Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A contracting country

"Can democracy govern a shrinking Japan? If not, what can replace democracy?"

I pondered these questions over the New Year's holiday period--a ten day near eternity of national lassitude seemingly demonstrating that the country had lost its groove and did not care whether or not it got it back.

During the long break my boot heels took me through a passel of medium-sized cities and rural towns. With few exceptions, these communities were gasping for air and spitting up blood--their commercial districts half-occupied, metal awnings red with embarrassing rust, the proprietors of the remaining stores looking at me with far too much hope as I passed on foot before their establishments. Everyone was so nice to me--except in Yugawara, the one relatively prosperous town I passed through, the relative prosperity of which freed the officers of the tourist information office to pretend to not see me even as I asked them questions.

"Thank you and please never come back again!"

For the most part, however, the residents in the towns and cities I visit were too glad to see me--I had the very hardest time not returning laden with gifts of booklets, magazines, maps and cards or paying full price for meals I ordered. Too many merchants were just too happy that anybody showed up at all.

With the fall in local employment, the end of regulatory protections and the end of subsidies sending incomes into freefall, can voters outside the core prefectures be blamed for accepting the self-serving promises of the dope peddlers of socialism or, in anger, the physicians administering the anesthetic of nationalist pride? Should we call them ignorant losers for their inability to share an appreciation of how much their lives will be improved by the slash-and-burn techniques of investment bankers?

For the longest while the failures of Japanese democracy did not matter--the population was growing; the economy was growing; the downsides of trade were kept conveniently off-stage; the land beneath one's toes grew ever more valuable. Everyone could put up with iniquities because iniquities were temporary, or if permanent, still left everyone better off.

Democracy, even a deeply flawed and unequal democracy, can accommodate the reapportionment of surplus. It the reapportionment of pain that tests democracy--and so far, Japanese democracy has been found wanting.

Which community leader could go before the persons who selected her and tell the truth:

"Thanks for the votes...but honestly, much of this town should be shut down. I sincerely hope that all of you who have little in the way of assets or income pack up and leave now--because this area can only support a fraction of you. Those living on the outskirts, we are going to have to charge you extra for services. Those with property around the train station or at the superhighway exit, you are in luck because those are the only places I will work to save."

Something tells me that no elected politician could ever deliver the above speech.

In an opinion article published in the December 19, 2007 edition of the Financial Times, the usually upbeat columnist Martin Wolf expressed his doubts about Democracy's being able to reapportion emerging and unavoidable pains and sacrifices. In Wolf's view democracy's spread over the last two centuries has been concurrent with the a non-zero sum world economy. As long as the world economy offers opportunities for expansion, both on the granular scale and in total, then elites are willing to share power and the have-nots are willing to be patient.

Wolf worries that once the contest becomes zero-sum (or in the case of rural Japan, negative-sum) elites will balk at the demands of the less fortunate and try to cordon off what they have from expropriation. Those lower down will try to use their votes meanwhile to seize elite assets. Democracy will thus be the conduit for class and international conflict, rather than its dissipator.

Demographics, the international reorganization of labor & production and the limits of the globe's carrying capacity all guarantee difficult transitions for the OECD democracies. All will be struggling to cope with a necessary gearing down in the expectations of their publics.

In Japan the challenges of the transition will be heightened and the necessary actions delayed by a malfunctioning system of representation concentrating voting strength in exactly the areas and sectors that cannot be salvaged.

Can Japanese democracy be saved? Is there a national purpose or the national goal that could make palatable both individual sacrifice and a respect for property? Can the present political system or the present cast of characters find a way to manage the necessary transition? If even the most glaring and annoying flaws in Japan's political system could be fixed--the obvious and humiliating stupidities that have nevertheless thwarted the most energetic and fervid of reformers--who will lead the far more painful Great Retreat? Okada Tatsuya tried being honest, modest and realistic in 2005--and his party got slaughtered for his troubles.

How will the leaders of Japan next revolution be chosen? From whence will they gain their legitimacy?

For the revolution is upon us, and we are flailing.


Jan Moren said...

If you try to find a positive angle it would be that the countryside depopulation will leave too few people around to exercise their disproportionate voting strength for it to matter anymore. City voters will win by default.

But I'm more positive than you, I think. Just like a growing population, growing economy and a steady climb up the world rankings didn't last forever, neither will the shrinking population and economic and social malaise. It may take a generational shift in the political sphere and a rethink about what it means to be Japanese, socially and culturally for change to happen, but I think Japan is capable of it.

Anonymous said...

It's funny. Your post looks like the article on Shimbashi published by the Economist - but on Japan countryside.

Anonymous said...

This is so beautifully written. It touches the heart. One wants to hear more.
No, your tinnitus has not affected too much your thinking. It has only affected your conversations, your ability to "hear" others who desire to talk with you, not your blog.


MTC said...

joa -

Thank you for your very kind words.

Anonymous said...

It's going to be hard to triage all the old people, too. Not many politicians can say the country can't afford to keep them around. Perhaps that'll be left to the bureaucrats.

A well-written piece.

MTC said...

willie -

Your kind assessment is much appreciated.

It is not only a matter of an aged population...but an asset-poor female one as well. Since most of the women were oyomesan and since few of their husbands had decent pensions, their deceased husband's house and the land under it are often their only assets--and for control of both they must fight not only their own children but her husband's family.

And then one day the local government says it can no longer pay for clearing snow off the roads...