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On recent elections: Contrasting America and Japan

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2016 saw two pivotal national elections, one in Japan and one in the United States. Having lived in both countries quite recently, I could not help but compare the different social effects of the political process in the two countries. From that comparison I gleaned a basic principle about the difference between homogeneous and divided cultures.

The United States has a divided culture. Conservative and liberal Americans have a completely different set of values. They do not simply disagree on how particular political goals ought to be implemented. They disagree on the goals themselves. They even disagree on basic facts. Consequently there is little room for dialogue let alone compromise. How do you compromise between socialized healthcare and the free market? What is the middle ground deporting millions of illegal immigrants and letting them stay while leaving the borders open? There is no way to reconcile the two sides because at root, the two factions have different visions of what America is and ought to be. Further complicating this is the fact that America is a multiracial society with many ethnic groups voting as a bloc.

Japan has a homogeneous culture. For the most part, people who support different political parties do not have different values. They simply disagree on policy details. There are meaningful exceptions to this of course. The more extreme parties – the communists and right wing “Nippon no kokoro” faction – both want to make big changes. There are a small minority that want to increase immigration drastically, and others that want to completely rewrite the constitution to go back to the prewar days. However, these more extreme factions do not represent the majority of people, and even they still agree with each other on many basic issues about Japanese identity. Ultimately, they all agree on what Japan is, but the minority of more politically involved people disagree on what it ought to be.

This difference between America and Japan manifests itself in how people react to election outcomes. This year in both cases, the more conservative party won. When the election in Japan was held back in July, the side that lost – the Minshutou and their allies – did not spend weeks protesting in the streets. They did not allege that their loss was engineered by foreign hackers. They did not threaten to move abroad and cry on social media about how bigots were taking over their country.

In America, all of those things did happen. After the election in Japan, life went on as normal. Many foreigners probably did not even know it was happening. In America, life did not go on as normal. There was a profound sense of cultural upheaval felt across the country. This was true as well in 2008 when Barack Obama won, and also in 2000, when George Bush won in an even more controversial manner than Donald Trump (both lost the popular vote).

What can we make of this difference? We should be careful about generalization. It is not the case that homogeneous societies have more peaceful or easy-going political systems. There are many such societies in the third world that regularly have tumultuous and even violent elections. Some of what I describe is unique to Japan or at least other highly developed countries. Japan is wealthy, has a unique and very old culture, and is also a somewhat politically apathetic country. Voter turnout is not impressive and most younger people are indifferent to the day to day news cycle.

When a nation is poor and struggling it does not matter if it has a homogeneous culture. Its politics will be volatile. When a nation is wealthy and peaceful, like Japan, homogeneity can make the political process seem unimportant. Wealthy multicultural societies see more friction in their elections because they become opportunities for different factions to compete for power. Politics become another front on a larger culture war.

Japanese culture is certainly evolving, however I would not call it a "war." Political issues rarely spill into entertainment culture. By contrast in America scores of celebrities put their brands on the line to oppose Trump. Fashion designers have refused to make clothes for the new First Lady, and singer Andrea Bocelli had to pull out of singing the national anthem at Trump’s inauguration due to boycott fears. Richard Reich suggested that Hollywood should throw its own inauguration party with Beyonce at the helm in an effort to draw attention away from the formal swearing in of Trump.

This trend of aggressively politicizing every facet of daily life is one of many reasons I left the United States. What is frustrating about it is that it doesn’t work. It just leads to a lot of preaching to the choir. Trump needs opposition that can actually be productive and help unify the country. The first step is to stop pretending that he was somehow illegitimately elected.

Nothing is served by refusing to associate with his administration and supporters. In fact, it was the refusal to engage with his supporters that cost the Democrats the election. They need to stop sticking their fingers in their ears while screaming "racist" and start reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of Midwestern voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 but turned to Trump this time around. If they were smart, they would be offering an olive branch and trying to learn from their defeat instead of bragging about how cool it is that Beyonce is on their side. Besides, if voters actually cared about what celebrities thought, Hillary Clinton would have won in a landslide.

It would be great to see a popular artist (maybe Kanye West?) cross the aisle and perform at the inauguration, if only to send a message of coming together as a country. I am not holding my breath. I must say I enjoy the fact that in Japan every election does not feel like a crusade for the soul of the nation. The 24/7 "infotainment" culture of America encourages people to get their opinions from fringe websites and late night comedians. This leads to echo chambers flooded with the most extreme rhetoric imaginable.

By contrast in Japan, political conversations feel more laid back – more focused on policy details instead of religious debates on various hot button cultural issues. Again, of course, there are exceptions (go check out an anti-Korean protest if you want an example) but for the most part, it is dry and boring, the way politics ought to be. It actually makes me want to participate more in the process, as what little energy and perspective I can offer feels better spent.

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13 Comments
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Contrasting America and Japan

Now there's a new idea.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

[Japan] is also a somewhat politically apathetic country. Voter turnout is not impressive and most younger people are indifferent to the day to day news cycle.

You could have stopped there.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I don't think you can really compare anywhere to America anymore, it's politics has crossed the point of no return and it's too silly to even bother with. The last time politics was this farcical in America was just prior to the civil war

4 ( +5 / -1 )

The United States has a divided culture. Conservative and liberal Americans have a completely different set of values.

If you strip away the moronic political ideology, you find that America is not divided at all; people of all races, religions, colors, sizes, and shapes get along remarkably well. But politics has become a matter of faith to many, and like religious faiths, it is used as a tool of power and control. The issues which supposedly divide America are mostly irrelevant and unimportant. Left alone, people are ambivalent about issues like abortion, gay marriage, gun control, race, and other things. But politicians don't leave people alone, they prey on the people by telling them that there are others who would take away their rights and freedoms. The people are made to fear and hate each other, and this fear and hatred causes them to vote their politicians more power, authority, and money. It is the oldest scam ever perpetrated on the people, and has occurred as long as people have existed. But the majority of people are as easy to fool now as they always have been, and the result is a divided society.

Japan is unique among developed countries as it is monocultural and mono-racial. The divide-and-rule strategy doesn't work well in a society where people are generally the same, and believe in the same things.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

The last time politics was this farcical in America was just prior to the civil war

You lost me on this.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Actually it was a well written article. Though I didn't really like all of the policies of Obama, I at least had hoped back I n2009 when he was sworn in that the GOP could work with him and the Dems. But all we got was more partisan bickering, and when the GOP took over the House and Senate, even the Dems in the Senate wouldn't want to work with them, thus leaving the GOP with really no viable option but to try to veto anything that Obama put forth. Some on merits of the cases but a lot on just plain political spite.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

What IS it that makes the Japanese electorate vote for the likes of the walking disaster that is Abe, along with representatives who spend their time pushing nuclear power, casinos, and taking away people's pensions?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Voter turnout [in Japan] is not impressive and most younger people are indifferent to the day to day news cycle.

Voter turnout in the US is also not impressive. It was roughly 55% in the most recent POTUS election. The most recent general election in Japan (2015 July) had a voter turnout of 54.7% or 55% rounded.

According to the Pew Research Center, both Japan and the US are low voter turnout countries compared to most developed countries with little difference between them.

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/02/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/

I’m not sure that young people are indifferent to the day to day news cycle but if they are that is perhaps due to the fact that we do not have Fox News in Japan nor the many “fake news” sites that appeared during the recent POTUS campaign in the US.

Japan is unique among developed countries as it is monocultural and mono-racial. Are you saying that Korea is not a developed country?

What IS it that makes the Japanese electorate vote for the likes of the walking disaster that is Abe, along with representatives who spend their time pushing nuclear power, casinos, and taking away people's pensions?

Whatever it is, it is probably not the same thing that made Americans vote for Donald Grab them by the You Know What Trump.

And, I trust you know that the only people who vote directly for Abe are voters in the Yamaguchi 4th district. He is prime minister because he heads the LDP not because he was selected by the general electorate. The system in Britain is similar.

Your question should really be, “What makes the Japanese electorate vote for the LDP?”

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Comparing Japan and America is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. One is parliamentary system where the Prime Minister excercises limited powers and his job (as well as the jobs of opposition leaders) depend primarily on keeping fellow party members happy. Any extreme policy positions are usually diluted within the parties and this is done behind closed doors. The other is a presidential system where the stakes are much higher. The President wields incredible power and is completely unconstrained by his own political party. The party can't replace the president during his term and the public can't even vote out any of the President's cabinet members at the midterms, because they are all appointees who aren't required to be sitting members of congress. And now with the rise of executive orders the President isn't even constrained by which party controls the congress.

In Japan it's arguable to no vote since WWII has ever counted for anything. For over 70 years nothing other than incremental change has been on the agenda. This is slowly starting to change with proposals to amend the constitution and unsurprisingly we are starting to see increasing political polarization and people coming out onto the streets to protest. This isn't a coincidence.

It's natural that people in America are more politically active considering that their vote actually counts for something. In 2000, Bush Jr promised elderly people free prescriptions, and it happened. In 2008, Obama promised people radical healthcare reform, and it happened. In this election Trump promised to deport millions of people and renegotiate NAFTA, and it very well might happen. If you want American elections to be as mild as Japanese, Canadian, Australian or British politics the answer is pretty simple; either strip the President of his powers or adopt a parliamentary system.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Oh good, dinosaur Japanology mixed with Trump apologism. JT's political affiliation is becoming more obvious day by day.

The United States has a divided culture. Conservative and liberal Americans have a completely different set of values.

Nonsense. The US has a divided political culture, sure, but American culture expands well beyond the field of politics. American liberals and American conservatives have many cultural traits broadly in common.

Japan has a homogeneous culture.

Again, nonsense. Bethune has confused nonconfrontationalism with homogeniety, which is probably why he's a computer programmer and not a political scientist. Japan has every bit as much political culture variety (and just as much unifying culture) as the US. It's just that outspokenly attacking people who disagree with you tends to be frowned on here.

When the election in Japan was held back in July, the side that lost – the Minshutou and their allies – did not spend weeks protesting in the streets. They did not allege that their loss was engineered by foreign hackers. They did not threaten to move abroad and cry on social media about how bigots were taking over their country.

Maybe they didn't allege they were hacked because there wasn't evidence that they were hacked - unlike in the US election. Maybe they didn't talk about bigots taking over their country because their election didn't feature bigots taking over their country. I hope Bethune wasn't paid for the superficial analysis he's delivering here.

If you want to criticize the level of political confrontation in the US, you give away your game by completely ignoring all of the confrontation coming from one side. I guarantee you that while most American liberals would find Trump to be a crass, borderline-illiterate pick for the president, he wouldn't be getting most of the push-back we're seeing if he hadn't first antagonized nearly everyone except for straight white men. If he hadn't made everyone else legitimately feel like they were in danger, you wouldn't have to listen to people complain about people feeling like they're in danger.

Again, of course, there are exceptions (go check out an anti-Korean protest if you want an example) but for the most part, it is dry and boring, the way politics ought to be. It actually makes me want to participate more in the process, as what little energy and perspective I can offer feels better spent.

Good. If your analysis is this superficial, uninformed, and one-sided, I'm quite happy you stay out of politics.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think this author is skewing some observations, about America. While it is, true the country is divided on method, it isn't divided on outcome. Most left winger voters and people actually believe their side is heading to freedom like, the right. They don't realize the minority of Democrats they vote for are in fact not for freedom. It is a small minority pushing the insanity of socialist tyranny the problem is this minority is, in power and controls propaganda. The, reality is most Americans, ate not ideological and they assume the political class they vote for is also not ideological which isn't true. America is not as divided as implied by the article. The division is mostly driven by media fabrication. Also this author implies both sides are the same after an election, which is supposedly sense of doom and horror because the otherside won. This is totally false. It is only the left wingers who feel doom and horror and after each loss have devolved until this one where they riot, Lynch, assault and use every thing they can to fear people into letting them change the result. The right wing accepted Obama as the result, as all as bill Clinton. No one liked it, their side lost but riots? Assaults? Entire groups, roaming cities to Lynch? None if that happened from right wingers. Only the left singers have done that so the article is false to equate the two sides of political America when only the left wing is actually doing the assaults and riots because they lost an election. The last real false claim is racial and group factions. Again that's only left wing and only one group is exclusive to one side. Right singers typically view American above group and judge individuals by the content of character, whereas left wingers judge others as groups by biological features. Comparing all of this to Japan seems to be impossible. I myself work in Japan and for multiple large Japanese companies. The American and Japanese cultures are very different, enough to make comparisons, at this level difficult.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

You lost me on this.

Just like Hillary lost the election. The problem with politically-indoctrinated people is that they see anything they don't agree with as being a farce, not realizing that they are farcical themselves.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Almost choked on my pre-new year mochi on this one,

"....By contrast in Japan, political conversations feel more laid back – "

Laid back is an aphorism that bears no resemblance to much of the social political discussion here at all.

Indifferent, apathetic, resigned, soft, acquiescent easily come to mind.

A large percentage of the populace is willing to be "told what to do without a whimper", that is in public anyway.

The number one profiling aspect still reigns supreme - "Don't draw attention to yourself. There's nothing you can do".

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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