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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

Why Isn’t Japan Political?

Man holding a sign that says nothing

I moved to Japan in part to get away from all the politics. America, in its modern incarnation, is politics on steroids. The old adage, “All politics is local,” was once linked primarily to elections, a reminder to elected officials to keep the focus on their constituents. But these days, the new motto is, “Everything is political,” where something as mundane as what you had for lunch can quickly spiral into us-versus-them invective.

Japan is blessedly free of these excesses. I don’t mean that politics doesn’t exist here. Just this week, opinion polls showed a mere 34 percent of the population supporting the current Kishida administration. The major politics parties regularly chastise each other on the floor of the Diet. And former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s attempt to revise Article 9 of the Constitution throughout his tenure worked to split public opinion in half. Yet these debates and conflicts exist within the realm of traditional, constitutionally minded political activity. You can eat whatever you want for lunch and it won’t impact the Article 9 argument at all.

How has Japan avoided the constant bickering that now consumes the democratic nations of the world? We could put that question to a vote, but as your commentator, let me share with you five everyday experiences here in Japan that help the nation maintain its political calm.

1. A focus on societal harmony. The characters for Japan’s traditional name, 大和 (Yamato), literally mean “Great Harmony.” This native leaning toward social composure and balance shows up everywhere, including in the political realm. The Japanese also value consensus, and when disagreements occur, there is an expectation that all parties will try to find common understanding rather than pursuing victory over their opponents.

2. A respect for authority. Japan is a hierarchical society, traditionally class-based, and one that values expertise and specialization. Calling a politician an “expert” might be stretching things a bit, but that job title is nonetheless a clearly defined, official role in society. Japan and America are both representative democracies, but Japan seems much more comfortable letting those elected leaders make unfettered decisions. If a legislator steps out of line, the people always retain the right to vote the scoundrels out, and sometimes do. But between such bursts of political will, the public tends to let the leaders lead.

3. Established boundaries on political activities. The 2024 United States presidential election season has already started more than a year out, and for some in America, the 2020 election never ended. Such unbounded campaigns don’t exist in Japan. Instead, the law defines the exact number of days that each politician has to get the vote out. Those going after seats in the House of Councillors receive the most time, up to seventeen days to shout through their megaphones. Mayoral races in small towns are the most restrictive, where electioneering is limited to one week max. With such overt political activities constrained by law, it’s not surprising that similar boundaries extend into other aspects of political life.

4. Less focus on the personal. America is the “Land of Opportunity,” and we find in its example both the wonders and the perils of unbridled individualism. While you can certainly make a name for yourself in Japan, everyone here is expected to consider the impact that their personal decisions and actions will have on others. This need to consider the broader community makes it more difficult to be obnoxious and pushy in one’s opinions.

5. Less free time. Affluence and modern conveniences provide more opportunity for leisure, and I am convinced that America has become politicized in part because everyone has too much time to think about all the wrongs that society has done to them. Japan is one of the wealthiest nations on earth, but that has not translated into a life of ease. Long work hours, after-school study programs and clubs for students, small family homes with no room for a dishwasher or clothes dryer, the need for urbanites to go most places by foot or train; these all work to reduce personal time. When your day is crammed with required activities and chores, you don’t have time to ponder how all the world’s problems must be solved by you right now through political action.

Some people in Japan are very politically minded. I even saw a group of protestors a few weeks ago lofting placards in front of the national legislature in support of some idea that had too many kanji for me to understand. I do worry that endless media attention on things like Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will translate into the same divisiveness on display in the United States. But for now, Japan is a place of respite in a tumultuous political world.

[Image Credits:Lara Jameson/]


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