Comparing elections in the U.S. and Japan: the good, the bad and the ugly
Vapid but mercifully short: Say what you like about the vacuousness of Japanese elections, but at least voters can choose from a wide range of parties and candidates. Campaigns also last a matter of weeks, in stark contrast with marathon U.S. slogs. | RICHARD ATRERO DE GUZMAN/NURPHOTO/SIPA USA
I love elections. Anywhere. It’s fascinating to see how politicians craft public appeals. No matter how flawed the process, it’s how nation-states recharge their legitimacy and publicly reaffirm their leaders’ mandate to govern.
During this season of the world’s most-watched presidential campaign, JBC will assess the good, the bad and the ugly of how the United States and Japan run their elections.
But first, who am I to comment? Well, I’ve witnessed first-hand, if not directly participated in, election campaigns in the United States (as a voter), Great Britain, Canada and, of course, Japan (also as a voter). I’ve had a lifelong interest in politics, with an undergraduate degree in government from Cornell, college coursework in European politics at a British university, and a Stateside graduate degree involving international comparative policy environments.
I’ve also done some political lobbying at the highest levels of government in England, the U.S. and Japan. I’ve been schooled in campaigning by the Democratic Party of Japan (when it was ascendant) at their training camp for potential candidates. (I passed; I’ve got a certificate on my wall.) They even put me atop one of their sound trucks to give speeches in white gloves in broad daylight in downtown Sapporo. (It’s surprisingly fun!)
I’ve gotten to know politicians as creators of sound bites, figured out in two languages their strategies to evade questions without alienating voters, and have come to understand why politics is so attractive to certain personality types. I even worked on my ex-wife’s successful election to local town assembly (where she still serves). So I comment based upon education and experience.
And one more thing before I get started: This isn’t a column extolling the virtues of a two-tiered parliamentary system over a bicameral legislature with an executive branch (to summarize Japan and America’s national governments, respectively). Both have their advantages and flaws. Instead, I want to talk about the expression of political culture and momentum that has grown from generations of campaigning, and how it brings out the good (things that are healthy for a representative democracy), the bad (things that aren’t) and the ugly (the just plain ludicrous).
The United States has a pretty decent record (compared to Japan) of having its elections revolve around at least a few firebrand issues. Of course, there is mud-slinging, ad hominem attacks and the distractions and corruptions of political celebrity — few democracies avoid them — but there are also manifestoes and explicit policy clarifications expected of a candidate, i.e., where they stand on the issues.
Politicians in Japan, on the other hand, generally get away with mere ganbarimasu (do-my-best) sound-truck platitudes. (Party manifesto? What manifesto?) And nobody is subject to media fact-checkers as tenacious as they are in the U.S.
On the plus side, Japan has elections that are short and sweet, with official campaign periods lasting around two weeks. That’s it. Compared to the United States, where presidential campaigns are marathons that go on for years, that seems incredible. You can’t even “campaign” outside Japan’s election periods — although you may maintain brand awareness by tacking up posters of future candidates (just don’t say “Vote for me” anywhere on them). That means Japan’s sound trucks, although noisier than cicadas, have more clearly defined life cycles. And I mean down to the minute — from 8 a.m. on day one until 8 p.m. on the eve of the election. (One minute outside that and the Election Board might void your candidacy.)
The United States has only two major parties, and they barely offer voters much of a choice beyond kinda-center-left or entrenched-white-privilege right. Green parties, protest-vote parties, even the socialist wing of the Democratic Party gets cheated out of representation though machinations like exclusionary public debates and rigged party ballots. (There are delegates, and then there are superdelegates, and they thwarted Bernie Sanders’ very genuine social movement.)
And if you dare to vote outside the two dogmas (in case you were unaware, the Green Party’s Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson are also candidates), you get ridiculed for wasting your vote and knocking out the more viable candidate. (Independent Ralph Nader was castigated for costing Al Gore the election in 2000. Even Barack Obama argues that voting for Stein or Johnson is a vote for Trump.) No third party has ever come close to winning a presidential election in American history, and that significantly limits voter choices and policy options.
Japan, however, essentially has only one party — the Liberal Democratic Party — which has been in power so long (almost all of the postwar era) that the Japanese media had to popularize a new word to get the public ready for the DPJ’s ascendency in 2009: seiken kōtai, or “political regime change.” Then, only three years later, it kōtai-ed back, with the LDP stronger than ever. And that’s how it will stay for the foreseeable future.
U.S. presidential elections are a mess. They differ from state to state, have different regulations for electing representatives depending on the party, and confuse the public with caucuses, primaries and weird voting booths. (Remember “hanging chads”? How about “butterfly ballots,” “lever machines,” or rig-able electronic ballots?) And that’s before we get to the anachronistic Electoral College, a system that means the U.S. president is the only politician in America not necessarily elected by the majority of the popular vote (and yes, the popular-vote winner has lost the election four times in U.S. history — most recently Gore vs. Bush in 2000). This should not happen in any democratic system, especially one this powerful.
Japan’s proportional representation election system is also a mess. Designed to favor political parties by giving them extra Diet seats (you vote twice in Japan — once for a candidate, once for a party, so woe betide you if you run as an unaffiliated independent), it is also a means to resurrect “zombie candidates” — those who lose the popular vote in their constituencies but get swept in via the PR party vote. This is how many a crony candidate (whose family has been in the Diet for generations) gets indirectly glad-handed and grandfathered in, despite clearly not being the people’s choice.
And, just for fun: the fun
America’s presidential elections are generally real nail-biters. Even this one, where Hillary Clinton was beating Donald Trump in polls by several points after her performance at July’s Democratic National Convention, suddenly was declared a “dead heat” by the time of the first presidential debate (which are in themselves evil, evil fun). Clinton just won that event, but no doubt Trump, as long as he can keep his trap shut, will see his poll numbers rise again as Republicans (who are team players above all — to the point that they will vote for someone who will not act in their best interests) decide to enforce groupthink amnesia.
Yes, it’s tragic when the person I don’t support gets elected — and incompetent Democrats have a nasty habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — but it’s undeniable that there is real suspense in most U.S. elections. Japan’s, in comparison, are usually snooze-fests. And that’s the way Japan’s politicians like them: No vociferous challenger means the incumbent remains.
And fun in Japan? Well, the election graphics and explanations in Japan are the best I’ve ever seen. On election night, I watch any TV channel as the results roll in from district after district, and chuckle at the animations (naturally, they are even cute!) that show the seats of each party climbing on the Diet semicircle schematic. And the morning after, I ignore the English-language press entirely and skip to any of Japan’s major dailies. Online or in print, they offer wonderful maps, detailed facts of all the candidates in terms of background and votes (in the carefully compressed abbreviations that kanji allows) and a concise numerical analysis of why a person or party won or lost. It’s real clear politics, everywhere, afterwards.
And then there’s those sound trucks. Hate ’em? Try this: When you see one, give them a wave, regardless of what party they are or if you can vote. They love that and will almost always give you a very spirited wave and ‘Arigatō gozaimasu!‘ right back. That’s just how they roll — and how they appeal.
This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will appear in print on Oct. 31. Debito’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is now out in paperback. Twitter @arudoudebito. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org