As Japanese follow Egypt's uprising, they may also ponder how the evolution of Japan's democracy has taken another detour as the initial euphoria surrounding the Democratic Party's rise to power has dissipated. Since its victory in Lower House elections in August 2009, the DPJ has stumbled badly. It lost its top leader to corruption charges and watched its first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, resign after just a year in office. Its public support evaporated.
The DPJ victory was due to the will of the Japanese people to elect a new party to lead them after more than a half-century of Liberal Democratic Party rule. Many observers hoped this was the beginning of a true two-party system in Japan, one in which parties would be forced to be more responsive to the desires of the Japanese voter.
Yet just a year and half later, Prime Minister Naoto Kan continues to make public missteps, most recently when he admitted he was unaware that Standard and Poor's had downgraded Japanese government debt. His cabinet's approval rating in December was just 21%, and his latest gaffe will do him no favors.
Part of the problem for Japanese leaders since 2007 has been the lack of a principled opposition party. After the DPJ took power in the Upper House in July of that year, it acted solely to stymie LDP policies and hamstring progress on budget issues, reform, and restructuring. Since taking a plurality of seats in the same house in July 2010, the LDP has threatened to act the same way, and next month's budget battles will show whether the LDP has decided to be as obstructionist as was the DPJ. Yet with Japan still teetering near deflation and its public debt approaching 200% of GDP, radical reforms are needed to prevent the country's economy from further, possibly catastrophic, weakening.
A third disturbance to Japan's political system stems from the ongoing saga of former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa. Mr. Ozawa has long been under investigation for fundraising irregularities and last week finally was indicted by Tokyo prosecutors. Prime Minister Kan has tried to get Mr. Ozawa to quit the party, ostensibly to stop dragging down the party's approval rating. Yet Mr. Ozawa remains very popular with DPJ rank and file parliamentarians, many of whom he recruited into the party.
This remains a threat to Mr. Kan, should the premier's position weaken any further. Mr. Ozawa, who lost a bid for party leadership late last year, is reviled by many Japanese, and his continuing ability to evade justice, despite his indictment, is so far in many Japanese eyes a blot on the ideal of impartial rule of law.
The result of the several factors above is a deep and abiding cynicism among Japan's citizens. The electoral system is rigged to overwhelmingly favor rural voters, with the result that Japan's agricultural sector is hopelessly protected from competition and highly inefficient. Recent court rulings in Japan that the electoral system is unconstitutional have so far produced no real move for reform. The two main political parties remain in a deadlock over moving forward on policies to cut government spending and develop sustainable growth policies. Meanwhile, Japanese have watched China surpass them as the world's second-largest economy, with an equal mix of concern and disinterest.
No one should think that Japan is anywhere close to massive public uprising, which is rare in any case in most developed countries. Even demonstrations of the kind seen in Great Britain over the raising of university fees, or the more serious ones in Greece over cuts in public spending, have not happened in Japan since the student uprisings of 1968. In the 1970s, Japanese bore recession, high prices, and shortages with relative equanimity, and since 1990, for nearly a generation, they have lived through a stagnant economy, the loss of corporate lifetime employment, and the steady aging of society.
But Japanese sense they are nearing a turning point. The phrase is undoubtedly overused, but a week talking with Japanese politicians, businessmen, academics and ordinary citizens reveals a powerful current of unease roiling society. True, many seem resigned to fall into what some Japanese academics call "middle power" status, but the majority of those in leadership roles recognize the country faces significant risks if it continues on the same path.
Corporate leaders, in particular, understand the danger of continued political paralysis, demographic decline, and inward-looking youth. The need to do something to change current trends is perceived by nearly everyone I talked with, yet an instinctive Japanese conservatism keeps things from going on the boil.
In the short term that may be a good thing, as it attests to the general stability in Japanese society. However, over a longer period, such fatalism and conservatism can wind up eroding public trust in democracy's ability to solve problems, even if the stumbling block may be the peculiarities of Japan's particular form of democracy. Such paralysis has led in the past to a radical remaking of Japan's political and social systems, something that all should be wary of.
Japanese have the luxury of not having to take to the streets to try to change their system. However, another generation of stagnation and the inherent strengths of that democracy may well be put to test, albeit in a less confrontational way than today in Cairo.