Menu Close

Democracy field notes

Thoughts on Democracy in Japan

When visiting Tokyo last week for the launch of the Japanese edition of The Life and Death of Democracy, it was pure coincidence, or sweet and sour serendipity, that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe steamrolled through parliament a controversial bill to set stricter penalties for intelligence breaches. Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called public demonstrations against the secrecy bill ‘acts of terrorism’. The opposition parties cried foul, and (mostly small) demonstrations followed. Public support for the Abe government has since dipped, with many citizens (more than 70%) expressing concerns that the bill wasn’t properly debated, or that the hand of the state was reaching too deeply into citizens’ daily lives.

A woman protesting against the secrecy bill, in front of the parliament building in Tokyo, on December 2nd, 2013. Xinhua

The new law is a warning to the whole democratic world about where crackdowns on freedom of information are leading. The law might well serve as some future sultan’s delight, yet local supporters of the secrecy bill insisted that it will make Japan a more ‘normal’ country. By this they meant that future governments could better wield sovereign power, for instance in possible future military confrontations with the People’s Republic of China. Buried in their rhetoric are the designs of the Abe government to forge a much tighter military alliance with the United States. A few days before I arrived in Japan, Abe won parliamentary approval for the creation of an American-style National Security Council. More than a few Japanese journalists and academics told me that the next step of the Abe government will be the attempted amendment, or outright scrapping, of Article 9 of the constitution, the provision that confirms that ‘the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation’.

Public protests against the new law have been small, and on at least one occasion, before the parliament, docile demonstrators complied with police orders to lower their banners and placards. For a variety of historical reasons, deference to state power runs deep in Japan. It therefore remains to be seen whether its citizens and their representatives have the guts to kick up a fuss and vigorously resist the implementation of a law which grants government agencies sweeping new powers to classify secrets and toughens penalties for officials who leak them. Striking is the fact that the secrecy law makes no provision for any independent oversight of the blackout process. Astonishing is the capaciously vague definition of what information should be kept secret. Equally worrying are the more or less unlimited discretionary powers granted to heads of government agencies, and the deeply punitive provisions of the new law. Those found guilty of leaking secrets will face up to 10 years in prison, much longer than under existing laws. Thanks to the combined forces of a power-hungry Abe government, the Chinese Communist Party and the NSA, we could say, Japanese democracy has just suffered a serious body blow.

In the context of ‘the largest ever threat to democracy in postwar Japan’ (the words of a group of academic petitioners, among them two Nobel Prize winners), the lunch-time launch of The Life and Death of Democracy at the Japan National Press Club raised a few eyebrows. Yes, it was a graciously formal affair. There were speeches and interviews, the giving of gifts and amusing photo shoots, several beneath memorable portraits of Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger and other high-and-mighty previous guests. There was an overall air of stiff civility, but several moments of serious fun triggered robust discussion about the meaning of 'monitory democracy’, a term that’s easily understandable but hard to translate into Japanese. Some journalists, especially those who benefit from the reigning kisha kirabu system of embedded journalism, looked sceptical. Yet several questioners wondered openly why there is so little public scrutiny of power in Japan. With the new secrecy law now a reality, one brave journalist asked why greater whistle blowing and leaked information might still be positive news for Japan. My reply was straightforward: not only would it satisfy the democratic principles bound up with the public chastening of power. It would as well help publicise the need for urgent policy solutions to such problems as the systematic discrimination against women, deepening social inequality, a shrinking middle class, declining population and a ‘silver’ society that marginalises millions of elderly citizens. In future, I explained, more monitory democracy could also prevent the kind of political folly and hubris that worsened the Fukushima catastrophe, whose disabling environmental and social effects will not be overcome, certainly not in my lifetime.

Viewers wishing to follow the line-by-line interpreted press conference will find it posted below. Readers may find interesting the English-language version of the preface to the two-volume book, which was translated with great skill and patience by Masahiko Morimoto. An interview about the subject of secrecy and the future of monitory democracy, conducted by Asahi Shimbun on December 10th, will be posted shortly.

Here’s the English-language original of the Preface to Japanese Readers: It is a great honour and pleasure to share The Life and Death of Democracy with Japanese readers. The aim of this two-volume translation is to acquaint them with the fascinating, often stormy, tragic and triumphant history of democracy. This full-scale history of democracy, the first for over a century in any language, seeks as well to bring Japanese readers to the edge of the known universe of democracy, to transform the way it is commonly regarded. The Japanese public will hopefully find more than a few surprises in these pages, including details of the Eastern origins of democratic institutions, the powerful role played by religion throughout the history of democracy, the enfranchisement of women, the reasons why democracy collapsed or suffered ‘democide’ in the past and, in our times, the contested emergence of a brand new historical form of democracy, ‘monitory democracy’. Maruyama Masao, 1959. Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley Probing and stretching the taken-for-granted horizons of democracy, the whole approach is inspired by the observation of the famous Japanese scholar Masao Maruyama (1914 – 1996) that democracy is never a given, and should not be taken for granted. At various points in his prolific writings, Maruyama insisted that democracy is a unique political form nurtured by leaps of imagination - fictional horizons - that shape people’s sense of reality. These horizons encourage human beings to reject the ‘psychology of the ruled’, to regard each other as equals, as citizens who reject arbitrary power because they suppose they are capable of governing themselves without recourse to the bossing and manipulation inevitably associated with fascism, dictatorship and other anti-democratic political forms. The mutability of horizons makes them a useful metaphor for what these two volumes aim to achieve. Those who deal daily with horizons - airline pilots, fishermen, coastguards, surveyors, landscape artists - know from experience that they are deceptive and contestable. Horizons are not fixed points or tangible places. They constantly play tricks on our senses, seduce us into believing that distances and destinations are tangible, that they can be defined, plotted and searched for with a fair measure of certainty. To speak of transforming the horizons of democracy through careful study of its past and present, as these two volumes seek to do, is therefore to draw attention to the need for ‘thinking outside the box’, for what philosophers sometimes call ‘abductive’ reasoning. What these volumes attempt, in other words, is a whole new approach to an old subject, ‘blue skies’ thinking, a fresh grasp of matters that are of pressing importance to the present and future of democracy, whether in Japan, or in the wider world. The approach of these books is guided by a combination of methods. In the tradition first outlined in Alexis de Tocqueville’s ground-breaking odyssey Democracy in America (1836), these works suppose that novel re-descriptions of democracy must seek enrichment through careful observations of past and present experiments with democracy: in other words, by drawing patiently on context-sensitive, evidence-based analyses of democratic languages, institutions and actors, whether in classical Greece, the late medieval cities of Europe, revolutionary America, or in contemporary India and China. The approach further supposes that past and present democratic realities are always infused with ideals, so that accounts of democratic ethics are not a theoretical distraction or indulgence of philosophers, but a vital component of the study of democracy. The competing and conflicting arguments for and against democracy, and new twenty-first century arguments for its superiority as a way of publicly constraining the exercise of power, are very much part of its gripping history. These volumes also ask of readers a new, much stronger sense of historical awareness of the origins and twenty-first century fate of democracy. The systematic appeal to historicity is made not just because ignorance of the past inevitably spawns misunderstandings of the present, but (less obviously) because democracy, as these volumes try to show at length, is a uniquely time-sensitive political form that cultivates a shared sense of the contingency of power relations, a sense among citizens and their representatives that the way things are, or might be in future, is never simply ‘given’, or ‘natural’, but always subject to change driven by their political choices. The volumes further request of readers an expansive view of democracy as a whole way of life. Democracy is more than just a mode of electioneering, or a type of government. These volumes try to show that democracy affects not only who wins elections and who governs, but how men treat women, whether or not children, the disabled or the elderly are regarded as citizens, and whether democracy is nurtured by religious belief or is capable of preventing large-scale industrial accidents, or making room for the representation of the biosphere in human affairs. The Life and Death of Democracy adopts a wide-angle view of democracy. It tackles such diverse themes as the contributions of cities to democratic life, the decline of political parties and the contemporary rise of citizens’ initiatives and public scrutiny bodies such as Human Rights Watch and WikiLeaks. These volumes also pay attention to the democracy-shaping role played by nationalism, violence and war in processes of democratisation, the power of communications media, the rise of the middle classes, the self-contradictions of market-driven growth, populism and the lingering force of religious belief in everyday life. These two volumes are motivated, finally, by strong dissatisfaction with the unthinking habit of applying Western yardsticks when studying democracy. Despite many ups and downs, these volumes show, the language and institutions of democracy in representative form have made their mark in virtually every part of the Asia and Pacific region, and the rest of the planet, on a scale never before witnessed. Some scholars draw the conclusion that most Asia-Pacific democracies, whether in Japan or Taiwan or India, are in essence replicas of the Anglo-American model of two party electoral democracy. These volumes show that this conclusion is unwarranted, minimally because it fails to see that an important process of ‘hybridisation’ of democracy is also at work. It is not just that since 1945 the so-called Westminster or Washington models of parliamentary democracy have largely failed to take root in the region. The more potent point is that the Asia and Pacific world is making its mark on democracy, doing important things to its spirit, language and institutions. This metamorphosis has gone largely unregistered in the literature on democracy, whose textbook treatments (those of the English scholars David Held and John Dunn, for instance) of various ‘models’ of democracy have a distinctively Eurocentric bent which ignores the growing numbers of anomalous cases, past and present. Processes of democratisation in India and Taiwan, no less than in Indonesia and among Tibetan exiles, are different; they are not simple repetitions of past European patterns. The starting point of these volumes is that the centre of gravity of research on democracy continues to be universities, think tanks and other institutions located in the Atlantic region, and that their monopoly grip is untenable and needs to be broken. Hence the need for a new approach that both acknowledges that the imaginary homelands of democracy are changing, away from the Atlantic region and, just as importantly, supposes that the global future of democracy will be powerfully determined by its current and future fortunes in the Asia and Pacific region. Sydney and Berlin. August 2013

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,100 academics and researchers from 4,980 institutions.

Register now