ArticleJapan’s autonomous renewal and also the survival of the free orderMireya SolísFriday, January 22, 2021

Executive summary

Japan plays a central role in the undertaking to rekindle liberal internationalism. The nation boasts one of Asia’s oldest democracies and also the fulcrum the institutions and norms the representative democracy: free and same elections, ascendancy of law, complete civil rights, and freedom that the press. Offered that stable democracies that have readjusted to economic globalization and also avoided populist disruption are increasingly in quick supply, Japan’s strengths room undisputable. However, the existing era that political stability has derived largely native the fragmentation of the contrary parties, and there space troubling indicators of waning democratic dynamism such as voter apathy, tepid inter-party competition, and also the weakening of accountability channels.

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Mireya Solís

Director - facility for eastern Asia plan Studies

Senior fellow - international Policy, facility for east Asia policy Studies

Philip items Chair in Japan Studies


Internationally, the united States and also Japan re-publishing concerns about democratic recession and China’s coercive diplomacy. Even though Washington and also Tokyo have not historically to adjust on a strategy that democracy promotion, they have the right to coordinate efforts to ensure democratic resilience and also the survive of the free order. Japan has long pressed to incorporate democracies in Asia’s local architecture and also to disseminate financial standards the tame corruption and also curb digital protectionism, and it has grew deeper security collaboration with democracies the share strategic interests. These are diplomatic tracks that can find resonance with the Biden administration.


As the second decade that the 21st century drew to a close, the human being order has been spend by a vortex the change. The casualties that the COVID-19 pandemic save mounting both in terms of lives lost and also livelihoods shattered. Federal government competence has been experiment — and frequently found wanting — in the pressing jobs of outbreak control and also long-term financial viability. For plenty of nations, COVID-19 has actually underscored the farming inequalities the opportunity and risk and the deep tears to the social towel that confound whole-of-society responses. The international order has not fared lot better. The U.S.-China rift has actually deepened, vaccine nationalism and also economic mercantilism have actually reared your ugly heads, and the heart of multilateral cooperation has in ~ times appeared depleted. Lengthy gone are the days as soon as liberal democracy looked ascendant. Not only have actually authoritarian governments perfected digital tools of society control, however populism has shaken the organizations of representative democracy in the West. The obstacles for the united States, long a example of the cost-free world, are specifically poignant together the recent assaults by members the the shedding party ~ above the truth of the presidential election outcome attest.

At this crucial juncture, the is nevertheless feasible to construct on optimistic trends. Science, through the record-breaking development of vaccines, has available us the truly viable strategy to overcome the pandemic. Oriental democracies, leaning on the great learned from past infectious disease outbreaks, have demonstrated their capacity to respond effectively to the existing public health situation without compromising polite liberties. Global supply chains have actually proven resilient and also ensured that the people economy did not seize increase with lengthy shortages of vital supplies. Middle powers have actually doubled under on rules-based profession brokering large agreements. The just arrived Biden management has pledged to reassert American leadership in addressing transnational challenges, shoring up multilateralism, and also reinvesting in alliances. Main to its administration project is a contact for autonomous renewal, both in ~ home and abroad. These work will undoubtedly challenge myriad obstacles.

Japan’s credentials together a consolidated democracy matter more at a time that widespread democratic backsliding and also the rising affect of an authoritarian financial behemoth choose China.

Japan dram a main role in the endeavor to rekindle free internationalism. The nation boasts one of Asia’s earliest democracies and the fulcrum of institutions and also norms that representative democracy: complimentary and fair elections, ascendancy of law, complete civil rights, and also freedom of the press. Japan’s credentials together a consolidated democracy matter more at a time that widespread democratic backsliding and also the rising affect of one authoritarian economic behemoth like China. The move away indigenous “America First” transactionalism supplies an possibility for the united States and also Japan to deepen bonds based upon shared values and also seek come leverage their partnership to tackle transnational challenges and also shore increase multilateralism. Do the U.S.-Japan alliance a bulwark of democracy is a shared and important goal, one the has gained greater urgency in irradiate of the profound difficulties to autonomous governance in America.

Given that steady democracies the have adjusted to financial globalization and avoided populist disruption are significantly in short supply, Japan’s strengths room undisputable. Yet, the nation’s penchant for stability has also come at a price, through troubling indications of declining democratic dynamism: dilute inter-party competition and disengaged voter frustrated by insufficient federal government transparency and responsiveness. In the past, Tokyo’s forays into values-based diplomat proceeded haltingly and the U.S. And also Japan have actually not converged ~ above the goals and also tactics that democracy promotion. Japan encounters a distinct set of obstacles in reinvigorating its own democracy, however can also share some lessons learned in its initiatives to deepen participation with fellow democracies and to promote governance and rule of law via financial assistance to arising Asia. Democratic resilience, sensible collaboration among like-minded countries, and also a commitment come a rules-based bespeak in the Indo-Pacific offer far-reaching venues for U.S.-Japan collaboration.

Revisiting Japan’s “uncommon democracy”

In expertise Japan’s autonomous trajectory, that is helpful to revisit the moniker applied to the country during the Cold war era as an “uncommon democracy.” The term was provided to denote the phenomenon of years of unbroken ascendancy by a dominant party (the conservative Liberal democratic Party, or LDP) in a political device with complimentary elections and media, and also well-established civil and political rights.1 that course, much has readjusted domestically and also internationally since. The LDP shed power twice (for a few months ~ the election of respectable 1993 and also for 3 years in 2009-2012), and the geopolitical context has actually also adjusted dramatically through the please of the Soviet Union, a minute of American unipolarity, and also the transition to U.S.-China strategic rivalry. And yet, Japan has reverted come a leading political ticket (the LDP add to its coalition companion Komeito, a lay-Buddhist party) dwarfing the opposite parties. The U.S.-China context does not approximate the original Cold battle (given China’s substantial integration right into the contemporary world economy and the absence of a official Chinese bloc the influence), yet it has increasingly gained an ideological undertone through calls for the “free world” to protest Chinese authoritarianism.

Hence, “uncommon democracy” uses a advantageous frame to highlight what to adjust Japan apart from various other liberal democracies rocked through populism, the distinctive democratic evolution wherein apathy trumps polarization,2 and the different approach on democratic support gone after by Tokyo in its aid diplomacy towards Asia — soil zero for U.S.-China strategy competition.

Bucking the populist trend

Populism is much from a brand-new political phenomenon, however it has risen lately to brand-new prominence in west democracies together it has actually made electoral inroads through the cultivation weight of much right parties in continental Europe, the success of the Brexit campaign, and also a populist American chairman in Donald J. Trump. Populism thrives as soon as the politics establishment appears ineffective in addressing the pertains to of disaffected citizens, and also it has actually important results for both representative democracy at home and an open international order. It deserve to yield illiberalism by fostering exclusionary national politics (where only the interests of the “true people” matter), and by eroding institutional checks and balances. And to the degree that the country’s ills room attributed to outside forces, populist governments favor close up door borders and economic conference policies.

Japan’s political security has cut a stark comparison to the upswing of populist pressures elsewhere. In September 2020, prime Minister Shinzo Abe perfect an eight-year operation in office together the longest-serving element minister in Japan’s history. During his tenure, Japan moved towards more economically liberal plans by assuming management in ambitious trade negotiations and with more modest immigration reforms to allow entry of hands-on workers. While the lock of the establishment on Japanese politics looks secure, the public has grown irritable with lengthy economic stagnation and the palpable climb of earnings inequality. The disappointment has actually manifested in growing ranks that unaffiliated voter (by some counts 39% of total voters in the last basic election in 2017) that can decide vote when persuaded by a candidate’s reform promises. They come in pressure in 2005 because that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi once he struck vested interests in ~ his very own party, in 2009 because that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama once he led the democratic Party of Japan’s dethroning of the judgment party, and also in 2018 for branch of Tokyo Yuriko Koike when she promised come disrupt the “old young network.” but none of this maverick political leaders preached or practiced populism to the hinderance of Japan’s representative democracy. Nor has the Japanese public scapegoated globalization. If anything, with the realization that demographics dictate a shrinking internal market, an open trading system is seen much more as possibility than peril.3

Dashed wishes for a more competitive party system

The rhythm of postwar Japanese politics was largely set by the rules of electoral competition. The solitary non-transferable poll in multi-member districts was no widely embraced elsewhere, yet it had actually important results for the development of Japan’s democracy. It compelled members the the exact same party to confront each other at the electoral booth, thereby weakening party labels and encouraging the operation of party factions to manage internal competition over nominations, funds, and also posts. Individual candidates seek to differentiate themselves through cultivating ties with blocs of arranged voters (construction, agriculture, etc.) or catering to the needs of local constituencies. Pork barrel practices and also money politics were rampant.

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The electoral and also political funding reforms ushered in throughout the short stint of a coalition of parties in opposition to the LDP in the early 1990s produced an opportunity to enhance the quality of Japanese democracy. Raised transparency in political funding with the establishment of windy subsidies because that political parties and the fostering of a hybrid electoral mechanism (with Japanese citizens spreading two votes in Lower residence elections: one because that a candidate in single-member districts and another because that a party in local blocs v proportional depiction rules for the allocation that seats) revolutionized the currents of Japanese politics. The role of factions declined and also programmatic campaigns became much more important to electoral contests. While corruption was not eliminated, the did lessen overall, and the pattern of politically-targeted budget spending (with “bridges to nowhere”) abated.4 much hope was put on the appearance of a durable two-party mechanism to bring about greater federal government accountability and spur healthy disputes over competing policy platforms.