Japan’s latest Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) White Paper, released on March 26, 2013, emphasizes the importance to Japan of supporting democratic development in the Middle East and Asia.[1] Stability in the Middle East is essential for Japanese prosperity. Japanese investment and aid has already made significant contributions to the region’s socio-economic stability.[2] The next step is for Japan to contribute its lessons learned as a successful case of democratic transformation.

Can Japan’s democratization path be applied to the Middle East? Historian John Dower would dismiss this idea by noting Japan’s unique historical circumstances: “[T]he post-war occupation had an unquestioned legitimacy in the eyes, not only of the victorious U.S., but also of all Japan's neighbors and indeed of most Japanese themselves” because of the chaos Japan experienced.”[3] But his argument stood on the assumption that Japan’s democratization was complete.

Middle Eastern countries can draw upon Japan’s history and experience in democratization precisely because Japan’s democratization is still evolving. Prosperity can be achieved through democracy by observing the highs and lows of Japan’s still evolving democratic development.

Japan’s recent “lost decades” of economic stagnation have exposed some of the weaknesses of Japan’s evolving democracy. The centralized government in Tokyo leaves little autonomy for local authorities in education, fiscal, and other key policymaking areas. Japan’s democracy also suffers from a failure to keep pace with changing demographics. This has delayed electoral reform, leaving a large urban/rural vote-value disparity. Since March 2011, Japan’s Supreme Court has considered national elections in a “state of unconstitutionality.”[4]

The main message from Japan’s democracy-in-progress is that too much centralization of government control will eventually suffocate economic growth even in an ethnically and religiously homogenous country with sophisticated governance structures such as Japan. The lesson for Middle Eastern democratization is to allow more autonomy to whomever wants it.

Japan and the Middle East have had similar historical and cultural experiences: They have nurtured rich and sophisticated cultures. They have a history of tolerance and respect to protect different peoples, cultures, religions, and ideas. They have cultivated high standards of education and fostered innovation. Both have needed to “revive” democracy.

Japan before the end of World War II was a formative democracy, as some Middle Eastern countries are today. The Emperor, not the people, was the sovereign authority; women’s suffrage did not exist; and fundamental human rights were unrecognized. At the end of the World War II, Japanese were politically, economically, and culturally devastated. Their prosperity, dignity, and sovereignty were in shambles.

One of the most important aspects in democratizing Japan was reform of the Imperial Japanese system. The goal was not to destroy the old system and build a completely new one.[5] Democratization meant to give more political, economic, and social freedom to the Japanese people. In the early stage of the occupation, Japan reformed the election law to grant universal suffrage; Japan’s Diet adopted a new Constitution, which preserved the Emperor as a symbol of Japan; and the people were allowed to form associations and unions. Japan dramatically advanced in political and social freedoms.   

By shifting to a freer economic model, democracy contributed to Japan’s post-WWII recovery. Democracy gave people more economic freedom than under Imperial Japan. A freer market economic model with appropriate government investment, tax reduction, and balanced budget unleashed the Japan’s private sector potential. As a result, Japan’s per capita gross national income surpassed the pre-WWII peak within only a decade of the war’s end.[6]

However, economic freedom did not reach far enough in Japan. The result has been two decades of stagnation. The devastating triple disasters of March 2011 have prompted a reexamination of economic policies and their implementation. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto once mentioned that Japan needed a dictator and others have recommended bringing back some of Imperial Japan’s aspects.[7] But democracy is not the cause of Japan’s stagnation; the cause is the assumption that all Japanese should be consolidated under uniform policies and the central government’s attempt to control education, agriculture, and local governments by excessive regulations, subsidies, and transfers.

In contrast to Japan’s stagnation, some Middle Eastern countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Qatar have achieved high economic growth. They have achieved high economic status because they embraced free economic principles, not because they are governed by authoritarian regimes.[8] They had to adopt market economy principles to attain economic growth due to their lack of land and labor. Larger Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria ― all of them authoritarian ― have not experienced the same prosperity as these smaller countries.

The newly transitioning Middle Eastern countries need to provide wider freedom to their ethnically, religiously, and geographically diverse populations. They have to give people choices to think and express their opinions freely, to move from one place to another, to practice their religious beliefs as they wish, to start businesses, and to engage in trade.[9]

Amartya Sen stated that Democracy “requires the protection of liberties and freedoms…” not protection of vested interests.[10] More than 60 years have passed since Japan was transformed from an authoritarian into a democratic system. The key to Japan’s further democratic development ― and to successful democratic transformation in the Middle East ― is expanding people’s choices, not expanding government controls. Japan and Middle Eastern countries can work together to unleash their citizens’ boundless creative potential.

[1] Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “2012 ODA White Paper,” March 26, 2013, pp. 2–6, http://www.mofa.go.jp /mofaj/gaiko/oda/shiryo/hakusyo/12_hakusho_pdf/pdfs/12_all.pdf.

[2] Maiko Ichihara, “Understanding Japanese Democracy Assistance,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 25, 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/03/25/understanding-japanese-democracy- assistance/ftcg; and Dominic Dudley, “Japan’s Middle East Soft Power,” The Diplomat (April 13, 2012), http://thediplomat.com/2012/04/13/japan%e2%80%99s-middle-east-soft-powe….

[3] John W. Dower, “Don’t Expect Democracy This Time: Japan and Iraq,” History & Policy (April 2003), http:// www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-10.html.

[4] “More Ruling Against Vote Disparity,” The Japan Times (March 28, 2012), http://www.japantimes.co.jp /opinion/2013/03/28/editorials/more-rulings-against-vote-disparity/.

[5] John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (Norton: New York), pp. 23, 528–546; and The U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, “Occupation and Reconstruction of Japan, 1945–52,” http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/JapanReconstruction.

[6] Dower, pp. 558–559; and Benjamin Warr, Robert U. Ayers, and Eric Williams, “Accounting for Economic Growth in 20th Century Japan: From Hindsight to Foresight,” INSEAD Working Paper Series (2008), http://www.jei.org/AJAclass/JEcon 20thC.pdf.

[7] Roger Pulvers, “Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto: ‘What Japan Needs Now is Dictatorship,’” The Japan Times (July 22, 2012), http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120722rp.html.

[8] “Index of Economic Freedom,” The Heritage Foundation, http://www.heritage.org/index/heatmap

[9] See Press Release, “No Bloom Of Economic Freedom In Middle East/North Africa’s Arab Spring: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia Lose Ground; UAE, Five Others Post Modest Gains,” The Heritage Foundation (January 12, 2012), http://www.heritage.org/index/press-release-north-africa-middle-east

[10] Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1999), pp. 3–17, http://www.unicef.org/socialpolicy/files/Democracy_as_a_Universal_Value.pdf.