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Interpreting the Osaka Mayoral Election through Tocqueville
- Issues with Japanese Democracy

Yuji Takayama
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

In the Osaka mayoral election held on November 27 last year, the former Governor of Osaka Toru Hashimoto won an overwhelming victory over incumbent Kunio Hiramatsu. The simultaneously held gubernatorial election was won by Ichiro Matsui, Secretary-General of the Osaka Restoration Association headed by Mr. Hashimoto.

The voter turnout rate in the mayoral election was 60.92%, 17.31 points up from 43.61% in the previous election in 2007. Many non-aligned voters who distrusted the existing political parties and politicians said they voted for Mr. Hashimoto in the hope that he would make changes. Considering the large fall in turnout rates at gubernatorial elections nationwide since the postwar era, the high level of interest shown by the electorate in the Osaka double election is good news.

According to 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), who wrote most incisively on the merits and demerits of democracy, it is the sustained interest and participation of citizens in local politics that underpins democracy. However, the temporary mood of dissatisfaction with government and hope for a leader, which has largely influenced recent elections like the Osaka mayoral election, may differ from the interest and participation described by Tocqueville. I would like to consider some issues with Japanese democracy, referring to Tocqueville's classic of political science, Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840.

Alexis de Tocqueville (by Theodore Chasseriau, Musee de Versailles collection)

First edition of Volume 1 of Democracy in America (1835, Gosselin)

Anxiety about Being a Nobody-Indifference and Envy

According to various exit polls at the Osaka mayoral election, Mr. Hashimoto's approval rating exceeded that of Mr. Hiramatsu among all age groups except the over 70's. Most strikingly, 70% of voters in their 20's and 30's voted for Mr. Hashimoto. Looking back at the Osaka gubernatorial election of January 2008, too, the Asahi Shimbun's exit poll showed that Mr. Hashimoto defeated opponent candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party of Japan and others in all age groups except for voters in their 60's. Those who have become disillusioned with the existing system and supported Mr. Hashimoto are young people with an undetermined social position. Behind this trend lies anxiety about an uncertain future.

However, this anxiety is not limited to the current youth, since Mr. Hashimoto also received strong support from people in their 40's and 50's. In this era of slow growth, and with the dismantling of the institutions and customs of promotion by seniority and lifelong employment, the period of anxiety has extended into people's 30's and 40's. On the other hand, it is difficult for them to establish a common interest or sense of unity that would enable them to share this anxiety as a generation and convert it into some form of social activity.

Democracy is a leveler of human beings, in the sense that people are no longer assured of who they are, as they were by the class system and tradition. Thus wrote Tocqueville, who himself was part of the first generation stricken by such anxiety about being a nobody. Since then, people still feel anxious but simultaneously hopeful about becoming someone, although when their prospects of doing so are lost, they become gripped by a strong feeling of emptiness. Political and social indifference and apathy dominate society.

On the other hand, those people can become filled with resentment when they see others whose lives seem happier and more settled than their own. The stability of government officials' positions also provokes feelings of envy, which is why democracy's lower-ranking officials tend to have low salaries. Tocqueville pointed out the danger of the people seeking a leader who seems able to rid them of their dissatisfaction and envy, and entrusting him with strong governing powers.

A temporary mood such as that seen in the Osaka mayoral election provides a significant force for change in politics, a role that cannot be completely denied. However, modern politics needs to confront the reality of the existence of irrational emotions of anxiety and envy behind it.

The cost of amateur politics

"This demonstrated to me that those who regard universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices are under a complete illusion," wrote Tocqueville in Democracy in America.

Tocqueville visited the United States during the Jackson era, when universal suffrage for white adult males had already been popularized in the Northern States, and he saw for himself the poor quality of politicians there. But he did find the merits of democracy elsewhere. That was in the practice of regional autonomy, that is, the politics of regional government. The daily interest and participation of the people themselves in public affairs broadened their knowledge and stimulated social activities. Public interest and participation not depending on a temporary mood was vital for the establishment of democracy.

That is not to say that citizen autonomy is free from problems. As Tocqueville said, "There is no denying that the people often manage public affaires very badly." In times when ordinary people who are not professional politicians become leaders, urgent issues are dealt with at a snail's pace. Today, many citizens are disillusioned by the downfall of local assembly members who represent the common people, not only in Osaka. They want politicians to stop their fruitless discussions and to make decisions and take action more promptly. Conversely, it is natural for people to build up their expectations of the capability of local government heads.

If strong leaders can make and implement decisions, wastefulness is reduced and politics is made more efficient. Yet what underpins democracy is the day to day participation and discussion among the people. It must be reminded that democracy means high-cost political institutions and ideals. But of course there must be a limit to that cost. What is needed is more effectiveness in government and a review of the suitable number of assembly members. However, democracy will not be completely achieved if the people simply swing back and forth between over-expectation and despair of their leaders and political parties. They must be prepared to accept the high cost, as long as democracy is less worse than any other political systems.

The fact that Mr. Hashimoto gained the support of the majority and was elected mayor must be taken seriously, needless to say. The electorate need to examine his achievements calmly during his term of office without fluctuating between hope and despair over occasional policies. Tocqueville recognized self-transformation as being one of the merits of democracy. If the people understand that they have made a mistake of judgment, they can select an alternative in the next election.

Yuji Takayama
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

[Profile]
Graduated the Department of Political Science, School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University, and obtained a PhD in Political Science from the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University. He became a fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and Research Associate at the Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University before taking up his current position in 2010.

[Books and papers]
The Melancholy of Tocqueville - French Romanticism and the Birth of "Generation" [Tokuviru no yu'utsu - furansu romanshugi to "sedai" no tanjo], 2011, Hakusuisha Publishing.
Co-translator of Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy I, II by John Rawls, 2011, Iwanami Shoten.
Social Integration and the Religious - The Experience of 19th Century France [Shakai togo to shukyoteki na mono - jukyuseiki furansu no keiken], co-edited with Shigeki Uno and Kiyonobu Date, 2011, Hakusuisha Publishing.
"Anxiety amid Affluence -Tocqueville's Criticisms of Individualism and Rediscovering of 'Interest'" [Yutakasa no naka no fuan - Tokuviru no kojinshugihihan to rieki no saihakken], Shiso (Politics and Emotion special feature, No. 1033, May 2010), Iwanami Shoten, pp. 94-111.