Education About Asia

Democracy in Action in Japan’s Foreign and Security Policymaking

Download PDF

One stubborn belief common in other developed democracies is that the Japanese electorate is somehow passive or unengaged. Moreover, the belief that in Japan important political decisions are made by unelected bureaucrats against the wishes of elected politicians or the electorate at large has stuck in the minds of many, propagated by the oft-repeated dictum that Japan is a place where “politicians reign but bureaucrats rule.” (note 1) In the area of foreign and security policy, however, there is no shortage of examples where powerful politicians and bureaucrats had their plans thwarted by vocal opposition from Japan’s active civil society or by minority opinion in Japan’s parliament, the Diet. Concerted efforts by the mass media and the policy priorities of individual prime ministers also have played important roles in foreign policy-making in postwar Japan. At its core, this is democracy in action.

The largest public demonstrations in Japanese political history were mobilized in opposition to a foreign policy decision: to revise and extend the US-Japan security treaty in 1960 using questionable parliamentary procedures.

In contrast to some popular perceptions, a great variety of political actors have actively sought to influence the government on topics related to foreign and security policy—from anti-nuclear peaceniks to unapologetic Imperial Army sympathizers, and from agricultural cooperatives seeking to maintain high tariffs on imported rice to major corporations seeking to liberalize cumbersome regulations—including elected politicians seeking control over the way unelected bureaucrats implement declared policy principles. Industry actors, civil society movements, motivated individuals, and of course voters en masse have played important roles in crafting Japan’s foreign and security policies.