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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Comment (October 28, 2003)

Are Manifestos Really the Answer for Political Reform in Japan?

Daniel P. Dolan (Principal, Communication Japan)

The Manifesto Era has dawned in Japan. As Yotaro Kobayashi notes in a recent essay in this forum, manifesto is a keyword of current political change. But is the move to Manifestos really in the best interest of political reform processes in Japan? Here I present one strongly dissenting view as fuel for important discussions that should unfold before Manifestos are adopted wholesale as a quick fix. First however, let's look at the case for Manifestos.

Kobayashi outlines the advantages and promises of the Manifesto revolution in Japanese politics as follows:

  • Manifestos should make elections more policy-oriented, as opposed to personality-oriented.
  • Policymaking will be returned to the realm of politicians and largely removed from the jurisdiction of bureaucrats.
  • Manifestos would ride the back of the political party winning the election to become the manifesto of the government, thereby increasing clarity of issues and general accountability in government.

But Kobayashi warns that manifestos by themselves are not the entire answer to meaningful political reform in Japan. He argues that credibility of government is a structural requirement, as well as the ability of politicians to clearly communicate Manifesto points to the voting public. Finally, Kobayashi wonders if parties will be able to effectively carry out programs and policies laid out in manifestos, which feeds back to the question of credibility mentioned above.

Manifesto Movement as Anti-Political

The push for Manifestos in Japan clearly has momentum and significant support from high places, but a few influential resisters have also staked public positions. Writing for the Asahi Shimbun, Hiroshi Hoshi cautioned in July 2003 that "people are beginning to pin excessive hopes on manifestos as an 'almighty formula' to promote political reforms," while forgetting that earnest debate of issues is more important than any list of policy promises.

Hoshi's criticism of Manifestos is relatively mild. One week before the Hoshi piece Gerald Curtis, Columbia University professor and RIETI Faculty Fellow, launched a truly blazing attack on the Manifesto trend in a RIETI commentary. The thrust of his argument is that as conceived by advocates in Japan, Manifestos represent a strangely undemocratic turn grounded in fanciful notions and clouded thinking. According to Curtis,
"what's wrong with this Manifesto picture is that there are no politics in it. The Manifesto - inspired image of governance is of a kind of idealized bureaucratic state.... Politics, in other words, ends when the Prime Minister comes into office armed with his Manifesto. After that governance is simply a matter of implementing the promises made in the Manifesto. There is no democracy in the world that operates in this way, including the United States and Britain."

The problem for Curtis with Japan's view of Manifestos is that democratic politics are, by basic nature and necessity, messy rather than clear, a continually morphing exercise in persuasion and compromise rather than clinical pledges and evaluations of execution of such pledges. He concedes that the Manifesto movement should provide value to voters by forcing parties to explicitly lay out their policy agendas.

This points to a fundamental question: Assuming that Manifestos can indeed put before voters a clearly defined set of policies to which the elected party (and by extension the government) should adhere and by which government performance should be judged, is this really in the best interest of the country? One root of the Greek word demokratikos is damos, which means "a division of the people". Japan should not lose sight of people - with our prejudices, contradictions and shifting allegiances - as the Manifesto machinery is oiled and tuned.

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