By Ian Bremmer and Hiroaki NakanishiAround the world, gale-force winds of change are remaking the political landscape. In country after country, angry voters have tossed aside establishment parties and leaders to embrace the unknown. Just in the past two years, we’ve seen this change in the United States, the heart of Europe, in Latin America’s giants, and even in Asia.
Yet Japan stands apart. As traditional parties of the center-left and center-right in other countries are swept away, Japan remains an island of stability — a steady, majority-party-dominated democracy in a sea of political upheaval. It has maintained this steadiness despite its position in one of the world’s most increasingly competitive regions.
For a country that played such a critical role in building and maintaining the multilateral world order in place since the end of World War II, it was far from clear that Japan would be able to navigate the current “G-Zero world” — one that lacks a leader willing to consistently accept the costs and risks that come with helping to provide predictability in an unpredictable world.
Culturally, Japanese society — the country’s “civic nationalism,” in particular — remains intact. Its political culture is mainly consensus-driven, even as other democracies have become hyper-polarized. Popular support for political institutions and parties, as well as business and media, remain at relatively high levels.
How has Japan kept its balance? Traditionally, Japan’s sclerotic economic growth, little immigration, and limited role on the global stage have all been seen as problematic, but it turns out there is a silver lining. Its per capita economic gains are among the very highest among OECD countries despite modest growth rates, thanks to population growth at less than replacement.
While an increase in immigration would offer long-term economic advantages for the tax base and social safety net, along with diversified culture, the lack of pressure from migrants, which has plagued politics in Europe, the United States and Australia, have served to not upset Japan’s homogenous society.
On security, Japan still heavily relies on the United States for defense and security policy, given its constitutional prohibitions against offensive military engagements. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has argued forcefully that it’s time for change, but for now, the U.S. security umbrella continues to help Japan’s government avoid the arms race and spending spiral that can affect countries looking to expand their military presence. In addition, as many Americans can attest, a lack of controversy over military adventurism also helps to minimize risks of political ill will.
Further, relative to other advanced industrial economies in today’s world, the use of social media — which has created political echo-chambers and political polarization in many other countries — remains in moderation and there are limits to its involvement in political campaigns in Japan. According to Pew Research, a polling firm, just 39 percent of Japanese adults regularly use social networking sites. (The corresponding total in both the United States and South Korea is 69 percent.) At the same time, the level to which Japanese rely on printed publications is still relatively high, with some of the highest print newspaper circulation rates in the world.
Nor must we overlook the reality that even as policymakers and citizens in other advanced democracies dread the large-scale advent of automation and machine learning and their impact on an economy’s ability to create jobs, Japan and its smaller workforce can welcome these developments.
Together, these factors put Japan in a privileged position as it faces the future. At a moment when the countries that have traditionally led the liberal world order — the United States, Britain, Germany and France — are increasingly divided and their leaders relatively unpopular at home, Japan will find opportunities to play a larger international role in areas that serve Japan’s longer-term interests.
This is why we convened leaders and thinkers from around the world in Tokyo for the G-Zero Summit on Wednesday. As cochairmen of the event, we believe there has never been as important a moment as this to invite our distinguished guests to share their views on what the world can learn from Japan — and how Japan can make the most of future opportunities.
As this country celebrates the 150-year anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, which brought modernization, imperialism, war, and the social redefinition that made the country what it is today, there is still so much the world can learn from Japan, and Japan from the world.
We are confident this is precisely the sort of summit that could help the world’s most important decision-makers make sense of a fast-changing G-Zero world right here on the frontlines.