bush Administration or US hegemony in general; but as ambitious bureaucrats they must have been used to working in a system where the top decisionmakers are held in general scorn. In such a world, the follies of the top executive are taken as read, but regretably the thing that must be accommodated. In other words, this is "Dilbert" and we're the pointy-haired guy.
But while the coalition of the sullen collaborators could explain their capitulation to that pointiest-headed of pointy-haired guys on the matter of sending troops to Iraq ("It's just a few dozen humanitarian workers, and it sustains our access to the inner corridors of American power"), it's true that all democracies are habituated to scamming their own population on behalf of powerful entrenched interests, and this is even true when the scam is widely recognized as such. It's absurd and unreasonable to expect the entire population to know the details of policy, or how to assess when a leader's platitudes make no sense; even in parliamentary republics like the UK, where it is comparatively easy to assess the impact of the head of state on matters of public interest, or where the general educational attainments are quite high, there is an astonishing gap between the expectations of voters and the performance of the government.4.1 There are hundreds of thousands of active political weblogs around the world devoted to exposing rightly unpopular schemes to use the powers of office.
And finally, it needs to be said, merely because Koizumi and the newspaper op/ed columns said (and some did not!) that this election was about the PSS privatization, does not mean it really was. Western observers can point to the fact that the Japanese economy was performing very well (see chart below), or that Japanese citizens may have gotten fed up with war guilt (again, I've encountered Japanese who regarded themselves as Marxists, who felt entirely traduced by Chinese and Korean public opinion).
At the risk of making myself tiresome, I do tend to think the Japanese are motivated in large measure by a craving for national pride. Part of the problem is that the Japanese public have such a different "memory" of World War 2 than their neighbors; for example, I'm pretty sure most believe there was one major atrocity of the War, and that was the bombing of two Japanese cities that brought the war to an end. Then, to learn that there are huge mobs of Chinese youths throwing rocks at the headquarters of Japanese firms because the Japanese head of state visited a Japanese shrine on Japanese soil, etc., no doubt is beyond confusing and vexing. I'm sure characters like Shintaro Ishihara (a Japanese version of Rep. Howard Coble4.2) speak for a minority, but I doubt it's a small minority: while Coble is from a rural Southern district, Shintaro Ishihara is governor of Tokyo (presumably, the most cosmopolitan part of Japan). Ishihara is a buffoon who makes Vladimir Zhirinovsky look like Ed R Murrow. So I think it's far to assume that, outside the cosmopolitian, highly-educated and cultured environs of Tokyo, Ishihara's attitudes are actually fairly normal in Japan.
The allure of nationalism is so strong, that diplomatic/social efforts to repress it appear to have left it in the hands of industrial vulgarians like Ishihara. In my opinion, Japanese democratic institutions seem to retain acceptance and moral authority because they are instrumental; they can be relied upon to settle contractual disputes and enforce laws, albeit in a way that is notoriously skewed towards the politically well-connected. Democracy has brought to Japan a responsible and reasonably effective social welfare system, and a relatively sound industrial policy. However, postwar Japanese democracy suffers many of the same foibles as its Usonian counterpart. In both countries, politicians have been able to use nationalist appeals reliably to win elections, despite the most egregious incompetence and cupidity. In the USA, nationalism is more multifarious and complex than its Japanese counterpart, and embraces more potential nationalisms (e.g., white nationalism, and dominionism). Not only that, but there are a large number of zealots calling for pro-state insurgency (i.e., illegal violence against critics of state policy). Japan unites ethnicity, language, religion, and nation in a geographically coterminous entity.
However differently they manifest themselves, nationalists in both countries ensure the electoral success of business interests. Economic recessions tend to intensify nationalism, causing appeals to the latter to become more crass; economic recovey tends to lure the disaffected ultranationalists back into the fold of normal political thinking. In European countries, the left often has better "nationalist" credentials, and is more assiduous about cultivating them; in Japan, the left is stuck in a rut, obligated to second the rants of Japan's victims or condemn social norms; the Japanese left is overly bureaucratic and tied to groups sponsored by North Korea (the Korean community in Japan has traditionally sided with Pyongyang rather than Seoul; the Japanese Social Democratic Party has, likewise, regarded Pyongyang rather than Seoul as the legitimate government of Korea). As a result, it tends to claim that democratic institutions are flawed not because they are not genuinely democratic, but because democracy is bad, and needs to be replaced by a [Leninist] vanguard party. In fact, that's precisely what the LDP is. Likewise, most leftist groups in the USA are so thin-skinned about criticism that they equate their own unpopularity and political failure as evidence of the innate depravity of Usonian society. By propagating their own hostility to their own community, both the Japanese and the US left have ensured the perpetuation of their marginal status.
Explaining the political failures of the Democratic Party in both countries (oddly, with a similar and similarly diffuse ideology) is harder, but may owe much to association with the left. Nor is it obvious what liberals in either country can do to ameliorate this: in Weimar Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was flamboyantly anti-Communist, to no avail; the German right successfully identified the two even after the SPD supported Hitler's enabling legislation after the Reichstag fire, so that strategy has been tested to destruction. Moreover, in neither country is the Democratic Party capable of dissociating itself with the "anti-nationalist" left, especially when (a) the left has a valid point, and (b) when the left is the most directly agrieved opponent of the political right's excesses. In my view, the problem seems to be not how closely liberals allow themselves to be associated with their country's left (which is entirely out of their control anyway), but with the left itself: bureaucratized and cultish, it has inbred and become an echo chamber.
To writers on Japan, this tends to be obvious. People who may harbor thoroughly radical or leftist sentiments of their own often note how the Zengakuren ("all-Japanese student union", originally a movement hoping to unite anti-US patriotism with radicalism and Leninism), has turned into one of the most insular and clannish entities, splintering like so many Trotskyists and generally vending fanaticism to true believers only. (There are presently five groups in Japan claiming to be the Zengakeren; each insists it is unique). Likewise, I've often been struck by how often leftwing organizations become compulsive about certain formulae. Once an idea has been proposed that is particularly virulent in its denunciation of the USA, for example, criticism of it is interpreted as being an enemy (egregious example). In a way, the left imitates much of the extreme nationalism of groups like the John Birch Society towards itself; only, while the JBS interprets criticism of its own recondite fantasies as "Communism" or part of an invidious scheme to impose atheism on an unwilling republic, many on the left in both Japan and the USA seem to do something comparable: insist that any criticism or failure to embrace its whims as, prima facie, evidence that the critic/unbeliever is a full-fledged supporter of the full turpitude of US imperialism in all its satanic splendor. In other words, McCarthyism among dissenters.
Part of the problem may be the insularity of both societies. Oddly, the proliferation of rival political movements in European countries, coupled with the profusion of languages in close proximity, the membership in a multi-lingual entity (the EU) with a manifold federal structure, might seem liable to making ideology there more prone to sloppy associations; after all, most prime ministers in Europe govern with a coalition anyway. Yet the opposite seems to be true. It is in Japan and the USA where liberals are absurdly lumped with the left, and the left with nihilism, not in a country like Belgium where such sloppiness would be understandable. In the USA or Japan, where the political landscape is unusually simple and monolingualism is the rule, nuance is ignored (both admirers of George W. Bush and Ward Churchill agree: nuance is evil!). I think partly this is due to the recognition in Europe that there is no unique seat of power, and those who lack the patience for systems of political theory are stuck with conspiracies, whereas in the USA and Japan there is quite obviously a seat of political power, and it's not democratic at all: it's the bosses of the ruling party. In both cases the pretension of pluralism is a lot like the skill of US monopolies to refrain from looking like monopolies, by allowing a minority to struggle along pathetically.
Unable to compare other societies, both the Japanese and the Usonian are afflicted with a sort of narcissistic dualism: we are the best/worst. It's the "only in America" syndrome, in which the speaker often demonstrates a complete lack of insight into analogies with other societies. What makes these two countries unusual, though, is the lack of disruption. Neither Japanese nor Usonians are routinely awakened from their notions of singularity, which leads to a profound sense of waiting for an apocalypse that is not, in fact, going to arrive. In the nations of Europe there is clearly a self-love and preference for Europe; writers in the Guardian often muse that the USA has failed at being a European country, without feeling obligated to add any more explanation to their sense of disappointment and rejection. That's some serious chauvinism, but oddly, the essence of European chauvinism is a perception of itself as blissfully void of the extreme negatives of other societies. In other words, the ordinary European perceives Europe as righteously healthy, unique only for the absence of singular infirmities. The Japanese and Usonian perceive their societies as uniquely virtuous or uniquely wicked—if for no other reason, by failing to be uniquely virtuous.
I believe this attitude has contributed to a vicious cycle. I'm not really qualified to comment on the success of European democracy, although my impressions are generally favorable; however, I believe Japan and the USA suffer from a common ailment, which is the apotheosis of the nation. In the Tokugawa era (1602-1867) of Japanese history, there was a literal apotheosis (deification) of the emperor, which was revived as a cult after industrialization. But interestingly, the deification of the emperor accompanied his complete insignificance. The Tokugawa era was one of rule by shoguns, not the emperor. Likewise, the elevation of the "American way of life" as being "blessed" or divine, or the elevation of providentiality (on the part of the LDP) as the highest principle, has tended to accompany the nullification of people power. We might say the state—the bureaucracy of power—has conquered the nation, and did long ago, and then began to disguise its improvident behavior, imperialism, as worship of the nation.
It seems to me that neither country has been left with room or opportunity for democratic institutions to attain mastery over the state they live with.