Volume 4 Number 3
Japan's Democratic Role
01 March 1991

Last November marked the centenary of Japan's parliamentary system. Yet politics has become a bad word in the country after a series of scandals involving senior politicians.

Last November marked the centenary of Japan's parliamentary system. Yet politics has become a bad word in the country after a series of scandals involving senior politicians. Polls show that of all occupations politics commands the least support among young Japanese.

So an international symposium on `What does democracy mean today? - reflections on the will of the people' attracted wide interest. It was organized by the Ozaki Memorial Foundation. Yukio Ozaki, who died in 1954, aged 96, was Japan's longest serving MP. He was known as a man of integrity who was free from enmity.

After pointing to `encouraging events' in Europe, the invitation to the symposium warned: `However, it is a foolhardy illusion to assume that islands of prosperity can continue to exist untouched in a rising tide of poverty and injustice. The unity of the human race is vividly brought home to us as the invasion of what was formerly considered a remote nation affects every part of the globe.' It asks, `What can we learn from past mistakes and apply to the better management of the world?'

Huge cost
Reflecting the liberal and non-partisan nature of Ozaki's political ideas, the participants included conservative and progressive members of the Japanese Diet and officials, elected representatives, journalists and scholars from Australia, India, Romania, the USA and Zimbabwe.

Jim Ramsay, a former state cabinet minister in Victoria, Australia, noted that `democracy is increasingly being recognized as the highest form of government in a world which is wanting to champion the cause of human rights'. Democracy was not perfect but if governments and people continued to abuse power, wealth and position, democracy would suffer and people pay a huge cost, he warned.

Florence Chitauro, Zimbabwe's Vice-Minister of Labour and Human Resources, Planning and Social Welfare, said, `Democracy means accountability of the rulers to the ruled.' Africa's experience had not been encouraging, she said. `There are cases of leaders who got to power after leading the struggle against colonial rule and they remained in power for many years after. In the majority of cases opposition leaders have been jailed, killed or forced into exile, and opposition political parties have been banned.'

She said that in addition to 140 elective seats in Zimbabwe there were 12 which the President could nominate. This had been useful to take care of groups who had failed to get representatives elected such as whites and trade unionists.

Kunihiro Masao, a Japanese political commentator turned politician, claimed that the system of representative parliament was itself under attack in the industrialized democracies. It was becoming increasingly difficult for governments to take necessary unpopular decisions. He noted wryly that Japan was one of a handful of countries where the party in government had not changed in the last four decades.

A Diet member who has been re-elected eight times gave three reasons why politics was murky in Japan. Kono Yohei said that elections were not fought on policy issues; political parties had become 'black boxes', where nothing was transparent; and debates in the Diet had become mere ceremony. It was not clear who made decisions and why, he claimed.

Kan Naoto, a young socialist, advocated a mechanism for banning corrupt politicians from standing for election. He noted that there was not one case of a politician resigning after being found guilty of buying his election.

There was a general consensus that Japanese democracy was at a turning point. Serious global issues needed bold and imaginative leadership. No nation could afford not to work with others in a serious collective effort to find just solutions to these issues, and in the process find space and new roles for each other.

Asked to comment, Rajmohan Gandhi, a member of the Indian parliament's upper house, struck a chord when he said, `Japanese democracy and its effectiveness may be linked to Japan's role in the world. Japanese democracy will reach fulfilment when the Japanese people define their role in the world as a whole.'

Fujiko Hara

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