Monday, June 05, 2006

Japan, Democracy and Iraq

From time to time Japan is held up as a model for the democratic transformation of its neighborhood that the architects of the Iraq War hope will happen if Iraq becomes a functioning democracy.

The US defeated Japan in World War I, overthrew a fascist dictatorship, and installed democracy. Other Asian nations, seeing what a success Japan became after the war followed her example, leading to the transformation of Asia. So goes the theory.

One of the leading proponents of this theory is foreign affairs analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute, who has written:

“It [the Iraqi project] would be akin to how Japan showed other nations over a period of decades that democratic principles can co-exist with East Asian traditional values and aspirations and so made the transformation of East Asia possible.”

Or again, “Fifteen, twenty years after the US occupation of Japan was over, when there was a functioning democracy in Japan, it changed a lot of perceptions throughout East Asia. For the first time East Asians could look at Japan and say, ‘that’s the kind of state I could imagine living in’.”

This argument, while having a surface appeal, has a lot of problems, and I don’t think that Pollack, who is, I believe a Middle East specialist, knows much about Japanese or Asian history, post World War II.

To begin it is popularly believed that the US came in and abolished the Japanese government replacing it with a new one– regime change in current parlance. Not so. The Japanese government that surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in September, 1944, was the same government through that administered his decrees.

And of course, the US administration retained not just the monarchy, but the very monarch, under which Japanese soldiers fought and died in the Pacific.

Japan had democratic institutions to build on stretching back to the Meiji Constitution of 1889, which created the Diet (parliament). To be sure only men could vote, and there were probably property qualifications for the franchise, but that was not so different from our own early steps.

Japan was well on its way to liberal democracy – the “Taisho democracy” of the 1920s - when, militarists, exploiting weaknesses in the constitution, gained their blood-grip over the country. During the occupation the Americans removed these loopholes and gave the franchise to women. That’s about all it did to help create democracy.

So, has Japan been a beacon for democracy in Asia since the end of the American occupation? The governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which first came to power in 1955, last year celebrated 50 years of virtually unbroken power. Only the Chinese Communist Party has been in power longer in Asia.

Japan has yet to accomplish what India has done – namely change governments through elections, going from the Congress Party, to the BJP and back again. For that matter, Japanese people haven’t accomplished what people of Taiwan or South Korea have done – change governments.

One can take this too far and insist, as some do, that Japan isn’t really a democracy. Actually, last year’s general election, in which Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to the voters on a major issue, postal privatization was a pretty nifty example of democracy in action. It’s just that it was the opposition that got creamed.

For that matter, Japanese have shown no hesitation to dump unpopular prefectural governors. (Japan is unusual in having a parliamentary form of government at the national level and a “presidential” form at the provincial level.

And it is debatable whether Taiwan or South Korea would have pulled off a change in administrations if they had parliamentary governments instead of directly elected chief executives. (To my knowledge, the pan-green alliance of President Chen Shui-bian has never held a majority in the Taiwan legislature.)

In fact there is an “Asian Way” to democracy, and it has nothing to do with Japan and little to do with the US. This holds that the country starts out as an enlightened dictatorship. The government puts in place economic policies that lead to prosperity. A rising middle class begins to agitate for more freedoms and participation in government.

This is generally the path followed by South Korea and Taiwan and possibly Thailand and Indonesia. Many hope that it is a path one day followed by China, although there are no guarantees. The Asian Way to democracy has a certain logic to it, but it is not exactly an immutable law of physics.

In this the US has had mostly a passive role. It has extended an umbrella of protection that has allowed these countries to develop. Many local nationals lived and studied in the US and brought back some of its liberal values. And it provided markets that helped lift these countries out of poverty.

As for Japan, it is probably true that Asian nations have been more inclined to copy its merchantilist economy policies rather than its political practices. But for many in Asia Japan isn’t really an Asian model for anything; indeed, many don’t even think Japan is Asian.


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