Observations of Japanese Democracy
I have written things similar to this before. Japan is not a “democracy” in the way that Americans or Canadians understand it. For background information, remember all that has been said about Japanas a corporate, honor/shame society and the West as an individualistic, guilt-ridden society. In the West the long, slow development and rise of democracy was about the raising of the common man to a higher standard of living combined with an ennobled position in a society governed by consensual laws and the recognition of the Rights of Man for everyman. It was about the raising up and protection of people to an equally high bar that coincidentally - or not so coincidentally - paralleled the slow spread of wealth, the development of capitalism and, especially in the case of England and America, with Protestantism as well. But in Japan, I suspect that democracy - imported in the late 1800s and applied by the Meiji Era oligarchy of the time in its own fashion - is more about the debasement of the common man. Rather than being about the raising up, ennobling and protection of people at an equal level of goodness - moral goodness, good standard and quality of life, etc. - it is about the common humiliation of people to an equally low bar. And, the Japanese public really digs it. I know it sounds like pretty cynical stuff, but it is a perspective that accounts for many of the little daily foibles one observes here.
Humiliation and shame play big in Japan - in entertainment especially, but in law as well. For years Japanese TV has been awash with game shows in which contestants engage in painful, ridiculous, embarrassing stunts for no prize or reward other than the temporary notoriety of television fame. The Japanese public thinks it is endlessly funny to watch people do stupid things. It can be said that Americais no different, of course. Part of my youth was spent watching that horrible “Gong Show,” and today people have reality TV which I have never seen, but which I suspect is similarly brainless. But stupid TV game shows are a telling point for my position because I take them as the tip of a cultural iceberg. Everybody is equally liable to humiliation. The higher the victim and the bigger their fall, the more entertaining it is, and in the Japanese polity, the more atoning it is.
So, in jurisprudence, often is the time when high profile criminals - business people and politicians - are handed minimal or suspended sentences for crimes that would send you or I to prison for years. The courts here deem the social humiliation of arrest and prosecution as being punishment enough for people who are used to a high degree of honor. As a common man, and as a foreigner in particular, I do not rate much honor to begin with. So if I fell afoul of the law the courts would decline leniency in order to impose on me humiliation commensurate with the magnitude of the crime after factoring in my inability to lose face through loss of honor. It’s a complicated formula.
It’s as if there is a disposition in Japanto think of crime as something perpetrated by “the little people,” so they receive harsher treatment as a means of keeping them in their place in the social order.
In America a corrupt company president would do prison time, but not so in Japan, where a“sincere” expression of regret (for “causing trouble”) sometimes accompanied by tears gets the culprit off. The thing is that in America all defendants - and all people - are held to a common high bar of justice, of guilt and legal and moral culpability (or, they are supposed to be, anyway), while in Japan defendants - and all people - are held to a low bar of shame and humiliation. In Americapunishment is featured by incarceration and the loss of freedom, while in Japanpunishment is featured by the public loss of face.
Now, these peculiarities play themselves out in society by the way they shape public discourse, the debate (or lack of it) of public policy, or crime and education, labor, recreation, sports, fashion, music and whatnot. In criminal sentencing, for example, one can hear everyday in the media judges pronouncing that a certain sentence is“unavoidable” and “natural,” long ago causing me to distrust and credit little credibility in what Japanese consider to be natural.