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Summary of a meeting with John Dower, Professor of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Donald Robinson, Professor of Government, Smith College; and Franziska Seraphim, Professor of History, Boston College.

After World War II, Americans and Japanese worked together to lay the foundations for one of the world’s most stable governments. The panelists discussed what lessons in “democracy building” can be drawn from the Japanese case, and how Japan’s political system differs from those of the United States and Europe.

Donald Robinson kicked off the discussion by asking, “What made the establishment of democracy possible in Japan?” Important conditions were high education and literacy levels, previous experience with representative government (during the “Taisho democracy” of the1920s), and a capable elite. In spite of these basic building blocks, democracy could never have happened without the occupiers’ overwhelming military force and unity of command (Robinson implied that, at least in the Japanese case, more allies in the kitchen would have spoiled the broth). On top of all this, the most important element was the unswerving confidence—on the part of a sufficient number of Japanese and Americans—that democracy could successfully flourish in Asian soil.

Franziska Seraphim of Boston College continued the story of Japanese democracy through subsequent decades. She detailed how ordinary citizens exercised their newly granted rights and made democracy their own. For example, the democratic system was stabilized and legitimized not only through U.S. authority but also by widespread activism of labor leaders and anti-military protesters. During the 1960s, especially, Japanese people discovered themselves as political citizens. Seraphim added that any description of Japanese democratic development must also take into account the larger context of transnational civil society, which is becoming increasingly influential in all countries.

John Dower of Massachusetts Institute of Technology brought the discussion to the present by describing the jaundice and pessimism that hangs over any discussion of Japanese democracy today. Dower pointed out that both Americans and Japanese too often hold up the American model as ideal—when in fact our own system is rife with political and financial corruption and lags behind Japan and many European countries in ensuring social justice. Dower argued that the Japanese commitment to democracy is deep and solid for the very reason that it is built upon the foundation of horrific wartime repression. It’s true that the Japanese political system has many problems, Dower stressed, but we must not forget that the American occupiers themselves encouraged many of these flaws. For example, the Americans strengthened the Japanese bureaucracy, which is now criticized as obstructing democratic accountability.

Makoto Iokibe, who was unable to attend the event because of injury, sent remarks that were read out loud at the seminar. He also referred to the common belief that Japanese democracy has somehow proved a “failure.” He pointed out that Japan’s is, in fact, a “failure of success”—the current system is difficult to dismantle precisely because it served Japan well through so many years of stunning economic growth.

Drafted by Amy McCreedy, Asia Program Associate, 202/691-4013
Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director