Democratic Evolution in the Age of the Internet                   


                                              Yuki Ishikawa



 It is a little known fact, particularly in the eyes of Americans, that Japan is one of the older democracies in the world, with its 1946 Constitution ensuring the liberty and equality of all its citizens.  Indeed, Japan ranks with such countries as France, Belgium, and Switzerland when it comes to universal suffrage.  In all these countries suffrage was not extended to women until after World War II.  Yet the popular consensus at least in the West is that Japan is not as democratic as, say, France is.  Why is this?  Is democracy as it is practiced in Japan different than American or French one?  Is Japan, the only non-Western G-8 member country, an oddball in the world of democracies?


Japan is an intriguing case of democratization.  In what follows, I shall discuss the pros and cons of democratization, Japanese style, and additionally call attention to the prospect that the Internet in the form of electronic "town hall meetings" may become the savior of democracy in Japan.


(1) Liberal Democracy


In the aftermath of World War II Japan had no option but to reinvent itself in the hands of victorious Americans and, needless to say, in the image of American society.  The crushing defeat spelled Americanization for Japan.  The postwar Constitution, drafted by American New Dealers, was imposed on the Japanese as the canon of rebuilding their society literally from the ground up.  It clearly embodies the spirit of American democracy, which is often referred to as liberal democracy.  It should be noted here that liberal democracy is not a logical extension of liberalism and democracy but a historical evolution of the two.  In other words, democracy came as a late addition to the laissez-faire economy and the liberal state.  Liberalism, which enshrines liberty as the source of value-adding activities and respects our capacity to choose our ends and values, does not necessarily call for democratic franchise.        


Democratization, if understood in this light, calls for liberalization or liberal society before democracy takes root.  The question that arises is whether the historical sequence of democratization, that is, liberalism followed by democracy, can be reversible at all.  Is it possible for an illiberal society to embrace democracy first and then take steps toward liberalizing it?  The case of Japan suggests that the reversed course is not impossible altogether and that it is likely to spawn a different kind of democracy.  Democracy, Japanese style, has compromised its position on equality, shifting emphasis from equality in outcome to equality in opportunity.


The latest lesson in history is that democratization at the expense of liberty --  i.e., the Soviet model -- is not a viable alternative to liberal democracy.  This, however, does not mean that non-liberal democracy has gone bankrupt theoretically and should be avoided at all costs.  The question at hand is rather how liberty and democracy relate to each other.  It turns out, however, that the inquiry is much more complex than it may seem at first glance.  As John Gray astutely observes, liberalism embodies two philosophies that hinge on the meanings of toleration.[1]  The liberal state rests on the notion of liberty as the engine of creativity and is presumably aimed at maximizing individual liberties.  Since free individuals are bound to collide with each other over a variety of stake-holding issues, the liberal state emphasizes the across-the-board need for toleration.  Given that, the question is what toleration is for.  Viewed from one side, as Gray puts it, it is an instrument of rational consensus on the best way of life.  This liberal view is in line with the Enlightenment and presupposes something like a universal civilization into which all different opinions, values, and ways of life ultimately dissolve.


Liberal toleration also suggests an ideal of modus vivendi, which celebrates the diversity of values and concepts of good life.  Gray contends that liberalism, in order for it to have a future, must look to peaceful coexistence of incommensurable and conflicting values.  For it is simply unrealistic to assume that societies, in an age of globalization and cultural experimentation, will remain homogeneous in what is believed to be the best way of life.  In vogue is the belief that people can flourish in a diversity of lifestyles and values.  Pluralism, according to Gray, is a historical fate.[2] As a result, the liberal state, viewed from this angle, must accommodate many ways of life and facilitate their coexistence in a mutually agreeable manner.


Historically, democracy contains two competing approaches.  At issue is who should participate in public affairs.  The idealist version of democracy demands that all citizens take part in the public decision-making process as part of self-government.  By sharp contrast, the democratic realist insists that public affairs be left in the hands of few legislators, bureaucrats, and other governing elites.  The idealist-realist debate drives a wedge between democratic populism and democratic elitism, as it did between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann in the 1920s.  The bone of contention is whether an uninformed citizenry is capable of making sound decisions in public affairs, or whether such decision-making should be left to the responsible administrators alone and ordinary citizens should confine their interest to procedural concerns like electing officials.  It goes without saying that idealists like Dewey firmly believe democracy is first and foremost educative.  A true democracy is, in Dewey's view, a society in which there will be opportunities for individual growth, opportunities for free communication of feeling, knowing, and thinking.  The foundation of such a society is free participation by each individual in setting his or her goals and purposes, and full and willing contribution by each person toward the fulfillment of these goals.[3]


Deliberative democracy is a solution to this seemingly endless debate.  Popular deliberations are both educative and procedural.  Educative in that participants are required to process information, draw conclusions, and exchange opinions with others.  Procedural in that citizens have to deliberate the selection of representatives that take part in public deliberations on their behalf.  Civic deliberations are therefore democratic in essence, although the level of engagement by the citizenry varies from one type of democracy to another.  In addition, democratic deliberations can be also a means to liberal ends, a rational consensus on the best life or modus vivendi.  It therefore follows that deliberative democracy is in essence of the liberal variant.


(2) Toward Liberal Democracy


Japan since the mid-19th century presents an eventful yet puzzling case of democratization worthy of close scrutiny.  The country's brief history of democracy divides in roughly two periods.  A period between 1868 and 1945 marks a Hobbesean state-building with a variety of democratic apparatuses put in place, followed by a period since the end of WWII, which heralds an institutional shift to liberal democracy.  The first period of democratization tragically led to the rise of military fascism and ended up in the 1945 surrender.  Where did the democracy go astray?


Democracy was introduced in the late 19th century as Japan, after more than three centuries of isolationism, underwent a revolution of a sort staged by oligarchs and, with the US and European powers holding the country at gunpoint, stepped into a brave new world where Western imperialists roamed about in search of fresh prey.  The feudal system of government under a shogun (generalissimo) fell apart and gave way, not to a democratic movement demanding popular participation in the political process, but to a nationalist effort to build a modern state by restoring authority to the emperor.  The ultimate objective was to bring forth what would look like a Hobbesian state where the emperor voices the general will and is endowed with absolute authority.  Missing in this state building was the people's voluntary consent to regard the emperor as sovereign.  That's why he had to be heavily mythologized as divine and accepted as super-human in the unbroken lineage of the imperial family.  The people of this centralized state were turned into the subjects, and along with the new status came a string of new state-imposed obligations such as taxes and conscription.


In addition, seeds of democracy were planted in the late 19th century as the emperor-led state offered democratic trappings such as constitution (1889), parliament (1890), and limited suffrage (1890) for controlled popular participation.  None of these institutions, however, were given real power in the decision-making process.  The Constitution of 1890, for example, was presented as a personal gift from the emperor and as such, it aimed to formalize his supreme authority.  The emperor was essentially free to veto and overrule legislation.  Although freedom of faith was granted conditionally, Japan was a far cry from a liberal state.


Democratic institutions were imposed from above as givens, and some simply did not take root.  For example, traditional social organizations like neighborhood associations were replaced, as local units of government, by villages, townships, and cities, which were introduced in 1888.  But villagers and townspeople continued to turn to their traditional organizations for socialization, mutual aid, and other communal ends, while urban residents were becoming disenfranchised.  In this double structure local autonomous governments that had little popular participation were relegated to administrative organs for the central government, executing orders from Tokyo.  In the mid-1920s, when recession-triggered economic woes caused social unrest throughout Japan, town mayors and other local leaders began to call for reinstating neighborhood associations as an official unit of local government.  Later on, as the country was gearing up war preparation, the neighborhood association was brought back to the center stage as an intelligent unit in the name of social harmony and cooperation.  Under military fascism neighbors were organized in such a way that they were forced to spy on one another.  At this point, with buds of democracy nipped altogether, the emperor's state became a war machine.


In the aftermath of WWII the tide was swiftly reversed.  Under the postwar scheme to turn a militant Japan into a pacifist Japan, Americans set out to democratize the war-torn country modeled on their liberal democracy.  Paradoxically, the Japanese won, or more precisely, were handed over, a democracy at the expense of a war.  More than half a century later, however, there is growing evidence that Japanese-style democracy is increasingly dysfunctional.  The last decade -- a period in which Japan's high-growth economy stalled and single-party ruling since 1955 abruptly ended -- speaks volumes about the country's inability to chart a new course.  Called into question is the country's public decision-making mechanism.  Democracy is being challenged.


In a few decades following the end of WWII the Japanese successfully modified US-style liberal democracy to attain at the single national goal of economic recovery.  Economic pragmatism took precedence over everything else while, at the same time, democracy was elevated into something of a dogma calling for faith.  Democratic creeds like liberty and equality were sanctified in the American-drafted postwar Constitution (1946), engendering a huge following of democracy as a new national canon.  Politically, the Constitution has since become a thorny issue that drives a wedge between nationalism-leaning conservatives and pro-democracy liberals.


In a period between 1955 and 1993 the Liberal Democratic Party single-handedly ruled the country, and the largest opposition group, the Socialist Party, played liberal sidekick.  The latter was a perennial No.2 party, not a viable political force that would threaten to take the place of the LDP, and it accordingly found its raison d'etre in opposing LDP policies.  Political stability was the dividend of this ideological polarization.  In such a political climate, politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders with labor leaders included, who all agreed that economic growth was the nation's top priority, forged an informal policy-making consortium.  Japanese-style corporatism was aimed at rationalizing the country's economic system as a collaborative enterprise for all players, in which politicians function primarily as an intermediate between policy-making bureaucrats and for-profit corporations.


In post-WWII Japan politics has become something like a go-between among competing interest groups such as, among others, big businesses, labor unions, farmers, ideologues, and religious followers.  The flip side of this arrangement is that there is little room for the individuals in the political process.  Organized interests are therefore instrumental in shaping the political agenda.  The result is political apathy among the voters, as clearly demonstrated by the steady decline in voter turnouts in the lower-house elections since 1946.


Japan is in transition.  Many Japanese, after a decade of economic slump, have parted with what was believed to be their unshaken faith in economic growth.  Much in demand now is a future vision of Japanese society.  Even more important is how the people will reach a consensus on what kind of society they wish to live in.  It is the people, not the government, that must pick up where the postwar system of corporative governance left off.  In short, postwar Japanese democracy is being tested for the first time.


 Pre-WWII Japan wasn't much of a liberal society.  The political theorist Masao Maruyama points out that in Japanese society the private has never been established as the antithesis of the public.  As a result, individuality was always seen as evil.[4] The emperor, who was sovereign, did not act like Hitler because, according to Maruyama, people in power, including even those in the middle to lower echelon, such as landowners, small-factory owners, shopkeepers, teachers, and petty bureaucrats, failed to identify themselves as individuals, detached from organizations, and blindly accepted their roles as executioners of imperial orders.[5] There was little evidence that they found themselves in a moral qualm and called their behavior into question.  Introduced against this backdrop was liberal-democracy.


In the ensuing years, however, social capital did not increase as many of Japanese men replaced military uniforms with business suits and made the workplace their community.  There the absence of individuality was stressed as a virtue, making the corporate world akin to the prewar state. Major cracks in the Japanese corporate world resulting from the recession of recent years are indeed a mixed blessing, providing democracy a chance.  The economic hardship may liberate the Japanese from pre-modern work settings and offer them a fresh opportunity to rebuild their lives, to seek civic life in communities other than the workplace.


Luckily, they already have such a mechanism -- liberal democracy -- in place.  But this liberal democracy is without the benefits of liberated individuals and works like elitist democracy.  Since the start of modernization in Japan, it is the state (i.e., governing elites) that played highly visible roles in deciding on national goals, engineering development, and making all kinds of decisions in public affairs.  Civic engagement has been largely procedural, meaning that people occasionally cast ballots and leave most decisions in the hands of elected officials, career bureaucrats, and business leaders. With this elitist model at an impasse, the Japanese are now setting their sights on its reverse image, populist democracy.  To this end, however, they are in dire need of civic practice of democracy, more precisely deliberative democracy.  In practical terms, this means that they have to learn basic democratic skills, such as public speaking, debating, managing disagreements, compromising, organizing and running meetings.  Generally speaking, Japanese society does not place a high premium on public speaking and debating, partially because of its emphasis on cooperation and obedience.


(3) Democracy in the Age of the Internet


Social capital cannot be created overnight and, worse yet, face-to-face contacts in a not-so-liberal social context may discourage people from publicly taking stands.  The Internet may well be an ideal tool for jump-starting deliberative democracy in Japan.  The computer-based communication technology enables us to avoid the misgivings of face-to-face meetings and create 24-hour public forums for public-affairs discussion at relative ease.  The Internet will be most effective in helping people improve their democratic skills and laying down the groundwork for civic engagement.  It can be first and foremost an educational tool for political communication, which could help the citizenry take part in public affairs.  The Internet may brighten the prospect of heterogeneous-populist democracy, but Japan is still a long way off that goal.  The Japanese have yet to learn how to freely communicate with one another.  As John Dewey noted three quarters of a century ago, communication remains the key to democracy.  We have the physical tools of communication as never before.  The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence are not common.  Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself, but seizing and holding its shadow rather than its substance. Communication can alone create a great community.


Online forums are already a commonplace, and many of them are geared toward virtual community building.  Yet, very few are actually dedicated to educating and preparing the public for deliberative democracy.  In much the same way as the US during the Progressive Era pushed forward the forums movement targeted at citizens, including immigrants and new urban migrants, today's Japan is in need of adult civic education aimed at turning its people into practitioners of democracy.  Political culture and technology are evidently in Japan's favor.  After all, most Japanese know no other political regime than democracy.  In order for democracy to work not just as a system of government but also as a civic participatory process, the Japanese have yet to put liberty to work.  In addition, the nation's Internet users are on the rise, estimated at 36-plus million people or about 33% of the population at the end of 2001.  All things considered, conditions for electronic town hall meetings are definitely ripening.


The author, who recently returned to the US after a 2-year stint with a public policy think tank in Tokyo, has been deeply involved in an online democracy project initiated by Mie Prefecture in central Japan.  Little known outside of Japan, the Mie E-Democracy Forums ( is perhaps closest in spirit to the now-forgotten Forum Movement of the 1920s in the US and also at the forefront of the democracy movement on the Internet. 


The Mie Forums, after a year and a half of preparations, officially opened in May 2002 and has since emerged as one of the world's boldest attempts at nurturing deliberative democracy online.  In the seven months through December 31, 2002, the Forums received a total of more than 133,000 hits and 3,301 messages were posted, both easily exceeding their initial targets.  Although it is too early to tell whether the experiment is a success, it undisputedly faces an array of obstacles.  The most formidable of such challenges is how to convince people that it's okay to speak out on public affairs.  Indeed, democracy goes so far as to ensure that people are entitled not only to speak up but also to have speakers' access to places and to people (i.e., an audience).  This was the major reason for the Mie government's decision to offer a virtual place for public speaking.


The online Forums represents a groundbreaking shift in governing and its presence alone, in the author's opinion, outweighs any practical outcome.  The fact that a prefectural government, which has been the de facto ruler-administrator in an elitist democracy for most of the postwar years, is willing to break out of the status quo and take initiatives in breathing life into the democratic system signals a tectonic change that is quietly under way in Japan. 


Yet in a society, where reticence is long considered a virtue, participation in a public forum, be it on or off line, does not occur spontaneously and across the board.  The challenge for Mie is therefore significantly educational in that people will have to learn how to communicate with each other and be exposed to different viewpoints by taking part in communal forums.  What is more, this challenge is twofold.  Public speaking itself is quite a challenge for many Mie residents, who are known for their reservedness and laidback manner.  At the same time, the Internet is a technical challenge in Mie, where regular Net users account for significantly less than 30% of its 1.8 million people.


Whether people's need and desire to take part in public life overcomes cultural and technical impediments remains to be seen.  Japan's success in digging itself out of the decade-long stalemate depends largely on whether the Japanese are able to give life to democracy and create a liberal society.  We cannot turn our eyes away from Mie, where its online experiment might become a harbinger of a new democratic Japan.

[1] John Gray, Two Faces of Liberalism (New York, 2000)

[2] Ibid., 34

[3] John Dewey, John Dewey Lectures in China, 1919-1920, ed. Robert W. Clopton and Tsuin-chen Ou (Honolulu, 1973), p.98.

[4] Masao Maruyama, Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics, ed. by Ivan Morris (Oxford, 1963), pp.6-7.

[5] Maruyama, in his study of Japanese fascism, concludes that the prewar system of power had no accountability.