Japan’s democratic renewal and the survival of the liberal order

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida celebrate after Suga was elected as new head of the ruling party at the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leadership election in Tokyo, Japan September 14, 2020. Eugene Hoshiko/Pool via REUTERS

Executive summary

Democracy in Asia logoJapan plays a central role in the endeavor to rekindle liberal internationalism. The country boasts one of Asia’s oldest democracies and the fulcrum of institutions and norms of representative democracy: free and fair elections, rule of law, full civil rights, and freedom of the press. Given that stable democracies that have adjusted to economic globalization and avoided populist disruption are increasingly in short supply, Japan’s strengths are undisputable. However, the current era of political stability has derived largely from the fragmentation of opposition parties, and there are troubling signs of waning democratic dynamism such as voter apathy, tepid inter-party competition, and the weakening of accountability channels.

Internationally, the United States and Japan share concerns about democratic recession and China’s coercive diplomacy. Even though Washington and Tokyo have not historically aligned on a strategy of democracy promotion, they can coordinate efforts to ensure democratic resilience and the survival of the liberal order. Japan has long pressed to include democracies in Asia’s regional architecture and to disseminate economic standards that tame corruption and curb digital protectionism, and it has cultivated deeper security cooperation with democracies that share strategic interests. These are diplomatic tracks that can find resonance with the Biden administration.


As the second decade of the 21st century drew to a close, the world order has been consumed by a vortex of change. The casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic keep mounting both in terms of lives lost and livelihoods shattered. Government competence has been tested — and frequently found wanting — in the pressing tasks of outbreak control and long-term economic viability. For many nations, COVID-19 has underscored the growing inequalities of opportunity and risk and the deep tears to the social fabric that confound whole-of-society responses. The international order has not fared much better. The U.S.-China rift has deepened, vaccine nationalism and economic mercantilism have reared their ugly heads, and the spirit of multilateral cooperation has at times appeared depleted. Long gone are the days when liberal democracy looked ascendant. Not only have authoritarian governments perfected digital tools of social control, but populism has shaken the institutions of representative democracy in the West. The challenges for the United States, long a paragon of the free world, are particularly poignant as the recent assaults by members of the losing party on the integrity of the presidential election outcome attest.

At this critical juncture, it is nevertheless possible to build on positive trends. Science, with the record-breaking development of vaccines, has offered us the truly viable strategy to overcome the pandemic. Asian democracies, leaning on the lessons learned from past infectious disease outbreaks, have demonstrated their ability to respond effectively to the current public health crisis without compromising civil liberties. Global supply chains have proven resilient and ensured that the world economy did not seize up with prolonged shortages of critical supplies. Middle powers have doubled down on rules-based trade brokering large-scale agreements. The incoming Biden administration has pledged to reassert American leadership in addressing transnational challenges, shoring up multilateralism, and reinvesting in alliances. Central to its governance project is a call for democratic renewal, both at home and abroad. These tasks will undoubtedly face myriad obstacles.

Japan’s credentials as a consolidated democracy matter more at a time of widespread democratic backsliding and the rising influence of an authoritarian economic behemoth like China.

Japan plays a central role in the endeavor to rekindle liberal internationalism. The country boasts one of Asia’s oldest democracies and the fulcrum of institutions and norms of representative democracy: free and fair elections, rule of law, full civil rights, and freedom of the press. Japan’s credentials as a consolidated democracy matter more at a time of widespread democratic backsliding and the rising influence of an authoritarian economic behemoth like China. The move away from “America First” transactionalism offers an opportunity for the United States and Japan to deepen bonds based on shared values and seek to leverage their partnership to tackle transnational challenges and shore up multilateralism. Making the U.S.-Japan alliance a bulwark of democracy is a shared and important goal, one that has acquired greater urgency in light of the profound challenges to democratic governance in America.

Given that stable democracies that have adjusted to economic globalization and avoided populist disruption are increasingly in short supply, Japan’s strengths are undisputable. Yet, the nation’s penchant for stability has also come at a price, with troubling signs of declining democratic dynamism: weakened inter-party competition and disengaged voters frustrated by insufficient government transparency and responsiveness. In the past, Tokyo’s forays into values-based diplomacy proceeded haltingly and the U.S. and Japan have not converged on the goals and tactics of democracy promotion. Japan faces a distinct set of challenges in reinvigorating its own democracy, but can also share some lessons learned in its efforts to deepen collaboration with fellow democracies and to promote governance and rule of law via economic assistance to developing Asia. Democratic resilience, functional collaboration among like-minded countries, and a commitment to a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific offer significant venues for U.S.-Japan collaboration.

Revisiting Japan’s “uncommon democracy”

In understanding Japan’s democratic trajectory, it is helpful to revisit the moniker applied to the country during the Cold War era as an “uncommon democracy.” The term was used to denote the phenomenon of decades of unbroken rule by a dominant party (the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP) in a political system with free elections and media, and well-established civil and political rights. Of course, much has changed domestically and internationally since. The LDP lost power twice (for a few months after the election of August 1993 and for three years in 2009-2012), and the geopolitical context has also changed dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a moment of American unipolarity, and the shift to U.S.-China strategic rivalry. And yet, Japan has reverted to a dominant political ticket (the LDP plus its coalition partner Komeito, a lay-Buddhist party) dwarfing opposition parties. The U.S.-China context does not approximate the original Cold War (given China’s extensive integration into the modern world economy and the absence of a formal Chinese bloc of influence), but it has increasingly acquired an ideological undertone with calls for the “free world” to oppose Chinese authoritarianism.

Hence, “uncommon democracy” offers a useful frame to highlight what sets Japan apart from other liberal democracies rocked by populism, its distinctive democratic evolution where apathy trumps polarization, and the different approach on democratic support pursued by Tokyo in its aid diplomacy towards Asia — ground zero for U.S.-China strategic competition.

Bucking the populist trend

Populism is far from a new political phenomenon, but it has risen lately to new prominence in Western democracies as it has made electoral inroads with the growing weight of far right parties in Continental Europe, the success of the Brexit campaign, and a populist American president in Donald J. Trump. Populism thrives when the political establishment appears ineffective in addressing the concerns of disaffected citizens, and it has important consequences for both representative democracy at home and an open international order. It can yield illiberalism by promoting exclusionary politics (where only the interests of the “true people” matter), and by eroding institutional checks and balances. And to the extent that the country’s ills are attributed to outside forces, populist governments favor closed borders and economic nationalist policies.

Japan’s political stability has cut a stark contrast to the upswing of populist forces elsewhere. In September 2020, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finished an eight-year run in office as the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history. During his tenure, Japan moved towards more economically liberal policies by assuming leadership in ambitious trade negotiations and with more modest immigration reforms to allow entry of manual workers. While the lock of the establishment on Japanese politics looks secure, the public has grown frustrated with prolonged economic stagnation and the palpable rise of income inequality. The disappointment has manifested in growing ranks of unaffiliated voters (by some counts 39% of total voters in the last general election in 2017) that can decide elections when persuaded by a candidate’s reform promises. They came in force in 2005 for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he attacked vested interests within his own party, in 2009 for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama when he led the Democratic Party of Japan’s dethroning of the ruling party, and in 2018 for Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike when she promised to disrupt the “old boy network.” But none of these maverick politicians preached or practiced populism to the detriment of Japan’s representative democracy. Nor has the Japanese public scapegoated globalization. If anything, with the realization that demographics dictate a shrinking internal market, an open trading system is seen more as opportunity than peril.

Dashed hopes for a more competitive party system

The rhythm of postwar Japanese politics was largely set by the rules of electoral competition. The single non-transferable vote in multi-member districts was not widely adopted elsewhere, but it had important consequences for the evolution of Japan’s democracy. It compelled members of the same party to face each other at the electoral booth, thereby weakening party labels and encouraging the operation of party factions to manage internal competition over nominations, funds, and posts. Individual candidates sought to differentiate themselves by cultivating ties with blocs of organized voters (construction, agriculture, etc.) or catering to the needs of local constituencies. Pork barrel practices and money politics were rampant.

The electoral and political funding reforms ushered in during the brief stint of a coalition of parties in opposition to the LDP in the early 1990s created an opportunity to improve the quality of Japanese democracy. Increased transparency in political funding with the establishment of public subsidies for political parties and the adoption of a hybrid electoral system (with Japanese citizens casting two votes in Lower House elections: one for a candidate in single-member districts and another for a party in regional blocs with proportional representation rules for the allocation of seats) transformed the currents of Japanese politics. The role of factions declined and programmatic campaigns became more important to electoral contests. While corruption was not eliminated, it did diminish overall, and the pattern of politically-targeted fiscal spending (with “bridges to nowhere”) abated. Much hope was placed on the emergence of a robust two-party system to bring about greater government accountability and spur healthy debates over competing policy platforms.

After the creation of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 1996, Japan did experience strong inter-party competition during the 2000s. When the DPJ won the national election in 2009, it promised to usher in a new era for Japanese politics by reining in bureaucrats, increasing politician oversight, and cutting wasteful spending. However, the DPJ botched domestic policymaking, created friction with the United States over the fate of the Futenma air base in Okinawa, and found itself ill-prepared to respond to the Triple Disaster of March 2011 (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant accident). In 2012, the party was voted out of office as the LDP under Shinzo Abe made a comeback.

The short-lived DPJ experiment is frequently described as Japan’s inoculation to populism, but its impact is more profound: It dashed hopes that party turnover could bring genuine political and economic reform. The DPJ was unable to regain voters’ confidence and eventually fractured, paving the way for a string of six wins in national elections (three each for both the Lower House and the Upper House) for the current ruling coalition, which has resulted in a commanding position in both houses of the National Diet. In September 2020, the splinter groups of the DPJ coalesced into the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP, established in 2017), with 150 Lower House seats, far short of the 233 needed to create a majority. Recapturing the public’s trust is still an uphill battle, however, with a modest 8% support rate for the consolidated party.

The downsides of politics without alternatives

Japan’s much vaunted political stability, therefore, has much to do with the implosion of a viable opposition and is less motivated by a ringing endorsement of government performance. The Japanese public’s normative support of representative democracy remains very strong. In the 2016 Asian Barometer Survey, 95% of Japanese respondents endorsed the notion that while democracy may have its problems, it still is the best form of government. However, there is frustration with the degree of government responsiveness to the public’s demands and pessimism over the country’s long-term future. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, only 35% of respondents feel that elected officials care about what ordinary people think and 62% believe that no matter who wins, things do not change much.

The marked disengagement from politics does not bode well for a dynamic democracy. Voter turnout in general elections dropped from 69.3% in 2009 to 59.2% in 2012, then bottomed out at 52.7% in 2014, and had a small recovery to 53.7% in 2017. More broadly, few Japanese report a disposition to participate in civic/political activities: In a 2014 NHK survey, 70% of survey respondents disclosed no intention to partake in demonstrations, political assemblies, or letter writing to parliamentarians or media outlets. Apathy towards the political process hinders the vitality of the democratic process in Japan as captured by the democracy index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. In 2019, Japan ranked number 24 (sitting one slot ahead of the United States) with an aggregate score of 7.99. Japan had higher marks on electoral process, pluralism, and civil liberties, but its lowest scores were in the categories of political participation and culture which measure among other things citizen engagement in politics and the number of female politicians, both of which are weak spots for Japan. The close-knit ties between journalists and public officials through the kisha kurabu system (media associations that receive exclusive access to public figures) hinders the participation of outside media and more robust investigative journalism. Those concerns area a primary reason for Japan ranking number 66 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

The arrival of political stability during Abe’s second premiership (2012-20) afforded Japan many advantages. Executive leadership enabled the country to become a more proactive actor in world affairs and to make progress in the fight against domestic deflation. However, the sources of stability matter, and when it is derived from the inability of the opposition camp to offer a meaningful alternative to LDP rule, the vibrancy of democracy takes a toll. The weakening of meaningful political competition in Japan has had significant consequences. For one, it encourages citizen passivity towards a political process that seems incapable of delivering change. It also dulls legislative deliberations, and without the prospect of alternation in office between competing political tickets, transparency and accountability weaken. It is no coincidence that some of the political scandals that emerged in the Abe years flowed from the phenomenon of sontaku (government officials awarding policy favors to individuals who they surmise enjoy the prime minister’s support).

Robust electoral competition incentivizes governments to remain attuned to public demands. The LDP, and Abe in particular, mounted a comeback in 2012 showing such responsiveness, running with a platform of economic revitalization and an unconventional reflationist strategy. The stimuli to remain nimble, however, has since receded. Japan, therefore, is managing its first leadership transition in eight years at a time when the pandemic has delivered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s former chief cabinet secretary, cinched his position as Abe’s successor as prime minister both by skillfully navigating factional politics and portraying himself to the public as a steady hand at a time of turbulence.

In aiming to deliver structural reform, Prime Minister Suga has rolled out two landmark initiatives: digitalization and carbon neutrality by 2050. Because these are cross-cutting reform initiatives that will impact multiple vested interests and step into sensitive bureaucratic turfs, they are bound to elicit strong resistance. Nevertheless, Suga has very little time to prove that he will be more than a caretaker leader capable of delivering on an ambitious economic reform program. He faces both reelection as LDP party president and a general election in less than a year. Greatly complicating his chances of success is the fact that the honeymoon period with the Japanese public proved short. His decision to break precedent in not appointing the full roster of nominees to the Science Council, the resurfacing of Abe’s scandals over alleged violations of political funding laws (by subsidizing cherry blossom viewing parties for his supporters), and more importantly, dissatisfaction with the government’s pandemic response as COVID-19 cases continue to soar have resulted in a marked drop in public support: from 74% in September to 42% in December.

As Japan faces this most severe crisis and with voters heading to the polls later this year, much hangs in the balance for Japan’s political parties: Can the ruling coalition convincingly steer the ship in addressing these pressing national problems? Can a reconsolidated opposition party rise to the occasion and offer a credible alternative to meet these challenges in order to recapture the public’s trust? Political stagnation could yet again bring back the disruptive dynamic of a rapid turnover of prime ministers — which would hamper both the quality of domestic governance and the ability of Japan to sustain a proactive international role. A potential inward turn would be much more consequential at a time when Japan has filled an international leadership vacuum with initiatives such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP).

Values and interests: The path to achieving the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision

Democratic recession and the weakening of the liberal international order are shared concerns for the United States and Japan. However, values-based diplomacy has evolved differently in each country, and there has not been convergence on the policy of democratic promotion. Japan’s most explicit effort to incorporate universal values into its foreign policy took place in the mid-2000s in the form of the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity initiative. Keenly aware of China’s growing clout in the region, Tokyo chose to emphasize values such as freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights to distinguish its diplomatic approach from China’s. However, this redirection in Japanese diplomacy proved ephemeral. The policy was quickly shelved when it faced pushback from China who deemed it a containment ploy and was received unenthusiastically in Southeast Asia where the norm of non-interference in domestic affairs runs deep.

Japan has shied away from political uses of aid, citing painful memories of Japanese militarism in Asia, the desire to maintain stability in recipient countries and not engage in nation-building, and a belief that gradual governance reforms will improve democracy’s chances in the future.

The role of democratic support in Japan’s aid programs has differed from Western liberal democracies. Japan has shied away from political uses of aid, citing painful memories of Japanese militarism in Asia, the desire to maintain stability in recipient countries and not engage in nation-building, and a belief that gradual governance reforms will improve democracy’s chances in the future. Hence, Japan’s share of economic assistance allocated to civil society is very modest (1.7% of the total aid budget) and it operates through official channels responding to project requests from counterpart governments. As Yasunobu Sato explains, the precepts of the Japanese approach have been human security (with an emphasis on freedom from want by attending to basic human needs) and rule of law. Japan’s lower-case democracy efforts include judicial capacity building, civil code development, and election support. They are deemed essential to check abuse of state power, protect human rights and adjudicate conflicts, and develop the institutions of a market economy. Japan’s distinctive approach to democracy support has been met with skepticism in some quarters. For critics, Tokyo is willing to prioritize strategic interests at the expense of defending universal values, and its cautious approach to democratic support runs the risk of solidifying the hold of authoritarian regimes.

In launching the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in 2016, Japan sought to respond to an even starker shift in the regional balance of power and to leave its own imprint on the regional architecture. The diplomatic push advances Japanese national interests but is also built on lessons learned from previous forays into values-based diplomacy. In FOIP, Tokyo has sought to prevent China’s dominance in regional affairs, yet has also emphasized inclusivity by leaving open the possibility of cooperation if China abides by Japan’s higher standards for economic integration. The FOIP incorporates values such as openness and freedom, commitment to universal rights, and promotes a connectivity agenda with economic assistance programs to improve governance and free trade. A central line of effort is the dissemination liberal values such as respect for international rule of law, freedom of navigation, and the rejection of coercion to solve inter-state disputes. As Maiko Ichihara carefully documents, Japan’s foreign policy discourse on values has shifted over time, with more recent emphasis on liberal rules that both democracies and non-democracies can endorse to bring stability to the region. This, more than democracy promotion, is an area where Japan and the United States have found alignment.

Cooperation with established Indo-Pacific democracies that share strategic interests is a core tenet of Japan’s FOIP strategy. By resurrecting the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or simply, “the Quad”) framework which includes Australia, India, and the U.S., Tokyo is placing a bet on closer ties with maritime democracies that can countervail China’s influence based on greater defense and intelligence cooperation. Both values and interests inform this track of Japanese diplomacy and the desire to buttress security ties with each of the Quad members is unmistakable. Japan has sought greater military interoperability with the United States and the Abe administration reinterpreted the right of collective self-defense to enable Japan to assist its ally if under attack — provided Japan’s own security is also at stake. Ties with India have also deepened with the launch of a 2+2 ministerial dialogue and Japanese participation in the Malabar military exercises. Japan’s security partnership with Australia has made great strides, most recently with the November 2020 reciprocal access agreement which grants military personnel from each country rights to visit and participate in joint training. The launch this year of a Quad-Plus mechanism to address the pandemic by including three additional countries (New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea) shows flexibility in embracing functional cooperation with like-minded countries. It also offers a glimpse of hope for Japan and South Korea to cooperate in addressing common challenges given the profound deterioration of relations between America’s two democratic Northeast Asian allies.

The newly arrived Biden administration has announced a major shift in U.S. foreign policy priorities — with calls for a Summit for Democracy to address the world’s most pressing challenges. It also confronts at home a profound crisis for American democracy as painfully captured by the attack on the Capitol in a failed attempt to prevent Congressional certification of the presidential election results. Hence, the fight for democratic renewal has acquired new poignancy for the United States, creating a greater sense of identification with struggles elsewhere to defend democracy. Times are hard, but there are ample opportunities for the United States and Japan to jointly advance their shared values and interests.

Japan and the United States have in the past taken different approaches to the task of democracy support, but share a common concern over democratic recession in Asia and the use of coercion to settle inter-state disputes. The allies can find common ground in ensuring resilience of liberal democracy and of the liberal international order. To this end, there are elements from Japan’s own experience that can be helpful. A Summit for Democracy may appear as an exclusionary endeavor and blunt its appeal and effectiveness. An alternative approach is to use the politics of membership towards greater inclusivity and representation of democracies in the regional architecture. This is the tack that Japan used in the membership battles over the East Asia Summit and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to ensure there is greater democratic representation in Asian institutions to balance China’s weight. Second, much can be learned from Tokyo’s embrace of functional cooperation with democracies and non-democracies to disseminate rules that promote good governance and limit the reach of state-controlled models (digital economy) or corrupt practices (transparency and sustainability in infrastructure finance). Functional cooperation and rule-making efforts show great promise in tackling areas such as vaccine distribution, supplier chain resilience, international debt management, and open and trusted data flows. Finally, where values and interests align, deeper bilateral security cooperation and networked cooperation can be effective, as the revival of the Quad suggests. The return of the United States to multilateralism, regionalism, and the commitment to coordination with allies should energize these endeavors.


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    I am grateful to project leads Ryan Hass and Lindsey W. Ford and an anonymous reviewer for their very useful comments. I appreciate Laura McGhee’s research assistance, Ted Reinert’s editorial work, and Rachel Slattery’s design work.

  • Footnotes
    1. T.J. Pempel, ed. Uncommon Democracies: The One-Party Dominant Regimes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).
    2. Kaori Hayashi, “The Silent Public in a Liberal State: Challenges for Japan’s Journalism in the Age of the Internet,” in The Crisis of Liberal Internationalism: Japan and the World Order, eds. Yoichi Funabashi and G. John Ikenberry (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2020), 325-358.
    3. For a discussion of Japan’s adjustment to economic globalization see Mireya Solís, “The Underappreciated Power: Japan After Abe,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 6 (November/December 2020),
    4. Matthew M. Carlson and Steven R. Reed, Political Corruption in Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); and Gregory Noble, “The Decline of Particularism in Japanese Politics,” Journal of East Asian Studies 10, no. 2 (2010): 239-274,
    5. The results of the NHK Broadcasting Cultural Research Institute’s survey are reported in Kaori Hayashi, “The Silent Public in a Liberal State,” 335.
    6. Tobias Harris, The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan (London: Hurst Publishers, August 2020).
    7. Yasunobu Sato, “Japan’s approach to global democracy support: Focused on law and judicial reform assistance,” in “U.S.-Japan Approaches to Democracy Promotion,” eds. Michael R. Auslin and Daniel E. Bob, (Washington, DC: Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, 2017), 37-44,
    8. Jeff Kingston, “The Emptiness of Japan’s Values Diplomacy in Asia,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 18, no. 19-1 (October 1, 2020),; and James D.J. Brown, “Japan’s Values-Free and Token Indo-Pacific Strategy,” The Diplomat, March 30, 2018,
    9. Maiko Ichihara, “Universality to Plurality? Values in Japanese Foreign Policy,” in The Crisis of Liberal Internationalism: Japan and the World Order, eds. Yoichi Funabashi and John Ikenberry, (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2020), 133-166.