Asahi Shimbun [October 14, 2002] "POINT OF VIEW/Eugene Matthews: Japan public must get involved in democracy"

October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Asahi Shimbun [14 October 2002]
"POINT OF VIEW/Eugene Matthews:
Japan public must get involved in democracy"

Becoming involved in the political process is important for Japan today. Japan's future and the future of its children rests not so much on whether the banking system fails or reigns in its national debt or fixes its unfunded pension fund system, but on whether its citizens will meet the responsibility democracy inherently puts upon its citizens.

On an extended visit to Japan this summer, I met with various members of the Diet, members of the prime minister's staff, leading academics, and the heads of some of the largest corporations in the nation and around the world. I came away with some basic conclusions: Japan's problems are more political than economic; Japan's economic woes will continue until the public becomes more involved in the political process; and Japan needs someone outside the Liberal Democratic Party, united with reformers within the LDP, to be the wedge to break open the anti-reform gauntlet within the LDP.

``A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control of the government.'' (Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, The Federalist Papers). The process of democracy requires the interest and participation of its citizens to work successfully. The lack of solutions in Japan to cure more than 12 years of economic stagnation is due mostly to the lack of involvement by citizens in the nation's political process.

But for the nation to overcome its economic malaise and avoid similar mistakes in the future, the people must take three steps to wrest control from politicians and lifelong bureaucrats who have controlled Japanese politics for most of the last three decades:

Participate in political process1) Recognize that the flourishing of true democracy requires active participation in the political process by both average citizens and the elite;

2) Actually participate in the political process; and

3) As a part of Japan's ongoing school reform, incorporate the basic tenet of teaching future generations that involvement in the political process and civic duty is not a luxury but a requirement.

There may indeed be a fourth requirement for change, and that depends on raising issues in the public consciousness that both inspire civic participation and facilitate the return of power to the public.

After recognition of the importance of participation comes the challenge of expressing the will of the people through activity. The way to influence electoral politics has not changed since democracy's inception. Japanese citizens must commit one or more of the following resources: time, money, or service to candidates and parties who embody their values.

All politicians must be reminded sometimes that they are elected and not appointed, particularly those who have been successful and have brought about positive change. Western analysts often speak erroneously and casually of how the Japanese people are passive by nature. This is not true.

In the 1950s and '60s, when there was a legitimate struggle for the direction of the country, citizens got involved, having a chance to choose a capitalistic, free-market system, and rejected communism and socialism. The direction of Japan's political future was at stake, and people chose to express their views clearly and demonstratively. They decided not to leave the direction of the country up to politicians - too much was at stake. Contrast this with the 1930s and '40s prior to World War II, when the public decided to look the other way - with little debate as leaders became militaristic and led the country into war with Russia, and eventually World War II.

Politics is viewed by many in Japan as a dirty institution that is so complicated and contrived that the individual citizen cannot effect change. The public must realize that one vote can make a difference. Currently politics in Japan is considered to be on the same level as the illegal and semi-legal ``water businesses.'' Indeed, even at universities in other democracies, the most fertile ground for the exchange of opinions and ideas, discussions about politics are rare.

When I was a student at Waseda University 22 years ago, and still today, discussing politics was not common. Indeed, political discussions are not part of everyday, normal student life. Contrast that with Seoul National University in South Korea, the University of Oxford in England, or Harvard University in the United States. A group of Japanese students with their bento lunch boxes, discussing fervently whether there should be direct election of the prime minister or whether the postal services should be privatized, would be seen by their peers as odd.

Japanese citizenry should educate themselves about the views of individual candidates, work on political campaigns, and express dissatisfaction by utilizing political tools such as rallies and town meetings. They should also create watchdog institutions like Common Cause or the Project for Conservative Reform in the United States. Citizens should not be reluctant to give money to the candidate of their choice. If no worthy candidates are available, they should consider running themselves or persuading someone they think worthy to run. It is important to remember that being elected to govern is a sacrifice for the good of the people - that is why it is called public service.

Elementary and secondary schools must begin to instill in Japanese youth the importance of political participation. Schools must institute student mock legislatures on issues of the day, debates, the study of the roots of democracy, and explicit teaching that participation in politics is a requirement in a democracy. I do not believe that Japan has given up on democracy.

Indeed, adoption of a system of direct election of a prime minister or a president, with a mandate, would provide the nation with a strong executive branch. One reason bureaucrats have too much power is because the prime minister's authority is too weak. A presidential system would amplify the distinctions between lifelong bureaucrats whose job is only to execute the laws passed by the legislature and the official elected by a majority of all Japanese voters. It would allow the people to give a single person a mandate to adopt specific policies to address their needs. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's good intentions aside, he has not been that successful at reform and will not be so as long as he remains elected to his position by the overwhelming support of Diet members of the LDP.

I continue to hear the question inside Japan - when will the country turn the corner on a decade and a half of sluggish growth? The answer is easy - not until politicians feel some of the consequences of their actions will there be a change.

There are courageous, reform-minded politicians in the country such as Taro Kono and Ichita Yamamoto. Even Prime Minister Koizumi's deputy chief Cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, speaks of needed change.

But they suffer from a similar problem as Koizumi; their espoused views, though seemingly sincere, go against the system that put them in their current positions. In order for these politicians to be successful in the current system they would have to build coalitions with old-guard LDP members who have clearly shown they are not as visionary as the aforementioned officials.

Japan has risen to many challenges throughout its long history and it can rise to meet this one. Tokugawa Ieyasu's ``great peace,'' in 1610, brought peace to a land fractured by clans and violence. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum, in his new book ``The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century,'' calls the Meiji Restoration transformation ``the most remarkable accomplishment of any nation in modern history.'' Men such as Akio Morita and Soichiro Honda are paradigms for entrepreneurship and the structural evolution of the modern-day corporation.

Economically healthy JapanCitizens' assumption of their civic obligations is critical for Japan's future, for the rest of Asia, and indeed the entire world. Without a turn-around in Japan, through the direct investment of its corporations, bank loans and most importantly, foreign aid to build infrastructure roads and bridges, there would not have been an Asian Miracle. The world needs an economically healthy Japan and thus a Japan whose citizens rise to the occasion of making democracy work.

During the past 40 years, many citizens worked hard in manufacturing plants throughout the country, making numerous sacrifices in terms of family service and leisure. They did so because they knew productivity was important to their future and to the future of their country. Becoming involved in the political process is equally important for Japan today. Japan's future and the future of its children rests not so much on whether the banking system fails or reigns in its national debt or fixes its unfunded pension fund system, but on whether its citizens will meet the responsibility democracy inherently puts upon its citizens. If they do not, the grandchildren of the generation of Japanese who built the country from rubble after World War II will have no chance of having a better life than their parents before them. It will be a sad state of affairs and would be a dishonor to those builders of modern-day Japan.

The author is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune/The Asahi Shimbun.