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2013年1月 7日 (月)


--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 5
EDITORIAL: Citizens should play the leading role in democracy

Let us reflect on the state of democracy in this nation.

We want to do so because Japan's political ills appear to indicate that democracy in this country itself has a cold, so to speak.

Japanese people's distrust of politics has deepened to an alarming degree, and the number of voters who support specific political parties has dwindled. It seems polls are determined not by voters' "support" but by their "nonsupport." Parties that no longer have a strong base of supporters inevitably go adrift, tossed about by the vicissitudes of politics.

Does democracy work well when it is fueled by the negative sentiment of disapproval?

An illuminating insight is offered by a political philosopher from an age in which political parties lost the support of people who used to sympathize with them.

When communities collapse and social ties are severed, the masses feel discarded and turn hostile toward the "establishment," including political parties and the representatives of interest groups. And when a defeat in war and unemployment have spread anxiety among them, those masses seek stories that fulfill their desire to escape from reality.

That's why people in Germany believed the fiction of a Jewish world conspiracy that the Nazis created for their propaganda. This keen observation was made by Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew, in her book "The Origins of Totalitarianism," published in 1951.


How can we build connections between people and politics based on positive sentiments?

Some Japanese may think that politics is a "service industry" and they are its customers. Such people would say that if they become dissatisfied with the services provided, they need only change the provider (the ruling party).

Such a notion can only cause us to suffer disillusionment with politics again and again.

In today's Japan, where the population is aging rapidly amid low birthrates, it is difficult for any party in power to keep providing satisfactory services.

First of all, are citizens customers?

Citizens lodge petitions, while politicians try to secure budgets for projects and programs they favor. Toshinari Yokoo, a 31-year-old member of the Minato Ward assembly in Tokyo, is working to change this traditional relationship between citizens and politicians in Japan into a constructive partnership for tackling challenges.

Yokoo's election manifesto is composed of policy proposals that emerged from his conversations with citizens.

One of the proposals is to scrap the restrictive rules on what children can do in parks, designed to prevent them from getting injured, so that they can play in an unrestrained manner. Another is to establish a system that allows citizens to rent a bicycle at one bicycle parking lot and return it at another.

As these proposals get into the process of implementation, those who have proposed them get excited about the fact that their ideas can really become a reality.

Yokoo also uses the Internet to solicit ideas from ordinary citizens. He has posted calls for ideas about, for instance, how to raise the ratio of young people voting in elections and new ways to use community notice boards. He then brings ideas offered by citizens to the ward assembly for consideration.

"Traditionally, the will of the local residents means the opinions of the representatives of neighborhood associations and local interest groups, and little attention has been paid to the voices of young people," says Yokoo. "But it is young people who are most familiar with the problems facing them. We should try to gather ideas from 100 'thinking amateurs' rather than relying on one biased representative."

Yokoo believes the principal role of politicians is to extract ideas from citizens.

If people want to carve out a wonderful future for themselves on their own, they need media that focus more on communicating great ideas than on providing distressing news.

That's the idea behind the publication of web magazine "greenz.jp" by Nao Suzuki, 36, who heads Greenz, an incorporated nonprofit organization.

An article published in the online magazine tells about a unique way to connect consumers to workers who make products.


The website of a French designer allows shoppers to choose the old lady who knits the hat or the muffler they order. Buyers chose one of the knitters based on their pictures and personal information, like a love of rock music. Purchasers express their gratitude to the old ladies who have knitted their hats and mufflers, and thus begin exchanges between the consumers and the knitters.

"As social ties between people become weak in this society, there are growing signs that people are seeking to solve problems through rebuilding those ties," observes Suzuki. "Share houses and networks to exchange clothes are just two examples. But the enormous distance between citizens and politics makes it difficult to propose policies to support this trend."

In order to narrow that distance, Suzuki has launched the "Senkyo (Election) CAMP" campaign. His organization rented one floor of a building in Tokyo's Shibuya district for a period of one month that included the Dec. 16 Lower House election for use as a venue for discussions open to everybody.

The discussion forum was designed to change people's attitude toward politics from "It's somebody else's business" to "It's our own business." Participants had discussions with guests, including politicians, on topics such as the kind of future they want and what they can do to change the situation.

Similar moves have emerged in 15 places nationwide. Suzuki hopes to expand this movement during the run-up to the Upper House election next summer.

When asked about the current state of politics in Japan, he gave the following answer.

"It is meaningless to keep repeating the process of planting carrots in sterile land in the narrow farm called Nagata-cho (Japan's political power center) and then replacing them with red turnips when they wither.

"What we need to do is to expand conversations (on politics) among citizens, create countless venues for such public discussions and nurture rich democratic ecosystems all over the nation."


It is futile and dangerous for us to bewail the failure of politics to meet our expectations and wait longingly for saviors. We should be wary of politicians who talk about easy solutions to the thorny problems facing the nation.

Citizens need to confront the challenges facing them and try to make politicians take effective steps to tackle them. Politicians, for their part, should promote information disclosure and create effective systems to seek ideas and proposals from citizens.

Japanese citizens must change themselves from voters who only cast ballots at the polls into participants in the sovereignty of their nation. They must take a first step toward realizing a true democracy in which the people play the leading role.

Yokoo is also the chief of NPO corporation Greenbird, a group of young people dedicated to cleaning up their communities.
There are a total of 43 teams of young people working for the cause across Japan and overseas.

"We really enjoy working in teams and receiving positive reactions from people," says Yokoo. "I hope we can also get involved in politics in an enjoyable and cool way."

We agree. Democracy can be fun if we play the leading role.


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