Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Asaba-san writing tonpa script
I'm in Saga right now participating in the "Open College in Saga" organized by Enjin 01. Enjin is a non-profit organization that I participated in starting. I have been a bit delinquent in my participation at the board meetings recently, but I'm still a Vice Representative Secretariat Member of this group. It's an organization of diverse cultural figures and we do a variety of activities. We have seminars, we lobby the government on important policy issues and we organize events in different regions. Last year we did an event at Koyasan. This year, we came to Saga prefecture in Kyushuu. A bunch of us "cultural figures" organized panels and asked local citizens to join us in a discussion.

I moderated a panel on democracy and Japan. My panel was Mr. Morimoto, a former Defense official, Mr. Hato, a management consultant and Mr. Takano, an independent journalist. I think it was the consensus of the group that Japan was not a democracy in the typical sense but really much more like a socialist country. Mr. Hato said he was always appalled when people blamed schools, the government and other organs of the state for their problems. Mr. Takano talked about a front page article in the left-wing newspaper of 1000 students marching in Tokyo protesting the fact that they can't get jobs. ;-)

Mr. Morimoto pointed out that the Japanese people were not individuals but identified more with something similar to the proletariat. The Japanese people have never had to fight for their "rights" and the democracy was put in place by the US occupation and they therefore do not really feel like they are active participants in it. In fact, Takano-san pointed out that the pre-war Meiji constitution is a good place to go to understand what the Japanese think about government. That constitution apparently stated that the Emperor would treat cause people to be "free" and treated fairly and that the bureaucracy was empowered by the Emperor to make sure this happened. (I have not read it myself so my paraphrasing may be a bit off...) What happened after the war was that the US occupation kept the bureaucracy, the former right hand of the Emperor, in place because it was so handy in execution. After the Americans left, the bureaucracy has stayed in place, now with power, but no leadership and a faux democracy that sort of dances around it.

The session after mine was a session on the future of Japan moderated by Oki Matsumoto. It was also interested. Ms. Ogasawara, was on the panel, was the heir of a 700 year old school of Japanese formality. This includes proper speech honorifics and other things. It lead me back to some thinking that I had in Kyoto. Much of Japanese culture would not exist if we flattened society and embraced more diversity. (Which I of course am greatly in favor of.) For instance, the whole school that Ms. Ogasawara represents is basically a way to properly express different levels in society. The Geisha in Kyoto and many of the people and things that I love about Japan come from a deep rooted caste system and intolerance to diversity.

I think that there are many things that become important choices for a country. The balances between privacy and security, openness/diversity vs. tradition/culture, short term economic productivity vs. some quality of life issues. These are things that the people should decide and a good democracy is the only for the people of a nation to make an educated choice on these issues.

I left the drinking party right after the Governor at around 2:30 am. Most of the people were still going strong. I wonder how they feel this morning. ;-)


You're throwing around these words like 'democracy' and 'socialist' like they meant something in particular. What country would you call a democracy? The US (not really a democracy by modern standards), the UK (the cradle of democracy) or Nordic countries (where everything is pretty much perfect)? What countries are you comparing Japan to when you call it socialist? France? Cuba?

I accept that it is very difficult to compare the systems of Asian countries to western systems.

We spent a long time discussion the definitions. I think one way to define democracy is a government that represents the people, has division of power and protects the rights of the minority while being ruled by majority interests. I think the notion is that it is a government by the people for the people and the government is a mechanism to enable that. Whether it is working or not is another matter.

I think when we said "socialist" we meant a government which was run by a bureaucracy which "knows better" than the people. These are not elected officials, but officials appointed by other officials. These bureaucrats are supposted to run the country in a fair way. This is how Japan works, or doesn't work.

I still think we in Japan should give up the pretence/tatemae of democracy and come up with a new word, a brand name if you will, for what we have. I suggest "Perfected Feudalism".

Considering that the political class has recently been shown to be hereditary in most cases, I think this phrase works quite well. Consider also the use of the honorific term "daijin" used for polititcians which translates to "big/important" person. Notice how close it is to the old term "daimyo" (big name) which was the honorific title of the warlords of the warring states and Edo periods. Perhaps this is just due to the limitations of a symbolic written language, but then again since language forms thought processes I doubt it.

Just as a side note, the other evening I was talking to a salaryman where I work, he was telling me how proud he was of his little brother for getting into Todai and how the brother will surely go on to an important government position and how Todai produces the most enlightend government employees anywhere. All I could do was nod and keep silent.

I like "perfected feudalism".

You have learned the art of "nod and keep silent." Good. ;-)