Japanese Culture and Government: How Culture Influences Politics, Governance, and Priorities

Liberal Democratic Party Japan Emblem

3rd Place, High School Essay Contest 2021

臭い物に蓋 —

Put a lid on what smells bad. This Japanese saying reflects the nation’s culture of desiring to melt in with the crowd – in other words, prioritizing the larger community over one’s rights or opinions. The symbolic act of “putting a lid on what smells bad” is equivalent to ignoring criticisms and focusing on obscuring the issue in question, when instead the problem must be solved. In context to this, one can point out that Japanese individuals rarely raise their voices to criticize – especially when it comes to political issues and the government. The tendency to ignore and conceal a flaw does deteriorate individuals’ critical judgment skills. However, this fact does not serve as a big problem in Japanese society, where the nation’s overall benefit is essential.

This social phenomenon can explain the structural arrangements in Japanese politics regarding governance, namely how the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is able to stay in power for such a long period. In fact, the LDP, since its organization in 1955, has almost always been the ruling party of Japan. Japan, with a nominal GDP of 5.6 trillion dollars, is the third-largest economy in the world, and it enjoys a very stable political landscape. Both signs of societal affluence – economic prosperity and political stability – could be materialized through the Liberal Democratic Party’s tight grip of power. After all, the consistent passing of contextually similar bills can only materialize when the leading party stays in power for a long time. Additionally, policies that need to be carried out in the long term succeed comparatively often in Japan.

The Liberal Democratic Party’s long reign on the political throne can be explained through the Japanese people’s tendency to accept things as they are, in addition to their reluctance towards speaking up to criticize. At an early age, Japanese children are given the impression that “standing out” can lead to bullying, known as ijime in Japan. Consequently, people feel reluctant about speaking up, even if there are clear points to criticize. The jargon “KY,” used among teenagers in Japan, also reflects the nation’s individuals’ desire to blend in with the rest of the crowd. “KY” is the abbreviation for the Japanese phrase, kūki o yomanai (空気を読まない) – “unable to read the air.” This expression is used to describe someone who cannot comprehend the situation accurately. In other words, someone who does not follow the implicit “rules” of society. Through this as well one can presume how important mingling with others is in Japanese society.

This apprehension is how the abovementioned social tendency affects Japan’s political landscape and governance. Even if, for instance, in a hypothetical situation, an individual discovers that corruption is existent in the Liberal Democratic Party, he or she would not be willing to point it out to the public. As a result, majority votes go to the LDP in the general elections every time, and the corruption will continue with no adjustments.

Broadening the meaning of “governance” to the Japanese society itself (because governance directly influences the society), one must acknowledge how Japan’s societal atmosphere affects the direction of the society itself. Individuals being unwilling to criticize the government is, in one aspect, prioritizing national interests. The reason is that thanks to the people’s implied support (backed by lack of political criticism) for the government, Japan is capable of pursuing national goals and benefits with a strong driving force. Prioritizing national interests over individual ones certainly brings stability and prosperity to society. Japan is one of the best examples of this. As emphasized above, Japan is one of the strongest economies in the world and has a well-established societal framework. However, there are side effects to the social security and affluence that Japan enjoys. In exchange for a strong community, perhaps essential factors, such as innovation or growth, were sacrificed. In context to this, one can speculate on the number of Nobel Prizes that Japan has won. There are 25 medals in total – 11 in physics, 7 in chemistry, 4 in medicine, 2 in literature and 1 in peace, and 0 in economics.

The Norwegian Noble Committee offers most prizes in fields of natural science. However, one must still recognize the fact that Japan contributed more to the natural science field than to disciplines that deal with social sciences, which place more significance in debate and contradictions. Though one must not generalize upon the basis of data regarding 25 Noble laureates, it is rational to assume that Japan is more advanced in natural science, and less so in social science. This reflects how Japan and its people are culturally distant from debating and criticism, the main factors that bring social change.

Through this, one can carefully assume that while Japanese society stable and strong, there is little room for significant developments or innovations.

In Japan, the desire to blend in with the crowd, in addition to the tendency to prioritize society above all else, influences governance in the nation in various ways, directly and indirectly, negatively and positively. Regardless, the culture itself takes up a significant part of each individual’s lives and has a big influence on their sense of identity. Hence, despite the need for some change in the societal atmosphere, it is impossible and wrong to eliminate its roots in Japanese society. All things considered, to materialize social stability and growth within Japan, there is a need for reasonable amendments to be carried out in the long term.

Works Cited:

Miura, Lully. 2021. “What’s Behind Japan’s Political Stability?”. The Japan Times.https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2019/09/27/commentary/japan-commentary/whats-behind-japans-political-stability/.

“Closing the lid for National Interests”. 2021. Hankyung.Com.

Kook, J., 2013. Japan in a Vial. Seoul: Hanwool.

Hiromitsu, I., 2002. Where to Go to College. Tokyo: Godansha

Benedict, R., 1978. The chrysanthemum and the sword. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.