Japanese, German opinion leaders pin hopes
on civil diplomacy for future of democracy

June 10, 2015

Prominent private-sector experts representing Japan and Germany have agreed on the importance of the roles to be played by civic society in overcoming the challenges facing today's democracy.

The occasion was a recent forum aimed at discussing a new prospect for peace and democracy in Japan and Germany, both defeated nations in World War II, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war's end.

The Japan-Germany Dialogue was organized by Japan's Genron NPO, a not-for-profit independent think tank, and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a non-profit German political foundation, which is named after Germany's first democratically elected president. Six experts invited from Japan and five from Germany exchanged their views as panelists at two sessions.
The forum, held at the International House of Japan in Tokyo on June 4, began with the opening remarks by Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO and Sven Saaler, representative in Tokyo of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, to be followed by the congratulatory address by German Ambassador to Japan Hans Carl von Werthern.

Six experts invited from Japan and five from Germany exchanged their views as panelists at two sessions.

At the outset of the first session devoted to discussing "Peace in the 70 years After the War and the Role of Civil Diplomacy," Yoriko Kawaguchi, one of the three Japanese panelists and a former foreign minister, stressed that peace and democracy are important issues not just for the two countries but also for international society in exploring a future path for peace and democracy from many angles.

Japan has followed a peace-oriented policy under its war-renouncing constitution in the past 70 years while sharing such values as democracy, freedom, the rule of law and the market economy with other countries, Kawaguchi said.

Japan's official development assistance has contributed to fostering developing countries mainly in Asia and its participation in multilateral peacekeeping activities has helped to resolve regional disputes, she noted.

Japan has also helped maintain an international governance system amid such global issues as natural disasters, infectious diseases and environmental pollution, but non-governmental organizations and other private-sector groups should make greater efforts from now on to help overcome a host of new challenges facing the world, Kawaguchi said. The current global situation can be characterized as "an expanding public and a shrinking government," she said.

Matthias Bartke, a German Bundestag member, serving as one of the three German panelists at the session, outlined what he sees as Germany's four-stage process with which it broke with the Nazi-led years and paved the way to reconstruction. The long path, which lasted for over 60 years, made it possible for Germany to identify and redefine itself in the international community, said Bartke, who is concurrently deputy chairman of the German-Japanese Parliamentary Group.

As specific challenges in enhancing civil diplomacy, Kawaguchi said that private-sector organizations involved should consider how they will continue efforts seamlessly for confidence building among countries and international exchange, helping to improve the international governance system.

Hitoshi Tanaka, a former deputy foreign minister, said that Japan's postwar reconciliation efforts with neighboring countries have not been successful compared to those by Germany. This can be attributed to such factors as Japan's failure to thoroughly break with its prewar systems, an increase in populist moves in China and South Korea, and their increasing say in international society, he said.

Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Josai International University of Japan, said that Japan should make steady efforts to improve relations with neighboring countries to achieve reconciliation with them.

Germany and France have supported various grass-roots exchange activities for reconciliation by mutually providing funds to private organizations involved since the conclusion of the Elysée Treaty of 1963, he said. While noting similar efforts by Japanese non-state actors, such as local governments and private exchange organizations, Horvat called attention to the fragility of Japan's civic society. Exchange activities by these organizations sometimes can be canceled when the political climate between Japan and the countries concerned worsens, he said.

According to the results of a questionnaire organized by the Japanese vernacular daily, the Asahi Shimbun, earlier this year, only 46 percent of the Japanese polled observed that Japan's relations with neighboring countries are in good shape, said Toshiaki Miura, one of the paper's editorial writers. The ratio of those who believe Japan has fully apologized to the countries affected by its wartime acts grew to 57 percent, an increase of more than 20 points from a similar survey in 2006. The findings may be taken to indicate "fatigue" among Japanese people about apologizing to countries over the wartime incidents, Miura said.

According to the results of the survey, 68 percent of the Germans polled were aware of the outcome of the Nuremberg Trials, but those who replied they know about the results of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East amounted only to 33 percent. In Japan, history-related problems are often discussed as ideological issues, mainly on the political stage, and occasions to publicly educate people on these problems are limited, he said.

Kawaguchi, also an adjunct professor at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, said that because "conflicts with neighboring countries produce nothing, all government hope to see better relations with neighboring countries." The countries concerned should find a common objective to pursue, otherwise, the situation will not improve, she said.

Former German Ambassador to Japan Volker Stanzel said that the current challenges facing the world include many issues that can be jointly addressed by the countries concerned. Cooperation from such a perspective will amount to a reconciliation process, he said.

At the start of the second session, devoted to discussing "The Desired State of Democracy Sought by Japan and Germany and the Challenges Therein," Kudo of The Genron NPO outlined the findings of a questionnaire of well-informed figures in Japan before the latest dialogue. According to the survey results, 63.0 percent of the polled replied that they have a better image of Germany in terms of maturity as a democracy. Replies in favor of Japan came from only 2.0 percent. When asked about the possibility of democracy developing from now on, the largest number, 41.0 percent said they could not reply either way. Meanwhile, 22.0 percent predicted that democracy will develop while 19.0 percent said they expect democracy will decline.

Jens Geier, a member of the European Parliament, mentioned a decline in voter turnout as a challenge for the democratic system in European countries, including Germany. Voter turnout is an indication of the degree of people's confidence in a political party's ability, Geier said. If a political party is not capable of addressing people's concerns, they will see politics as a sham and as a result, democracy may stall, he said.

In Japan, the age of voter eligibility will be lowered to 18 from 20 as from the House of Councilors election in summer next year. Japan should ensure that the revision will not lead to a decline in voter turnout and to this end, it will be important for Japan to educate young voters at schools and households, and in the whole of society, said Ichiro Aisawa, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives.

A survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that people's confidence in government, which should be formed by elected politicians, tends to be weaker than that in professionals not elected by the public, such as those in the judicial, police, medical and education fields. In Japan, only 23 percent of voters have confidence in the government, the fourth-lowest finding among 34 countries surveyed, according to Hirohito Ono, chairman of the Asahi's Shimbun's Editorial Board.

Dorothée De Nève, a professor at the University of Giessen, warned that democracy in Europe is in a critical situation amid people's declining confidence in politics and their indifference to the political process. Democracy is facing many new threats, such as attacks on minority religions and certain social groups, De Nève noted.

Democracy itself is a process and it should be refined all the time, she said. Citizens' participation in the process should be a foundation of democracy, and people's absence from such a process will rather undermine democracy, she said.

According to Ryosuke Amiya-Nakada, a professor of comparative and European politics at Tsuda College in Tokyo, when one speaks of political parties in Germany one means groups with roots in society, not groups of politicians. In the meantime, those in Japan are politicians' groups and few make people feel that their wishes may be realized through political parties, he said. Relations between political parties and voters will not change quickly simply by changing the electoral system, Amiya-Nakada said. Politicians and the media in Japan should come up with proposals about the desired form of political parties from now on, he said.

Read more:
An interview with Former German Ambassador to Japan Volker Stanzel

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