Japan's Upheavals, Democracy's Lessons

JAPAN - a model of democracy? It all depends on your point of view. To many Westerners, Japanese democracy is suspect. Japan's postwar constitution, bestowed by the American occupation, is impeccably democratic. But only one party - the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - has been in power almost continuously since World War II.

Power corrupts, and as last week's arrest of former kingmaker Shin Kanemaru showed, money politics is rampant, tarnishing ruling and opposition politicians alike.

The constitution guarantees individual human rights. But society is consensual and conformist, and as the oft-quoted proverb goes, the nail that sticks out is hammered down.

Japan's problems, however, are not unique. In greater or lesser degree, they are faced by every society striving to achieve a more perfect form of democracy.

Many of Japan's Asian neighbors look on Tokyo's one-party rule as an example of democratic stability. Elections have been generally fair and Japan's electorate, thought bored and even disgusted by the ruling party, has learned that in a democracy one must choose the lesser of two evils. In neighboring South Korea, democracy took a giant step forward when free and fair elections resulted in the inauguration of Kim Young Sam as the country's first civilian president in more than 30 years.

Politicians from other aspiring democracies in the region - Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia - look on Japan as an oasis of democratic tranquility. They would love to absorb and to emulate the Japanese example - never mind the corruption.

The Communist rulers of China are also said to look with envy at the Japanese model. They know that, as China's economy develops and the people become more affluent, the Communists cannot continue to justify their monopoly of power on the basis of ideology. If they could find a legitimate means of being returned to office term after term in free elections, they might be willing to sacrifice their ideology.

For most Japanese, the ideal is a British or American two-party system. Some Japanese, despairing of ever attaining this ideal, cite Japan's Asianness, its centuries of isolation from the West, as the obstacle. People who have not experienced the Renaissance and the Reformation are not qualified to talk of individual values, the scholar Yasaka Takagi used to say.

And yet one finds contradictions within Western countries as well. Italy, for example, is struggling with the same problems of political corruption and of essentially one-party rule as is Japan.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus' teaching of the brotherhood of man based on sonship with God and joint-heirship with Christ spread from Palestine across the Roman Empire. It endured savage persecution and reached into lands that had no centuries-old traditions of one God and Father.

Democracy developed in countries that inherited the Judeo-Christian religion. Later it has spread, along with the scientific tradition of the search for truth, into countries that did not necessarily accept the Western religious environment. Japan has become the prime example of a non-Western country that adopted Western secular institutions, while accepting only to a very limited degree the religious values underpinning much of Western society. Meanwhile, Western societies like the United States, are tr ying to redefine these values in more universal terms. Unless there is a minimum sharing of values across divides of civilization and culture, language and ethnicity, the mere physical shrinking of this planet of ours will not promote the global community, the brotherhood of man.

Japanese politics is undergoing a process of cleansing and of upheaval, one that may yet lead to the emergence of a viable two-party system, just as Italy is. Other non-Western societies will have to find their own path to a redefinition of values and to the evolution of a democracy that is more than a carbon copy of institutions derived from the West. The process is never easy, and there are no short cuts.

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