Dancing in the Dark

Hopefully it’s not too disrespectful to begin back up with song-title-as-blog-post-title when writing about Japan. My friend Scott Kuhagen points out a fascinating NYT article about the challenges of post-disaster communication in a conflict-averse culture: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/world/asia/17tokyo.html

But as is often the case with cultural explanations (of which I have in the past been a fan, or at least not an automatic opponent), there are institutional factors close at hand. In this case, it’s a “leadership vacuum” created by a recent change in the ruling party after 50 years of LDP rule. The Times article is worth quoting at length, as there’s a lot of substance in the analysis:

“The close links between politicians and business executives have further complicated the management of the nuclear crisis. Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.”…Postwar Japan flourished under a system in which political leaders left much of the nation’s foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats…. But over the past decade or so, the bureaucrats’ authority has been greatly reduced…. Yet no strong political class has emerged to take their place. Four prime ministers have come and gone in less than four years; most political analysts had already written off the fifth, Mr. Kan, even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Two years ago, Mr. Kan’s Japan Democratic Party swept out the virtual one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had dominated Japanese political life for 50 years. But the lack of continuity and inexperience in governing have hobbled Mr. Kan’s party. The only long-serving group within the government is the bureaucracy, which has been, at a minimum, mistrustful of the party. “It’s not in their DNA to work with anybody other than the Liberal Democrats,” said Noriko Hama, an economist at Doshisha University.”

There’s so much going on here that as a political scientist I don’t know where to start: the parallels to 70 years of PRI one-party rule in Mexico and it’s relationship with the civil service, the analogies to the revolving door between Congress and K Street in the US – and above all (and I think that’s where I’ll start), the question of Japan’s political economy and the idea of “varieties of capitalism” that I’ve written on extensively on this blog.

Coordinated market economies are good at generating high-quality, well-engineered products through a system that features close coordination between labor, capital, and education. In the Japanese version, they feature cozy relationships between companies, particularly in finance, with lots of overlapping board seats and other forms of governance that would look odd in the context of the US, a liberal market economy.

And here we see a dark side of that coordination – a lack of willingness to point the finger of blame, to name a problem and respond nimbly in the moment. And this has to do with the flow of information.

So when we’re thinking about “varieties of philanthropy” analogous to varieties of capitalism, an important piece to look at is the flow of information, and how different institutional arrangements incentivize different information flows. Given what problems philanthropy has with good public information flow, this question seems particularly relevant.


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