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Friday, Sept. 26, 2008


Japan's mature spectators

Has democracy matured in Japan? Scholar-turned-politician Yoichi Masuzoe used to say Japan is a mature democratic nation, as its politics is led by public opinion. Recently, however, he seems to have reversed his way of thinking, as he states that Japanese citizens have become more like spectators than wielders of sovereign power.

Masuzoe, 59, majored in political science at the prestigious University of Tokyo, and studied further at the University of Paris and at the International Institute of Higher Education in Geneva. He taught at his alma mater in Tokyo for 10 years from 1979 and made himself famous as a television commentator before entering politics — garnering 1,580,000 votes in the 2001 Upper House election on the Liberal Democratic Party ticket. He has been health and welfare minister since August 2007.

In his book published in May 2007, which deals with the power struggle between elected politicians and bureaucrats, Masuzoe says: "The nation can have sound politics only when public opinion plays the leading role, and that is the most fundamental principle of democracy. In Japan today, public opinion constitutes the strongest political force, as it is directly reflected in politics.

"This means that Japan's democracy has reached maturity at long last. Herein lies the importance of public opinion. If public opinion goes in a wrong direction, so will politics."

This is a clear indication of his belief that the democracy introduced to Japan by the occupation forces after World War II has taken root, although he seems to harbor uncertainty as to where public opinion is headed.

In the same book, he states that politics is no longer dictated by the power struggle between elected politicians and bureaucrats, as public opinion plays an increasingly important role. "In particular," he says, "television influences both public opinion and politics. Legislative bills cannot be passed without the support of public opinion."

According to Masuzoe, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka are among those skilled in using television to their advantage, while former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ex-Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi are not.

Masuzoe thinks there is a three-way battle to win influence over voters among elected politicians, bureaucrats and TV stations. Deviating from his earlier position that Japan has entered an age of mature democracy with public opinion taking the lead, he now thinks TV programs have become so influential that they could determine the fate of major legislative agenda.

As an example, he points to the popular program emceed by Monta Mino. When Monta Mino clamored for tightening regulations on personal loans, political parties felt compelled to fall in line with him for fear of losing the next election, Masuzoe says, adding that such relations run counter to democratic principles.

He seems fed up with the flood of demands from Mino and other TV personalities. Masuzoe has borne the brunt of wrath from all corners of the nation with regard to the mishandling of pension records by the Social Insurance Agency and the introduction of the new health insurance scheme for elderly people.

While some people sympathized with him for experiencing hard times, their voices were overwhelmed by bitter criticisms of the haphazard manner in which pensions and other important matters directly impacting the lives of ordinary citizens has been handled. This has led Masuzoe to turn his gun not only against the print media and TV but also against citizens in general.

He wrote in the September issue of the monthly Chuo Koron magazine: "The mass communications media carried out a major campaign (against his ministry) without verifying details. Although some arguments put out by the print media were well balanced, TV commentators tended to be biased and to draw oversimplified conclusions.

"The media are not the only ones to be blamed. A problem also lies with Japanese citizens in general, many of whom only applaud the likes of Monta Mino and Ichiro Furudate, who angrily and harshly take politicians and bureaucrats to task for failing to perform their duties. This lack of responsibility on the part of ordinary citizens may be best described as 'spectator democracy.' "

What he is saying is that not only TV stations but also the general public are responsible for the current state of Japanese politics. In the so-called three-way power struggle among elected politicians, bureaucrats and television, he is suggesting that the citizenry is helping television poison politics.

Conspicuously missing in his argument is an assessment of politicians and bureaucrats. Presumably, Masuzoe, as a former scholar, cannot afford to blame all of the three combatants because of the fear that it may suggest a total denial of democratic principles.

His magazine article goes on to state: "Democracy by definition would not work without active participation by citizens. In Japan today, however, I am afraid the people have forgotten the principle that the nation's betterment cannot be hoped for unless they work by the sweat of their brow. They are talkative but passive at the same time. If they remain so, Japanese society will collapse."

By calling ordinary citizens "spectators," Masuzoe has effectively abandoned his earlier assertion that democracy in Japan has matured.

The question now is, how persuasive is this about-face of his? His criticism of television is understandable. But he refrains from expressing his views as to who has been most responsible for the current state of politics in Japan.

It is obvious that bureaucrats rank as the top culprit, followed by politicians, television and the general public, in that order. Masuzoe will do only a disservice to the nation if he refuses to face this reality and relies instead on creating a new expression like "spectator democracy."

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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