How to reinvent our democracy and liberal international order
Self-determination - is democracy on the tipping point?

November 22, 2019

While Session 1 of the Forum took the international perspective, Session 2 aimed to gain a better understanding of the domestic situation in Japan.

Under the moderation of Yoichi Nishimura, Director of the Asahi Shimbun, the panelists discussed the responsibilities of Japan - a country currently dealing with no sense of crisis - regarding the resolution of international issues and rebuilding of democracy.

Chaos in France and Germany - The anxiety behind Japanese stability

DSC03407.jpgShigeki Uno, professor of the Institute of Social Science at the University of Tokyo, was asked to provide some commentary on the current state of affairs surrounding European democracy, which he did by reflecting on the year he spent conducting research in France and Germany last year.

Uno explained that the two-party republican foundation on which France is built is intensely unsettled, and while current president Emmanuel Macron emerged from that chaos, he is finding himself with little room to maneuver due to the gap between reality and the policies he is implementing, which are based in his own traditional republican way of thinking.

He also expressed some apprehension regarding Germany, stating that while the lives of the public are not as confused as the Japanese media is reporting, the established parties are facing a conspicuous ebbing of power, and he worries about what will happen when the stability provided by the presence of Chancellor Angela Merkel is gone.

Uno pointed out that some overseas researchers have expressed envy regarding the stability of the Japanese government, with Shinzo Abe now being the longest serving prime minister in cumulative days served since the implementation of the Japanese constitution. However, Uno does wonder whether the stability is all it seems.

While democracy is based on the premise of having a sense of unity and society working together to bear the load, as societal fragmentation continues, Uno suggested that this sense of unity may be disappearing.

Uno also noted that Japan differs from the U.S. and Europe in that no visualizations of societal fragmentation in Japan have yet been completed. Assuming that society is fragmenting and becoming more pluralistic, the government can become vastly more energetic and dynamic by compiling such information, but with no visual representation of current fragmentation in Japan yet, the Japanese government isn't even at the starting line.

Politicians don't trust the public, but the future will require it

Shigeru Ishiba described that Japan during the reign of the previous emperor was a 30-year "period of peace, free of war." However, three major things changed during that period.

First, the idea of "post-war" thinking. Ishiba pointed to a statement by former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who once said that that "peace can be maintained while there are still many people who experienced the true tragedy of war themselves."

Ishiba expressed a touch of unease when he noted, "During the last 30 years, the number of people who actually fought in the war has dwindled greatly."

Regarding the changes in capitalism, Ishiba explained that while stock prices have increased, comparatively speaking, people's lives have stopped getting better. He also questioned the appropriateness of the current trend of "shareholder-focused" capitalism.

Finally, for the loss connected to democracy, Ishiba warned that democracy will die out if authority and media continue to unify, and if decisions continue to be made by the majority with no consideration given to minority opinions, as the situation is today.

Ishiba also expressed his expectations regarding the new Reiwa era and those that follow. He stated that current models predict that as the population of the world doubles, Japan's population will be reduced by half, "But nothing is being done to change the current concentration of the population in Tokyo, where it is difficult to have and raise children."

Ishiba explained that one factor is definitely in the fact that the government is implementing no effective efforts to deal with the problem, and when the public sees the politicians simply folding their arms and watching the world go by, a decline in trust is unavoidable.

Maybe the politicians don't trust the public either," he said, suggesting that evidence of their lack of trust can be found in the fact that politicians have not produced any means of addressing policies the public finds unacceptable, such as those that increase the burden on them. Ishiba proposed that this sort of attitude only serves to increase the public's distrust of politics. The only way to resolve this issue, he believes, is for politicians to formulate policies while working face-to-face with the public in a sincere and dignified way.


Is this the century of data and AI?

DSC03535.jpgYoshimitsu Kobayashi referred to Ishiba's suggestion regarding "lost capitalism" by touching upon a different aspect of the current situation, through which money markets are swelling due to increased profits from control of data, while manufacturing sectors are stagnating. He described the situation as being the end of the capitalism of previous generations, and the beginning of "virtual capitalism."

However, this development was a certainty for the 21st century, and Kobayashi feels that it is too late to return to a manufacturing-centered economy. He also emphasized the importance of artificial intelligence (A.I.), which is capable of analyzing high volumes of data almost instantaneously. Up until this point, humanity has always thought that it had reached the final form of its evolution, but in A.I., it is now encountering something more intelligent for the first time. It is a revolutionary era, Kobayashi said, in which we must question how to co-exist with A.I. At the same time, he predicts that it is also an era in which the few people who understand data and the algorithms under which A.I. operate will monopolize the wealth. However, as that will only lead to increased disparity, Kobayashi added that we must reconsider how we think about wealth distribution itself and hammer out something new.

Uno turned the conversation back to the industrial revolution in the 1810s, when there was an enormous backlash against new technologies by a group known as the Luddites, who embarked on a campaign to destroy industrial machinery used by artisans and laborers primarily in Britain's textile industry. However, Uno asserted that even with the appearance of such movements, humanity managed to evolve. Uno believes the current situation involving the arrival of A.I. is similar, and sees it in a more optimistic way - as an opportunity for humanity to evolve even further.

Uno returned to the idea of societal pluralism, and expects that the advanced processing power of A.I.s will provide a powerful perspective that allows society to transcend the issue of fragmentation. He did however agree with Kobayashi's point, expressing concern regarding the monopolization of data by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and other major corporations, and asserted that open access to data is a necessity.

Kobayashi spoke next, and described how China is building a regulated society diametrically opposed to this concept of open access. He was optimistic when Chinese President Xi Jinping made his decree regarding increased innovation four years ago, but the country's explosive growth over this period was eye-opening, and he warned that, "Japan must prepare itself - the era of technology-influenced geopolitics has arrived."

Kudo responded to the previous subject by posing a problem from the perspective of self-determination. If humanity decides to choose the more efficient judgement of A.I. over its own right to self-determination, we will become "slaves to regulated society." Democracy is a framework for self-determination, but if that is relinquished, democracy itself will break down. Therefore, Kudo believes, the current meteoric development of A.I. technology has placed democracy on a tipping point. This is why Kudo asserted that what first needs to be done to rebuild democracy is establish rules governing new technologies in a democratic way.

Solving younger generations' distrust in politics

There were many students at the venue during the discussion, so Nishimura asked each panelist's views about political distrust among the younger generation, and their ideas on how to solve the issue.

Uno mentioned a Tokyo high school class he visited as a guest lecturer, remembering that many of the students were enthusiastic about the concept of contributing to society. However, he also felt that they were much cooler towards the government, and above all, towards political parties. Ultimately, her said, it is through government that society can be transformed, but there was little awareness of this fact among the students.

Uno also spoke about a community exchange program in the town of Ama in Shimane Prefecture, in which students from his own university took part. They returned to the university talking about the powerful response they had received. Perhaps, he suggested, by encouraging the participation of younger people who know how to use new technologies, democracy can be rebuilt starting from the local level. That could an effective first step for younger generations to move closer to democracy.

DSC03425.jpgKudo turned the attention to the results of the opinion polls, explaining that many people under 20 (those who have not yet fully become working members of society) tend to select the response "I don't know" to the questions posed. To respond to this problem, he said, civics education programs should be enhanced, and younger people should be offered more opportunities at societal participation where they can think about such issues.

In the meantime, however, Kudo warned that expectations should not be directed solely towards the younger generation, saying, "People of all ages should work together to deal with the issues society faces."

Kobayashi mentioned the dropping numbers of Japanese students studying overseas, and his worry regarding the inward-looking perspective of younger people. He explained that it is vital for the next generation of leaders, those who will bear the burden of maintaining democracy, to connect with people from different cultures and with different value systems.

New ideas for rebuilding democracy

To conclude the forum, Nishimura took questions from the audience and directed one to the panelists, asking each for their ideas on how to restore democracy.

Uno referred to an earlier point in the discussion, arguing that it is important to encourage people to take a more active societal role, and to make them believe that what they do can change the society they live in. By strengthening civic society, Uno believes that democracy can be rebuilt.

Kobayashi agreed that rather than revising the system itself, it is political awareness and political engagement that has to be increased, To do so, we should produce appealing mechanisms that harness new technologies.

Finally, Kudo argued that a forum separate from the Diet should be created for discussions on how to resolve issues, in which ideas offered by that new forum and ideas proposed by the national government could compete.

Nishimura summarized his feelings on Session 2's discussion, stating that even if some of the structural components of democracy have become damaged, any attempt to repair it should be made in a pluralistic way. After these words, Nishimura brought Session 2 of the Tokyo Conference on Democracy 2019 Forum to a close.



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Translator's note: Statements from speakers communicating in languages other than Japanese have been translated to Japanese then subsequently to English. Minor differences in vocabulary may have been introduced during this process. We apologize for the inconvenience.



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