Politics in Japan
Japan is a democracy with free elections and multiple political parties, but it has been mostly run by one party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), since 1955. The conservative LDP has retained its dominance for more than half a century.
The LDP’s dominance may reflect public disillusionment with opposition parties more than enthusiasm for the LDP. The Democratic Party (DPJ) briefly held power from 2009 to 2012, though its performance was often derided, and the political opposition in general has since fallen into a cycle of costly splits and mergers. Many Japanese voters see no viable alternatives to the LDP, which may explain low levels of voter turnout - only 48.8% in the 2019 national election.
As the opposition struggles to build coalitions, the LDP functions as a pragmatic “broad tent” party, adept at co-opting popular opposition policies and maintaining a decades-long coalition with its minority partner Komeito despite ideological differences. The LDP’s displays of ideological flexibility mask its deep conservatism, however. It has been slow to take emerging social issues seriously, such as calls for greater gender equality and minority rights, marriage equality, and the reform of strict rules on married couples’ surnames
The LDP has also pushed to alter the nation’s pacifist Constitution, unamended since its 1947 adoption, to make it easier for Japan to arm itself (this has failed to win public support). The LDP is conservative not only in terms of policy but also action; it governs by building consensus among ministries, parliamentary factions, and other stakeholders. This can make it slow and inflexible in times of crisis, and COVID-19 brought renewed attention to this issue - the national government largely left key decisions on emergency procedures and vaccine distribution protocols to local authorities.
About one quarter of the national parliament consists of dynastic politicians from powerful political families with large support networks and broad name recognition. This dynastic political composition can deter potential challengers, and female political representation is extremely poor.
The conservatism of Japan’s government is anchored in the homogeneity of its politicians. Women make up less than 10% of the parliament’s members, and Japan ranked 147th in the World Bank’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Political Empowerment Subindex - down from 125th in 2018.
The Digital Transformation of Japan
In 2018, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) tasked its Information-Technology Promotion Agency with accelerating Japan’s digital wherewithal by 2025. Several weaknesses have been identified in the country’s existing IT systems, prompting calls for a digital transformation. The country is trying to dislodge pre-digital customs in a bid to bolster its economy.
In 2021, the government established its “Digital Agency” to shore up the technology infrastructure needed for modern public services and recordkeeping. Many Japanese companies continue to use legacy systems, which generate large maintenance and operational costs. The shortcomings of these technology systems were widely exposed as COVID-19 spread; even though the Japanese government has promoted telework during the health crisis, it largely failed to take hold even in large cities such as Tokyo.
So entrenched are many standard, pre-digital Japanese practices that the pandemic largely failed to dislodge the use of Hanko stamps to manually sign documents (the Japanese conglomerate Hitachi made news in late 2020 when it disclosed that its “paperless-office” plan would end the use of Hanko stamps, which had been a main reason cited by employees for having to come into the office).
Despite these entrenched challenges, digital transformation efforts have gradually progressed in Japan - including the growing use of digital signatures and electronic payments. However, a shortage of IT technicians presents yet another obstacle to attaining greater digital awareness and ability.
According to a report published by METI, about half of the large companies in the country report that they are short of skilled IT labor. A factor that helps explain the dearth of IT technicians in Japan is the relatively low pay they receive - they are often significantly lower paid than other workers at the same company.
This has also been aggravated by the fact that, unlike in other comparable countries, the bulk of employees with IT skills are employed by IT-related companies - rather than spread across a more general mix of industries. For example, in the US some 65% of IT technicians are employed in non-IT-related companies, where they can help boost digital transformation.
Universities can play a positive role in this regard, by helping companies bolster their data-science efforts, and by developing courses necessary to feed companies with more skilled workers.
Peace, stability and prosperity drive Japan’s support for sustainable development. Japan’s presidencies of the G7 and G20 enabled it to promote issues of importance to sustainable development globally – including universal health coverage and responding to public health emergencies, quality infrastructure investment and gender equality – and to advance environmental and climate issues.
Japan’s GDP contracted by 4.7% in 2020 as COVID-19 exacted a heavy toll, though the International Monetary Fund has projected a return to growth for 2021 - as the vaccination rate picks up and commerce begins to flow at a more traditional pace. Still, some issues will continue to linger.
Japan’s population is progressively shrinking as it ages, skilled workers from abroad are not being attracted in sufficient numbers, and there have been troubling signs in terms of civic participation. Now, the country will seek to rely on its longstanding prowess in technology and innovation to help spur more sustainable and inclusive economic growth.
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The Globalization of Japanese Culture
The local popularity of ballet, the post-World War I tradition of performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony each December at venues around the country, and the regular staging of productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays have demonstrated Japan’s embrace of traditionally Western culture. The reverse is also true - Japanese culture has garnered a growing Western audience since the 19th century.
Now, in the 21st century, demand for The Tale of Genji, Noh theatre, pottery, and woodblock prints has expanded to contemporary fiction, Manga, anime, and video games. Global demand for Noh theatre and woodblock prints has expanded to Manga and video games.
Japanese culture now reaches its global audience through art galleries, independent translators working in many languages, publishers both mainstream and niche, and networks of international distributors. This audience also participates in the creation of Japanese culture abroad; haiku are composed in schools, original Manga are written in English and other languages, and anime-inspired cos-play conventions are held in cities large and small around the world. The production and diffusion of Japanese culture has meanwhile been democratized, and is no longer controlled by traditional gatekeepers such as commercial publishers and university scholars.
In the realm of literature, writers looking to Japan’s colonial era continue to draw attention to subjects often ignored by mainstream culture - such as discrimination against ethnic Koreans living in Japan, and the homelessness suffered by some members of the generation that built Japan’s modern economy in the 1960s. Almost 190,000 Japanese emigrated to Brazil during the first half of the 20th century; many of their descendants have since come to Japan to live and work, and the literature they have produced has become a focus of sustained attention.
The globalization of Japanese culture has been augmented by the collaboration among translators, writers, and artists working to support communities devastated by the massive earthquake in 2011 and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster. The now-fully-global reach of Japanese culture suggests that rather than producing a bland monoculture, globalization may in fact have the potential to provide platforms for talented and unique voices. In addition, a number of Japanese artists and writers now live (at least partly) abroad and may write in more than one language, such as Minae Mizumura or Haruki Murakami.
Japan’s Environment and Energy Use
Japan’s needs for greater environmental sustainability, energy, and progress on achieving carbon neutrality present some of its most pressing policy challenges. The country has plans for significant emissions reductions by 2030, and aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
The Fukushima nuclear calamity in 2011 soured the public on the concept of nuclear power and sharply reduced the desire to continue relying on it - even as mounting greenhouse gas emissions resulting from traditional energy sources continue to hasten the climate crisis.
The government’s commitment in early 2021 to reduce emissions by 46% by 2030 from 2013 levels, while achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, drew a line under Japan’s needs for both greater environmental sustainability and increasing amounts of energy. An aggressive focus on renewable energy could help achieve carbon neutrality, and solar power has already been relatively-widely adopted. In addition, offshore wind power has become increasingly prominent.
The development of low-cost batteries and electric vehicles is also vitally important, as is the focus on carbon-free hydrogen power. However, changes in energy use alone will be insufficient for achieving carbon neutrality, as experts believe a certain amount of carbon capture is also necessary.
Japan should ramp up its focus on developing vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and hydrogen can play a role in the de-carbonization of local steel production. Japan’s steel sector now accounts for more than 10% of the country’s total CO2 emissions, and so the industry has good reason to pursue R&D focused on emissions-free production. In addition, ammonia can potentially be used a fuel alongside coal for power generation in ways that reduce emissions - Japan’s largest power generation company announced a related demonstration of this in 2021.
Still, a lot of economic activity cannot be decarbonized, which increases the importance of carbon capture and sequestration technology. And while emissions reductions in the coming decades are necessary, existing plans will ideally be further accelerated.
As with any country, climate change has created opportunities alongside challenges in Japan, in terms of determining both its economic and physical well-being. Implementing policies to support carbon taxation and emissions-trading schemes is essential, for example - these are the types of measures that will truly enable Japanese businesses to prosper in a future global economy.
Japan’s Foreign Economic Policy
COVID-19 in Japan
Faced with a shrinking domestic market due to its ageing population, the country has a pressing need to pursue economic growth by participating in global value chains through trade and investment - and by welcoming more high-skilled immigrants from abroad. The country could benefit from increased immigration and a cooling of the US-China rivalry
Globalization is the key to greater prosperity for Japan. However, globalizing the economy by promoting more international movement of goods, services, money, and people has become increasingly difficult. One obstacle in recent years has been the US-China rivalry in areas including trade, technology, and military presence. Another serious problem has been the emergence of COVID-19, which has only highlighted the shortcomings of international trade and finance systems - where the World Trade Organization has traditionally been expected to play a constructive role.
Japan has actively pursued free trade agreements to reduce barriers to trade and draw investment from other countries. As of April 2021, Japan had 15 bilateral FTAs with a number of countries including India and the UK. Japan also has three regional FTAs - with ASEAN, the European Union, and 10 Asia-Pacific countries (CPTPP) - and it has helped form a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement.
Approximately two-thirds of Japan’s total trade takes place with partners to its various free trade agreements. Japan’s FTAs cover not only trade and investment, but also many other economic activities related to intellectual property rights, e-commerce, and general economic cooperation. These arrangements are called economic partnership agreements, and they promote the further globalization of the Japanese economy by facilitating not only the activities of Japanese companies in partner countries but also those of foreign companies in Japan.
Since the mid-2010s, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative has been an important regional policy for Japan; one of its major objectives is to enhance the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. The FOIP could, if well executed, significantly contribute to Japan’s economic growth.
The establishment of an open, free, and rules-based business environment is crucial for the deepening of trade relationships. Ideally, the rules covering economic activity are firmly established and enforced by an international organization such as the WTO, though FTAs can also play an important role (in recent years the functioning of the WTO has been hampered by differences in opinion among members regarding trade and investment liberalization).
Japan has reported significantly fewer COVID-19 deaths per capita than many other countries - but it has nonetheless had to make significant trade-offs between economic vitality and public health. The country has been fortunate in some ways, though it has nonetheless been deeply affected.
The pandemic has been both a public-health and a socio-economic crisis on a global scale, and the exact reasons for Japan’s ability to report a somewhat less severe impact than other countries remain something of a puzzle.
Several studies have pointed to Japan’s exposure to a relatively milder version of the coronavirus - and subsequent levels of acquired immunity - as a reason for less severe infection. Others have suggested that the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccination program already in place to control tuberculosis has dampened the impact of COVID-19 in the country. Other possible reasons cited have included Japan’s inherent cultures of social distancing and mask use, and the relatively ready availability of medical treatment and hospital beds due to a universal health insurance system.
Japan’s multiple states of emergency declared in order to try to protect public health have had a particularly significant impact on small and medium-sized firms in the service industry. Some academic studies encouraged the Japanese government to extend COVID-induced lockdowns, though the country’s medical capacity remained relatively ample.
The country had a relatively late start in terms of vaccinating the population, and widespread rollout did not begin picking up steam until mid-2021, ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics that got underway in July. Some have advocated for a balance between minimizing the human cost of a public-health epidemic and mitigating the economic costs of reduced production and spending.
Economic vitality generally remained sluggish, as measured by the number of bankruptcies and employment levels, throughout 2020. Ideally, Japan will be able to effectively contain both kinds of disruption. Nonetheless Japan, like other countries, has suffered serious economic consequences as a result of COVID-19, deeply affecting both supply and demand. Some examples of these consequences have included starkly lower consumer spending levels, and far fewer foreign visitors arriving with disposable income. Factory utilization has also dropped in connection with restrictions implemented as part of efforts to lower the spread of infection.
Japan’s Ageing Society
Japan is one of the most rapidly-ageing countries in the world. The percentage of its population 65 or older is projected to rise to 35.3% by 2040, up from 12.1% in 1990. The relatively longlife expectancy enjoyed by Japanese people, at 87.45 years for women and 81.41 years for men, is in some ways a blessing. But as long as Japan’s death rate continues to outpace its birthrate, its population is poised to progressively shrink as it grows older. Japan’s total fertility rate has declined steadily since 1974, when women had on average two children during their lifetime - a number that subsequently fell to 1.36 by 2019. Now, children aged 15 and younger constitute only 11.9% of the total population, which is the lowest percentage among developed countries. The pandemic is expected to further depress the country’s birthrate.
Japan’s relatively low fertility rate stems from several factors: the high cost of childrearing in the country, the disparate burden of childcare on women, the decline of three-generation households, a shortage of childcare facilities, and an increasing number of workers of childbearing age who have low-paying jobs that inhibit their ability to start families.
Japanese people are having children out-of-wedlock at slightly higher rates than in the past, though the country remains more culturally resistant to the idea of single mothers than other rich democracies.
The COVID-19 pandemic is projected to further depress births and marriages in the country, as its elderly population continues to grow. By the time the last of the baby boomers start retiring in the late 2030s, they will be expected to live longer than their parents’ generation; some 68% of 65-year-old women in 2040 are predicted to live up to 90 years, and 20% of them are likely to celebrate their 100th birthdays.
Elderly citizens may benefit from relatively good health relative to other countries, but many of them nonetheless suffer from a shortage of caregivers and nursing facilities, and from increasing healthcare costs. The hope that robots would be able to help care for Japan’s growing elderly population has largely faded, and efforts to attract professional caregivers from overseas to fill the labor shortage have been held back by negative public attitudes and the slow pace of immigration reform.
Science and Technology in Japan
The 22 Japanese scientists to win a Nobel Prize have demonstrated the country’s prowess when it comes to ground-breaking research. Research efforts are focused on everything from geothermal energy to the electrification of transportation. The Japanese government, the country’s universities, and its industries support this research in a variety of ways - related to myriad fields including particle physics, astrophysics, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and lithium-ion batteries.
Green technologies in particular (including those related to sustainable energy, smart cities, and consumer electronics) have the potential to help the country (and ultimately the world) achieve carbon neutrality, and better support ageing populations. These technologies can improve the generation, usage, and storage of renewable energy, whether it is derived from sunlight, water, wind, or ocean currents.
Geothermal energy in particular has become the subject of intensive research, not least because of Japan’s multiple active volcanoes. While the country’s relatively limited land mass impedes the construction of large-scale renewable power generation facilities, there are numerous possibilities to create integrated systems using rivers, individual residences, and office buildings outfitted with solar cells - and the surrounding ocean provides for a focus on the use of waves and tides.
Some recent research has focused on the catalytic reduction of emissions at power-generation facilities, such as thermal-power or gas-turbine-generation plants. Other areas of focus include urban infrastructure; it is essential to design cities in ways that enable the cost-efficient management of renewable energy sources, and the most effective city planning will involve an emphasis on the electrification of public transportation including busses, trains and trams, as well as on the recharging facilities, storage, and battery technology necessary to maintain those systems.
Sustainable artificial intelligence systems have been a research focus in Japan, due to the increased commercialization of AI generally, and the country’s automotive industry has been developing electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-powered cars. Hydrogen provides a potentially environmentally-friendly means of creating cooling systems, while the ongoing development of consumer electronics has spawned genuinely enriching experiences; the ability to use these devices to engage with locally-popular manga animation is now more prevalent than ever before.
Green computing - or low-power, high-performance computing - has also been a significant area of research in Japan as IT systems, data centres, and supercomputers consume greater amounts of energy.