Building Democracy in Japan: An Insight

Author: Sherry Helms

Guest Author: Mary Alice Haddad

What is going on in Japan?  The staid, stagnant nature of postwar Japan politics seems to have been upended.  Contemporary Japanese society and politics have seen dramatic transformations in the last few decades, upsetting many of our understandings and stereotypes about the country. Building Democracy in Japan examines contemporary Japan as part of a continuing story of democratization and change.

Building Democracy in Japan uses the Japanese experience to ask broad questions about democracy and the democratization process: How is democracy made real?  How does an undemocratic country create new institutions and transform its polity such that democratic values and practices become integral parts of its political culture? Through investigating the answer to these questions, the book tells the bottom-up story of Japan’s democratization process.

The fundamental argument of Building Democracy in Japan is that democratization is a long process that involves the mutual adjustment of imported liberal democratic values, institutions, and practices with the political values, institutions, and practices that are present in the country prior to the onset of the democratization process.  Furthermore, it argues that Japan reached a generational “tipping point” in the 1990s when the generations of Japanese who were educated in a democratic Japan reached a majority of the voting population and took over many key leadership positions in government, business, and civil society.  This new generation of democratically educated Japanese had different ideas about the appropriate role of government, citizens, and business in society and began to make profound institutional and cultural changes to Japanese political culture.

The book is organized into sections that focus on the struggles with democratization in the government, civil society, and in individual lives.  The sections about the government examine the ways that government has become more transparent and accountable, even as the reach of its power has expanded.  One of the civil society chapters looks at “traditional” civic organizations that existed prior to the war and have persisted and evolved in the postwar period, changing from undemocratic organizations structured to support a fascist military regime to democratic groups that help citizens get what they need from their government.  The other civil society chapter examines “new” groups that formed after the war, groups that were founded on liberal democratic principals and have found ways to meld those ideals with important tenants of Japan’s traditional political culture.  The chapter examining individual Japanese responses to the democratization process focuses specifically on women, finding that democracy has had a paradoxical effect on women’s power, expanding their power over their individual lives, but reducing their collective power to influence society.

These broad arguments about the long social and political processes that lead to dramatic political, social, and economic changes is told largely through stories of real people on the ground.  The most fun and exciting aspects of the book can be found in the nuanced and often hilarious stories of communities, organizations, and individual Japanese as they struggle with transforming their political culture.

The book contains stories of how a neighborhood association chief stands up to his city government, shifting the power dynamics in his town from one where the city identifies the problem and tells the neighborhood association what to do to one where the neighborhood association identifies the problem and then tells the city government what to do.  It tells the story of how the Association of New Elder Citizens’ finds ways not only to improve the health and welfare of its senior citizen members but also to reach out to children and help them learn to become good democratic citizens that contribute to a more peaceful world.  It recounts the story of a young mother who decides to marry a foreigner and then quit her job rather than face the stress of combining motherhood with career, demonstrating her both her increased individual power to make decisions about her own life but perhaps a reduced collective power to influence politics.

It is through these stories that we can understand how citizens make (and remake) democracy around the globe.  Readers will finish the book with a much richer and more personal understanding of contemporary Japanese political culture. The author hopes that learning more about Japan’s democratization process will also cause readers to reflect on the politics in their own countries and how they may be contributing to democracy at home.

Mary Alice Haddad is an Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University. Her scholarship studies comparative politics, with a focus on civil society, and a regional specialization in East Asia. She is the author of Politics and Volunteering in Japan: A Global Perspective (Cambridge, 2007), Building Democracy in Japan (Cambridge,  2012), numerous articles and book chapters, and has delivered more than 25 invited talks and conference presentations. She has received numerous awards and fellowships from organizations such as the Japan Foundation, the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, the East Asian Institute, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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