Reflections on Governance and Democracy in Asia and Japan

H. D. P. Envall, Australian National University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 4 (Book review 6 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 15 December 2013.

Suggested citation: H. D. P. Envall, "Reflections on Governance and Democracy in Asia and Japan." electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies volume 13 issue 4 (15 December 2013). Available at

Inoguchi, Takashi and Carlson, Matthew (eds) (2006) Governance and Democracy in Asia, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, paperback, ISBN: 9781876843380, 201 and xv pages.

Inoguchi, Takashi (2005) Japanese Politics: An Introduction, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, paperback, ISBN: 1876843225, 235 and x pages.


Major questions on governance and democracy are at the heart of these two works on the politics of Asia and Japan—Governance and Democracy in Asia and Japanese Politics: An Introduction. What are the values that underpin the governing structures of these societies? What role has the ‘state’ had in transforming Asian countries from developing to developed economies? And how are the peoples of these countries viewing such changes? These two books seek to understand the political transformations that have taken place in Asia and Japan, especially since the end of the Cold War, although they take quite different approaches. Governance and Democracy in Asia, which is edited by Takashi Inoguchi and Matthew Carlson, provides a broad account of the region’s evolution. By contrast, Japanese Politics, which is authored solely by Inoguchi, concentrates on the particular case of Japan, an early democratiser in the Asian region.

Governance and Democracy in Asia

“Asia,” Inoguchi and Carlson (page 1) note in the introduction to Governance and Democracy in Asia, “is one of the most dynamic and divergent parts of the world.” Yet there are sufficient common trends to allow for a useful cross-regional comparison of political values and practices. This edited volume includes seven chapters, in addition to the introduction, covering governance and democracy issues in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and India. A key element of the book is its use of the Gallup International Millennium Survey of 1999, which was a public opinion poll focusing on major questions of governance and democracy. The survey’s questionnaire and details of its methodology are included in the appendix of the book (pages 185–95).

Of particular interest to the book’s editors (and authors of the introduction) are the concepts of Asian values, developmentalism, and third-wave democratisation. These are, Inoguchi and Carlson argue, “still relevant in considering the features of governance in the region” (page 8). To understand the concepts, however, it is important to appreciate the context in which they arose, especially the changes brought to the region following the end of the Cold War. The 1990s in Asia was a time when ideological conflict had dissipated, the region’s economies were booming, and confidence was high. In terms of “Asian values,” the two authors point out that, while the term received great attention during this period, debate over its meaning largely disappeared following the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 (page 8). The Asian values debate was instead replaced by concerns about global terrorism, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and new debates over global “good governance” (Thompson 2004). Indeed, from a 2013 perspective, the Asian values debate has not made a comeback, despite the developed world’s own financial crisis of 2007–08. It has instead been succeeded by debates about the growing impact of China on the region’s economic and security interests.

The rise of the “developmental state” concept also reached a high point in the 1990s. This idea held that the state should play a significant role intervening in national economic development—such as by setting industrial policy, controlling exchange rates, or restricting imports. It was Japan, as the authors note (page 6), which provided the “paradigmatic example of the development state.” Indeed, the rise of the Japanese developmental state was perhaps best described by Chalmers Johnson (1982) in MITI and the Japanese Miracle. But since Japan’s economic rise, many other states have sought to emulate the Japanese strategy, mostly notably China (e.g. see Baek 2005). Inoguchi and Carlson nonetheless maintain that Japan remains the region’s model, something which appears much less certain today as the current government’s economic reform strategy known as “Abenomics” (named after Prime Minister Abe Shinzō) is implemented after years of economic malaise (Economist 2013).

“Third-wave” democratisation is the third key theme under examination in Governance and Democracy in Asia. The book’s view, as expressed by Inoguchi and Carlson (page 7), is that “the shift of these countries from authoritarian to democratic regimes… has often been problematic.” But what exactly is the third wave as applied to Asia? Scholars such as Huntington (1991), Rose and Shin (2001), and others, use the term when referring to the democratic transition of approximately 30 nations between 1974 and 1989. For Asia, therefore, this covers India’s return to democracy in 1977, Turkey in 1983, the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987, Taiwan in 1987, and Pakistan in 1988. This so-called third wave followed earlier waves of democratisation in the 20th century, including the initial wave after the First World War—described as the “first reverse wave” by Huntington (1991, 16) and also encompassing Italy’s first fragile experiment with democracy—as well as the second wave following the Second World War. This latter wave included Japan’s democratisation under the US-led Occupation.

The book’s analysis of particular countries begins with the region’s first wave democratiser, Japan. Here, Matthew Carlson and Taku Sugawara seek to explain the ‘broader’ context of Japan’s post-war economic boom by exploring the views of the country’s citizens to issues such as national governance and what is “most important in life” (page 21). Carlson and Sugawara have three expectations regarding Japanese attitudes towards democracy: (1) that a higher level of democracy and economic development should ‘translate’ into correspondingly higher levels of “respect for democratic values;” (2) that Japan may be somewhat ‘disaffected’ in its attitude towards government; and (3) that Japan should demonstrate considerable heterogeneity in its views given the diverse experiences of its population.

In considering these issues, Carlson and Sugawara compare Japan to other countries in the region, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. According to their analysis, during the late 1990s the Japanese did not believe that their country was being governed according to “the will of the people.” Just 22.3 per cent of Japanese surveyed by Gallup agreed with this statement, compared to 77.3 per cent in Malaysia. Only South Korea was lower at 18.7 per cent (page 25). When choosing what they thought was most important in life, few Japanese opted for ‘freedom’ when compared to Europeans, North Americans or Latin Americans; however, Japanese responses were in keeping with other Asian countries, such as South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia. The chapter does reveal, however, that younger Japanese in 1999 (18 to 24 year olds) were much more likely to choose freedom than their elders. Fourteen years later, as Japan faces choices on the setup of its political institutions under the revisionist administration of Prime Minister Abe, it is the members of this younger generation, now nearing the end of their fourth decade, who will play a major role in shaping contemporary Japanese attitudes towards democracy in the coming years.

After considering Japan, Governance and Democracy in Asia then shifts focus to other countries in the region, particularly the third wave’s most successful democratisers, South Korea and Taiwan. However, the book also examines late starters and non-starters, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and China. Interestingly, these chapters reveal a significant dissatisfaction with democracy, even amongst those countries that experienced a relatively smooth transition from authoritarian rule. In the chapter on South Korea, for example, Chung-Si Ahn and Won-Taek Kang highlight the scepticism of South Koreans regarding the government’s responsiveness to the will of the people. Koreans appeared especially pessimistic in terms of their government’s problems with efficient, just, bureaucratic and clean governance (pages 48–51). Likewise, in the chapter on Taiwan, Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao notes that the country experienced rising cynicism during the 1990s under democratisation even as it still retained some faith in “democracy as a desirable political system” (page 74).

The chapter on the PRC makes a particularly interesting contribution to this volume. Alone amongst all the case studies presented, it had not been part of any of the waves of democratisation at the time of the book’s publication. Indeed, it has not subsequently moved to or experimented in any substantial way with national-level democratisation, notwithstanding its local level experimentation (O’Brien and Han 2009). The China chapter is also methodologically problematic compared to the other chapters, owing to the gaps in the Gallup survey of China. The survey did not, for instance, include questions on “democracy, human rights, women’s rights, crime, and religion” (page 132), meaning that two additional surveys, conducted by the Chinese Communist Youth League and Fudan University, were required. The questions used from these surveys—not reproduced in this volume—focused instead on “political consciousness and cultural values” (page 132). It should also be noted, however, that the Gallup surveys were not conducted in India either, although the chapter’s author, Sanjay Kumar, makes use of extensive surveys carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Japanese Politics

In Japanese Politics: An Introduction, Inoguchi aims to “offer a somber analysis and assessment of Japanese politics during two critical recent periods, 1983–1993 and 1994–2004” (page vii). Developments since the end of the Cold War, Inoguchi suggests, “have led to a reconfiguration of social forces and the gradual disappearance of the conditions which framed Japan’s initial postwar success” (page 1). Yet Japanese Politics is in truth much more wide-ranging than this would suggest. It begins by considering the long-term historical factors that have shaped the country’s modern politics, including the political culture of the late Tokugawa period, as well as the impact of the Cold War’s economic and strategic order (pages 1–39). Based on a number of Inoguchi’s earlier works (e.g. Inoguchi 1993), the book is sweeping in its breadth. Nevertheless, three broad themes of particular interest emerge. The first concerns the nature and role of the Japanese state. The second is the topical issue of Japanese nationalism. Finally, the third encompasses the shifts in the Japanese political system over the two decades until the mid-2000s, especially the question of whether Japan is moving towards a competitive system of party politics.

In terms of the first of these themes, Japanese Politics presents a broad description of the historical evolution of the Japanese state and its role, from the Tokugawa and Meiji periods to the present day. Inoguchi emphasises four areas in which the Japanese state has intervened: “guiding economic development, maintaining social order, guaranteeing political stability and fostering national culture” (page 40). As a starting point for characterising Japan’s economic history, he takes Johnson’s (1982) idea of a market-oriented ‘regulatory’ state versus a more centrally-planned ‘developmental’ state, noting that a “major problem with such a characterization is a lack of historical perspective” (page 41). Despite addressing this gap, however, Inoguchi does not identify any substantial areas where Johnson’s analysis is misplaced. Indeed, the remainder of the chapter (pages 40–66) and the following chapter on Japan’s international economic role (pages 67–89) mostly confirm the strongly developmental nature of the Japanese state, providing along the way numerous examples of the state intervening in society to achieve centrally-set goals. Published in the mid-2000s, the book is remarkably uncritical of Japan’s economic progress since the bursting of the ‘bubble’ in the early 1990s. Why, readers might ask, has developmentalism struggled in the face of increasing regional and global interdependence (e.g. see Cowling and Tomlinson 2007)? In describing these changes, Inoguchi only refers in passing to the declining position of the bureaucracy in relation to economic influence over the past 25 years (page 46).

On the issue of Japanese nationalism, Inoguchi’s argument—that the “ultimate form and trajectory of Japanese nationalism in the twenty-first century will have a substantial impact, not only on the Japanese political system, but also on international relations” (pages 130–1) —still resonates strongly. Indeed, the return of Abe as Japanese prime minister and the rise to national prominence of Hashimoto Tōru, the controversial Osaka mayor, highlight how nationalism and the search for national identity remain major concerns for Japan today. In this respect, Japanese Politics provides an especially relevant and useful framework by which to understand contending strands of nationalism in contemporary Japan. Inoguchi divides Japanese nationalism into three broad streams: (1) “imperial nationalism,” which emphasises Japan’s unique island history and ethnic homogeneity; (2) “nostalgic nationalism,” which focuses on overcoming the humiliations of military defeat and subsequent occupation after the Second World War; and (3) “progressive nationalism,” which emphasises Japan’s technological advantages (pages 114–22).

The logic operating within these three streams differs substantially, meaning that it is possible to extract quite distinct normative proposals from the different nationalisms. Imperial nationalism calls out to a mythical past and implies that Japan should avoid entanglements with the corrupting outside world. Progressive nationalism, by contrast, recognises Japan’s dependence on the outside and, further, contends that Japan benefits greatly from being integrated into the global political economy. It therefore advocates that Japan play a greater role in managing and leading global politics “more harmoniously” (page 121). Finally, nostalgic nationalism is assertive and seeks to address past injustices done to Japan. Nostalgic nationalists are inclined to view Japanese history as part of a wider European-Asian conflict, are conspiratorial and realist, and often seek to justify Japan’s decisions in the Second World War (pages 118–19). Prime Minister Abe, in 2006–07 and since 2012, has demonstrated many of these traits in his political leadership (e.g. Envall 2011). A key question for those studying Japan is whether nostalgic nationalism is in fact emerging to “serve as the exclusive basis for the re-assertion of Japanese national identity” (page 131). There remains little evidence that wider Japanese society is becoming significantly more nationalistic in the nostalgic sense; however, there are indications of a limited rise in this kind of nationalism in response to regional threats, particularly involving North Korea and China (e.g. Economist 2012; Ishii 2012).

Japanese Politics also provides an illuminating account of Japan’s party politics since the Second World War. The post-1950s “one and a half party system”—where the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) always retained a majority, but one that never met the two-thirds requirement that would allow it to make constitutional changes—effectively disappeared with the split in the LDP in 1993. The subsequent expectation, reinforced by the electoral changes introduced in 1994 and the electoral victories of a new opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), was that Japan was entering a new age of competitive party politics. This book focuses on the November 2003 lower house elections, when new Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō called a snap election only to see the DPJ do especially well and prevent the LDP from gaining a majority. It appeared then that two-party politics had arrived. Indeed, such an impression was further confirmed by events during the remainder of the decade, notably the victory of the DPJ in the 2009 lower house election (Vogel 2010).

But has Japan moved closer to a more competitive political system? Although much has happened since 2005 to support the case, the DPJ’s failures in government have arguably reversed this trend. In particular, the DPJ struggled to cope with the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011. Of course, much of the poor response to this disaster was due to the inadequate management of the nuclear sector under the LDP over previous decades (e.g. see Ichida et al 2011). However, the DPJ, led by three different prime ministers during its time in office, suffered from deeper problems as well. These included failures of leadership, an inability to deal with the bureaucracy or revitalize the economy, and the struggle to manage the US alliance or improve relations with China (e.g. see Ito 2012; Envall and Fujiwara 2012; Clausen 2013). By the time of the December 2012 election, the DPJ was deeply unpopular, and the LDP, led once again by Abe, won a major victory. Indeed, by early 2013, Inoguchi himself did not see Japan as having achieved competitive party politics. Rather, he referred to the country as subject to a constantly swinging electorate that was deeply dissatisfied with both major parties as well as the alternative minor parties (Inoguchi 2013; see also George Mulgan 2012).

Even more troubling for those hoping to see Japan move to a more competitive political system has been the 2013 upper house election (Mie 2013). With its latest victory, the LDP-led government now enjoys majorities in both houses of the Japanese parliament. This suggests that politics in Japan has returned, at least temporarily, to a political structure not all that dissimilar to that which existed between 1960 and 1975—a dominant but not all-powerful LDP opposed by a fractured opposition. Yet Japanese politics has changed. It is now more fluid (if not necessarily more competitive) than it has been since the early post-war period, with multiple minor parties, from both the right and left, vying for power. The LDP itself remains in a coalition with the New Komeito party rather than governing alone. It has a majority in the lower house of parliament but not in the upper house. Further, the factors shaping elections have evolved: once loyal rural and urban regions increasingly swing between parties; old-fashioned electoral networks, or personalised vote-gathering machines, have become less helpful to politicians in their electioneering (Reed et al 2012); and the role of political leadership is more important than might have previously been understood (e.g. see Envall 2008). The current system is not the same as the earlier ones, even if it is not yet clear whether it is truly competitive or effective.


Overall, Governance and Democracy and Japanese Politics offer many useful insights into how issues of governance and democracy are evolving in Asia and Japan. Importantly, they address the changing nature of the state in the region, not only in terms of what it delivers to its citizens but also what its citizens increasingly expect of it. Both contain some weaknesses. Governance and Democracy would have benefited from a concluding chapter, while Japanese Politics might have structured its historical and contemporary analysis more evenly. Nevertheless, the two books provide some valuable contributions to understanding the complexities and contradictions inherent in the democratisation process in Asia. They demonstrate why democratisation and the move towards better governance can be complicated by the perceptions of the region’s populations. They also show how the process of political reform is difficult, not only in developing countries, but also in advanced countries such as Japan. Indeed, in the Japanese case, the longevity of one party rule, which was originally a source of stability and optimism, eventually became a source of deepening pessimism and instability. Whether Japan becomes a more “normal nation” or, as Inoguchi (page 208) phrases it, an “emerging global ordinary power,” could likely rest on the country’s ability to reconcile these divergent views.

Chapters from Governance and Democracy in Asia

1. Inoguchi, Takashi and Carlson, Matthew. ‘Introduction’, 1–19.

2. Carlson, Matthew and Sugawara, Taku. ‘Support for Democracy and Freedom in Japan’, 20–43.

3. Ahn, Chung-Si and Kang, Won-Taek. ‘Trust and Confidence in the Government of South Korea’, 44–69.

4. Hsiao, Hsin-Huang Michael. ‘The Social Foundation of Taiwan’s New Democracy’, 70–85.

5. Wah, Francis Loh Kok. ‘A New Era of Politics in Malaysia: Ferment and Fragmentation’, 86–106.

6. Khamchoo, Chaiwat. ‘Political Participation and Governance in Thailand’, 107–30.

7. Guo, Dingping, ‘Democratic Developments and Changing Values in China’, 131–62.

8. Kumar, Sanjay. ‘India’s Maturing Democracy’, 163–84.

9. Appendix: ‘Gallup International Millennium Survey (1999)’, 185–95.


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About the Author

H. D. P. (David) Envall is a research fellow in the Department of International Relations at The Australian National University. David received his BA (Hons) and PhD from the University of Melbourne and his MA from Hitotsubashi University. In addition to having worked as a copy editor and corporate editor/writer, he has taught on Japan's international relations at Tokyo International University and on politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University. His research interests include Japanese political leadership, Japan's post-war security politics, and security in the Asia Pacific. His most recent article, ‘Underplaying the “Okinawa Card”’, was published in the August 2013 issue of the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

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