Think Again

Think Again: Japan's Revolutionary Election

Don't believe the hype about Japan's new ruling party and the supposed revolution it is launching. As the new government completes its first month in office, all signs point to more of the same old stagnation in Tokyo.

"The Recent Elections Are Revolutionary for Japan."

Hardly. A "revolution" implies a sudden, pervasive, and marked change in society or political economy. But the Democratic Party of Japan's (DPJ's) politicians are not revolutionaries. Like those of the long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), they are political opportunists without any long-standing ideological position or dominant constituency. Their only common desire is to be elected.

Nor is the leadership of the new ruling party all that different from the old. Many members of the DPJ leadership were at one point members of the LDP: Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, DPJ Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa, Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, and State Minister for Financial Services Shizuka Kamei, to name a few. Around half of the cabinet attended the University of Tokyo, the traditional feeder for government elites.

The Japanese people don't seem to think they've elected revolutionaries either. In polls, Japanese voters said they weren't electing radical change as much as expressing dissatisfaction with the LDP. Poll after poll indicates that constituents do not think Hatoyama is a great leader. And only a quarter of voters think the DPJ will lead Japan in the "right direction."

"The DPJ Is the Party of Economic Reform."

If only. In Japan, reform has become such an empty buzzword that one wonders why the media bothers to repeat it. Past prime ministers have cast themselves -- and, by extension, their parties -- as reformist. The DPJ has done the same. But looking closely, the chances for systemic economic reform under Hatoyama seem slim.

The reason is structural. Like the LDP, the DPJ accepts into its party a wide range of ideological, corporate, and political interests. Local support groups (known as koenkai) provide some funding to the party but primarily sponsor individual candidates. At a national level, the result is political indecisiveness, interparty bickering, and gridlock.

Were the DPJ to change this system, it would need to bolster party unity, appeal to progressive constituencies with a transformative economic plan, and then gin up grass-roots support. It hasn't done this -- nor does it show any sign that it's planning to do so. The DPJ's principle fundraising organ, the People's Reform Council, taps into the same export-led, old-economy industry groups that the LDP does, suggesting that its reform proposals will not fundamentally upset the cozy status quo.

The DPJ's indebtedness to many masters shows in its economic platform, a hodgepodge of conflicting proposals. The new ruling party claims it will reduce the LDP's "wasteful spending," but it also advocates increased spending on households -- without explaining why or how it plans to fund that priority. It wants to "strongly promote" measures to prevent global warming, but it also wants to eliminate highway tolls, placating some businesses but increasing carbon dioxide emissions. And it wants to allow local governments to control national funds, but it also somehow advocates a smaller national budget.

Since the election, Hatoyama's government has come to see the difficulties of governing a fragmented coalition with no clear mandate in such a dour economic climate. The government faces depressed tax revenue, increased debt-service costs, and ballooning indirect obligations. Plans to privatize the postal system have been delayed. Moreover, news of heated internal bickering over the terms of business-loan repayments and currency-market interventions has undercut the DPJ's credibility on economic reform. The party that promised change looks like it is delivering more of the same.

"The DPJ Will Shift Power from the Bureaucracy to the Political Process."

Don't count on it. There is a reason why around three-quarters of bills presented to the Diet come through Japan's notorious, entrenched bureaucracy.

In Japan, laws are usually vetted by ministerial advisory councils, drafted by the bureaucracy, reviewed by the relevant minister, reviewed again by the relevant Diet committee, and finally rubber-stamped in a plenary Diet session. This is not because the bureaucracy has a chokehold on the legislative process, but because politicians lack the time, energy, staff, and expertise necessary to write bills.

Anywhere between 15 and 100 bills are made into law with each Diet session, to say nothing of hundreds of regulations, international accords, and ordinances. Almost every one is the product of a diffuse and lengthy decision-making process. The system is structured to devote resources for that process to the bureaucratic ministries, not the Diet.

Indeed, each Diet member has just three legal aides, while every ministry has hundreds of experienced workers, often with decades of expertise devoted to creating laws. The Diet (including the cabinet) receives just 7 percent of the governance budget, whereas some of the most influential ministries, such as the Finance Ministry, receive more than three times that amount.

To make law-writing a function of elected officials rather than bureaucrats, Hatoyama would need to increase cabinet ministers and vice ministers' terms. They currently serve for just a year -- not long enough to exert the day-to-day supervision needed to make bills. But such a move would require a radical reorganization of Japan's postwar parliamentary electoral institutions. That's something no one is even considering.

The DPJ offers no real countermeasure to shift power back to the cabinet. Rather, the ruling party has called for the creation of a few smaller cabinet-focused committees to replace a few older party-centric and ministry-centric committees. It has also restricted the media's access to the bureaucracy -- hardly signaling its commitment to a more democratic and transparent legislative process.

"The DPJ Will Dramatically Alter the U.S.-Japan Relationship."

Nonsense. Numerous vital factors weigh against a U.S.-Japan split. First, any change in the DPJ's policy position is likely just rhetorical. Despite Hatoyama's recent remarks that Japan should pursue a more independent path from the United States, the two countries have declared their intentions to "deepen the alliance." It's a case of national interest trumping political rhetoric: Most Japanese, including DPJ ministers, see close ties with the United States as critical to security in what remains a dangerous region.

If anything, the DPJ will try to diversify the relationship with the United States -- changing the emphasis and being honest about Japan's capabilities -- not weaken it. The party has long advocated tighter U.S.-Japan economic ties and collaboration on nonmilitary areas such as energy and the environment. "Japan's relations with the U.S. have been heavily biased toward defense," Hatoyama recently said. "Now it's time to shift our focus to economic ties."

But above all, the Japanese want to feel secure while countries like North Korea are so close. Therefore, Japan will continue to have strong ties with the U.S. military superpower, upholding the relationship that has helped keep Japan safe for decades.

"The DPJ Will Turn Japan into an Anti-American, Anti-Capitalist Society."

Not in your lifetime. In a now-famous essay in the September issue of the Japanese magazine Voice, Hatoyama mused about the coming retreat of American pre-eminence and U.S.-style capitalism. In its place, he favored a more European version of economic management. Alarm bells rang in the United States after parts of the essay were translated and published in the New York Times. Japan watchers, who have known consistency in the U.S.-Japan relationship for decades, scrambled to interpret the remarks.

But according to Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest-selling newspaper, Hatoyama's office had not given the New York Times permission to publish the truncated, translated essay and thought it took his points out of context. Plus, one doubts that Hatoyama would have quoted the French phrase "liberté, égalité, fraternité" if he meant it for an American audience. And Hatoyama quickly backtracked from the essay, saying it represented his personal views, not those of his party.

This whole episode simply represents a new party getting its sea legs. Japan is not going to suddenly "turn socialist." To be sure, Japan's economy has some socialist elements -- particularly in the cozy relationship between the government, manufacturing, and the financial sectors, something Tokyo-based economist Jesper Koll has called "financial socialism." Fixing holes in the Japanese social safety net, such as those in unemployment and welfare benefits, are obvious policy priorities (just as health care is in the United States).

But Japan remains a free-market, export-driven economy, and policymakers fully appreciate that liberal markets and entrepreneurship are necessary for job creation.

"As Japan Shifts Away from the United States, It Will Shift Toward Asia."

Not true. For Japan, fostering good relations with the West is no longer incompatible with fostering good relations with its Asian neighbors.

In the past, there were two schools of thought on Japan's foreign policy: the look-East school and the look-West school. Fifty years ago or more, these two sides debated fiercely whether Japan needed to align itself with countries like China or with countries like the United States. But circumstances were different then. Japan today can forge new levels of trust with China, South Korea, and Southeast Asia, all without estranging itself from its Western allies.

Hatoyama's desire for a more "independent" Japan means he wants his country to operate on a more equal footing with the United States, something that policymakers in Washington have been cajoling Japan to do for decades. Japan can shed its "American lap dog" image, giving its political leadership role in Asia more credibility.

Finally, the foreign policy of Japanese Democrats is quite similar to that of U.S. Democrats: an emphasis on multilateralism and consultation, strengthening international organizations and treaties, and setting a priority on nonmilitary foreign-policy tools, such as climate-change mitigation, regional cooperation, and trade policy. Tokyo might decline to refuel U.S. Navy ships in the Indian Ocean or make other gestures to mute opposition at home, but it is already considering sending economic aid to Afghanistan.

Japanese executives and political advisors at a recent U.S.-Japan panel held at the Carnegie Council opined that the DPJ's ambitious policy platform might fail but its victory has opened the door to a new conversation in Japan. The Japanese can now ask themselves a fundamental question: What do we want? The answer may be: a return to some traditional values, such as fairness, but also a fiercer competition of ideas. The realm of the possible has been slightly expanded in Japan. For that, observers of Japan should celebrate.

EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Think Again

Think Again: The Catholic Church

From the outside, the Vatican appears resistant to change and tone-deaf to scandal. But, in truth, the world's oldest religious institution bears little resemblance to the mysterious church imagined by conspiracy theorists. Today, Catholicism is attracting millions of new and diverse followers who are embracing the church's traditions of debate and independence as gospel.

"The Catholic Church is Shrinking"

No. Whether it is the global shortage of priests, the empty pews in former Catholic strongholds, or the slew of sex abuse scandals, it might seem as though the modern Catholic Church is in decline. In fact, the church is in the midst of the greatest period of growth in its 2,000-year history. The world's Catholic population grew from 266 million in 1900 to 1.1 billion in 2000, an increase of 314 percent. By comparison, the world population last century grew by 263 percent. The church didn't just hitch a ride on the baby boom; it successfully attracted new converts.

Yes, Catholicism is getting smaller in Europe, and it would be losing ground in the United States, too, were it not for immigration, especially among Hispanics. A recent Pew Forum study found that fully 10 percent of Americans are ex-Catholics. These declines, however, have been more than offset by growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the number of Catholics grew a staggering 6,700 percent in the past century, from 1.9 million to 130 million. The Democratic Republic of the Congo today has the same number of Catholics as Austria and Germany put together. India has more Catholics than Canada and Ireland combined.

What's happening is not that Catholicism is shrinking, but rather, its demographic center of gravity is shifting. What was once a largely homogenous religion, concentrated in Europe and North America, is now a truly universal faith. In 1900, just 25 percent of Catholics lived in the developing world; today that figure is 66 percent and climbing. In a few decades, the new centers of theological thought will no longer be Paris and Milan, but Nairobi and Manila.

Today, fertility rates are falling across much of the developing world, so it's unlikely Catholicism can maintain the 20th century's spectacular gains during the next 100 years. In parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Catholicism is being outpaced by its competitors, especially fast-growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Still, the single biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church is not coping with decline, but rather, managing the transition to a multicultural faith.

"Catholicism Is Right Wing"

Only in part. It depends on your definition of "right wing," and, for that matter, of the church. It's true that the institutional structures of Catholicism are instinctively conservative. In the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI actually blocked construction of railroads and gas lighting in the Papal States for fear of where such "unnatural" innovations might lead. It's also true that on controversial issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research, official Catholic positions stand solidly with the cultural right.

Yet the church has always been more than its hierarchy, and grass-roots sentiment is anything but uniform. The United States offers a case in point. American Catholics were historically Democrats, and despite aggressive efforts by conservatives since the Reagan era to court them, there's still a sizeable liberal Catholic constituency. As proof, most opinion polls taken in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election showed Catholics evenly divided between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Even the official positions of the church would hardly draw a clean bill of health from secular conservatives. The late Pope John Paul II was the leading moral critic of both U.S.-led Gulf wars. Pope Benedict XVI has denounced the "false promise" of American-style free market capitalism and has emerged as an eloquent environmentalist. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is officially anti-death penalty, anti-arms trade, pro-United Nations, and pro-immigrant -- stances anathema to many on the right.

Bishops and theologians insist that, given the full range of Catholic social doctrine, the church isn't compatible with any secular alliance. John Carr, a veteran staffer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calls Catholicism "politically homeless." In the nine U.S. presidential elections between 1972 and 2004, a majority of U.S. Catholics voted for a Republican in five and a Democrat in four. Whether it's a matter of official teaching or rank-and-file opinion, the Catholic Church is hardly the American Republican Party at prayer.

"The Church Is Filthy Rich"

Not really, though it's certainly not poor. Anyone who has ever stood in St. Peter's Square in Rome and watched a prince of the church (the colloquial name for a Catholic cardinal) emerge from a black Mercedes sporting Vatican license plates could understandably find pleas of tough times hard to swallow.

Yet the wealth of the Catholic Church is usually exaggerated. The Vatican, for example, is rumored to be swimming in loot, but its annual budget is less than $400 million. For comparison, consider that Harvard University's is more than $3 billion. The Vatican's portfolio of stocks, bonds, and real estate comes to roughly $1 billion. For a slightly whimsical frame of reference, Forbes estimates that Oprah Winfrey, all by herself, is worth $2.5 billion. The great artistic treasures of the Vatican, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà, are literally priceless; they're listed on Vatican books at a value of 1 euro each because they can never be sold or borrowed against.

Around the world, dioceses and parishes are sometimes large landowners, and the church operates a vast network of schools, hospitals, and social service centers. That infrastructure can generate some impressive-sounding numbers. In 2001, the annual revenue of Catholic programs in the United States came to $102 billion. Yet most of these programs either barely break even or operate in the red, in part because they often serve low-income and minority populations. Outside Europe and the United States, most dioceses and parishes get by on shoestring budgets, to say nothing of missionaries who often live in desperate poverty in remote areas.

Catholics -- from the pope on down -- routinely suggest that the church should adopt greater "simplicity," and it’s eminently fair to expect any organization that demands justice for the poor to practice what it preaches. Popular images of bags of cash stockpiled in the church basement, however, are misleading. They simply aren't there.

"The Church Never Changes"

False. The reality isn't that the church never changes, but that it never admits to having changed. Catholics who have been around the block know that whenever someone in authority begins a sentence with, "As the church has always taught... ," some long-standing idea or practice is about to be turned on its head.

For example, the church once regarded lending money for interest as the sin of usury, which is not dogma today. Or consider that when popes were also civil rulers, they put criminals to death; visitors to Rome can drop by the Criminology Museum to see a perfectly preserved papal guillotine, a gift from Napoleon. Today, of course, the Catholic Church is a leader in global anti-death penalty campaigns. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI set aside belief in limbo, a special antechamber in the afterlife for unbaptized babies.

Apologists may argue that what changed in such cases were the historical circumstances, not the underlying principles. But in any event, something important gave way. Typically, mounting pressure from below eventually erupts to cause a breakthrough, as happened during the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. In a flash, Mass was celebrated in vernacular languages rather than Latin, Catholicism went from being critical of religious liberty to a champion of human rights, and Protestant "heretics" became "separated brethren."

That's not to suggest that everything is up for grabs. A future pope is not going to teach that Jesus didn’t exist, that he wasn’t the divine Son of God, or that the bread and wine used in the Catholic Mass do not really become the body and blood of Christ. The Catholic story is always a blend of continuity and change. The hard part is anticipating what might change -- and when.

"The Vatican Is Cloaked in Secrecy"

Not quite. Actually, the Vatican is far less secretive than most other institutions with a global reach -- the U.S. government, say, or Coca-Cola. The Vatican doesn't collect imagery from spy satellites, and it's not obsessed with protecting the design of high-tech weapons. It has no trade secrets, no R&D, and no sales plans to keep away from prying eyes. As a result, far more of the Vatican's business is conducted in full public view than outsiders might imagine.

Nor is the Vatican very good at keeping secrets even when it tries. It's a bureaucracy, after all, full of opinionated, strong-willed people. Sooner or later, most things leak out. (There is a famous saying that Rome is a city in which everything is a mystery, and nothing is a secret.) In the summer of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a long-awaited ruling giving priests expanded permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass. By the time it appeared, however, the story was anticlimactic because the content of the ruling had been leaked to the press months in advance and subjected to exhaustive scrutiny.

The problem with the Vatican is less its secrecy than its utter singularity. It is unlike any other institution one could encounter, with its own history, language, and rhythms. If you don't know the difference between Jesuit and Dominican views on grace in the 16th century, for example, or between a surplice and a surplus, you're often going to find conversations inside the Vatican terribly hard to understand. Or, if you don’t know that the under secretary in most offices is the person who does the real work, it can be tough to follow the bouncing ball of church business. The trick to figuring out the Vatican is mastering its culture. Do that, and the veil of secrecy usually lifts quickly.

"Catholicism Is Obsessed with Sex"

No, you are. Prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, most people would have found the idea that Catholicism is prudish to be deeply odd. The old rap on Catholics was that they were far too given to the pleasures of the flesh, especially sex and booze, in contrast with the more abstemious Protestants. As the Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc once wrote, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine." When critics today blast Catholicism for its "puritanical" positions, one imagines actual Puritans, who despised the Church of Rome and its moral laxity, rolling over in their graves.

Since the 1960s, however, Catholicism has been drawn into one public controversy after another on the so-called pelvic issues -- such as gay rights, gender roles, the family, abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, and other hotly debated points of sexual ethics. Catholic teachings that once struck the average person as moderate or even permissive, such as encouraging large families, have come to seem positively antiquated to most observers.

The fact of the matter is that teachings on sex and gender are contested even within the church itself. Polls show that solid majorities of Catholics, at least in the United States, disagree with official church positions on matters such as contraception, in vitro fertilization, and whether priests should be allowed to marry. Narrower majorities favor the ordination of women to the priesthood and oppose outright bans on abortion. And while life issues will be a major factor for many American Catholics as they decide on a presidential candidate, social justice issues, such as assistance for struggling families and immigration reform, are often just as important. As with most matters, Catholic opinion is far more diverse -- and tolerant -- than is often understood.

If the obsession with sex lies anywhere, it’s with popular culture, not the church. During the first year of his papacy, Benedict XVI actually used the word "Africa" four times more often than he did "sex," yet it was a lone Vatican document barring gays from the priesthood that dominated news headlines. The intersection of sex and religion simply sells well, and it is not quite fair to blame the church for that.

"The Church Is Ultra-Hierarchical"

Not really. Catholicism has a clear chain of command, which makes it fairly unusual among modern religions. (Ever ponder the question of who’s in charge of Judaism or Islam?) The church's Code of Canon Law assigns the pope "supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power." That hierarchical structure fuels perceptions that Catholicism is run almost exclusively from the top down. In practice, however, Catholicism is actually a rather loose, decentralized operation.

The Roman Curia, the central administrative bureaucracy of the church, has a workforce of 2,700 officials to manage the affairs of more than 1.1 billion Catholics. If the same ratio of bureaucrats to citizens were applied to the U.S. government, around 700 people would be on the federal payroll. In other words, the Vatican doesn’t have the tools to micromanage except in the rarest of cases. This isn't Wal-Mart, where the temperature setting in stores thousands of miles apart is determined by a computer at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Furthermore, Catholicism is not a massive holding corporation. The assets of dioceses around the world belong not to the pope but to the bishops, and that can give them considerable autonomy in administrative matters. In 2001, for example, Rome ordered the archbishop of Milwaukee to halt the renovation of his cathedral because it didn’t approve of the design. The archbishop replied that he was the one paying the contractors, so Rome could mind its own business.

Even within the Vatican, offices operate quite independently of one another. Sometimes Rome's left hand really does not know, or does not approve of, what its right hand is doing. During the John Paul II years, for example, the pope's own master of ceremonies often designed papal Masses that ignored changes from the Vatican’s office of liturgical policy. And anyone who has paid close attention to shifting Vatican responses to the sex abuse crisis has likely come away with an impression of internal incoherence rather than tight control from the top.

The reality of the church is probably best expressed by the old quip that Catholicism is "an absolute monarchy tempered by selective disobedience." Behind the local independence and the shifting responses to scandal, there is nearly always an impressive degree of spirited debate. As the church grows more diverse, this tradition of dialogue and deliberation will be even more critical to its future. Popes and practices will change, but the bedrock of the faith will likely remain strong and flexible.