The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Government and Economy


Government and Economy

On Democracy: Public Reasoning Underneath Numbers

Junichi Saito
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

“Min-i” (will of the people) is a word we frequently hear, but its meaning is not entirely unambiguous. I would like to take a moment here to consider what it means.

The English expression for min-i is “the will of the people.” Democracy is a system of government in which political decision-making—through which laws are enacted and policies are given direction—must be carried out in accordance with the “will” expressed by the sovereign “people.” Laws and policies have democratic legitimacy when they are in line with the will of the people, or citizens with the right to vote. It is rare for all citizens to be in agreement on proposed laws and policies, so these are usually considered legitimate if they are in line with the will of the majority.

In this sense of the term, there are not that many opportunities for the will of the people to be formally expressed. Elections held once every several years represent these opportunities. The will of citizens expressed through voting supports certain political parties and candidates. However, the will of citizens with regard to proposed laws and policies cannot be identified in this way. Issues in elections (especially national elections) tend to be narrowed down to matters that capture the attention of the great majority of citizens and are likely to win their support, such as measures to create jobs, stimulate the economy, and enhance social welfare. Problems that do not fit this description are unlikely to become major issues in elections, no matter how important they may be—a fact that was confirmed recently in the Tokyo gubernatorial election.

This drawback can be offset to a certain extent by opinion polls. Opinion polls make it possible to ascertain how the will of citizens is distributed with regard to individual issues. They not only reveal the extent of popular support for administrations and political parties in the form of cabinet and party approval ratings, but can also identify the policies citizens support (or oppose) with regard to certain issues. The fact that opinion polls can clarify the will of the people with regard to individual issues, however, does not mean the government will defer to the results and change its policies. For the government receives its legitimacy only from the formal expression of the will of the people indicated in elections, not from the informal expression of the will of the people regarding individual issues indicated in opinion polls.

To be sure, there is a formal system for finding out the will of the people with regard to individual issues in which they are put to a direct vote, as in referendums (if the resumption of nuclear power plants were put to a direct vote in Japan at this point in time, those against it would be in the majority). But you first need a majority of seats in the Congress before you can hold a direct vote, and that is determined in elections.

Thus, we have a problem in which the will of the people indicated in elections does not necessarily correspond to the will of the people regarding important policies and issues—a problem which has always plagued democracies.

There is no solution that will completely resolve the problem, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing that can be done about it. One way of addressing the problem is to shape the “will of the people”—in its more fundamental sense—to limit the range for proposed laws and policies. Any government would hesitate before pursuing a policy that would provoke intense opposition among its citizens. For example, it would be impossible for the government to pursue a policy that discriminates against women today. The determination that sex discrimination is unjust has already been firmly entrenched as the will of the people. Indeed, many of you will remember how the mayor of Osaka’s remarks on “wartime sex slaves” drew heavy criticism due to this sense of the will of the people and cost him a substantial loss of support. In this case, “the will of the people” refers to a common conviction that citizens have come to regard as valid and accepted over a long period of time. It is more like entrenched “public opinion” than the momentary “will” tallied in elections and opinion polls. Public opinion is formed through the exchange of opinions, and this process is accompanied by “public reasoning,” a consideration of the reasons for a given claim being valid or not. If a social minority group regards a law or policy as unjust and wants it to be changed, it must resort to this formation of opinion among citizens. (In other words, it must resort to the power of “reason” rather than the power of “numbers.”)

If citizens themselves lose faith in the will of the people, the foundation of democracy will collapse. What needs to be done to prevent this from happening is not to reduce the will of the people to the momentary “will” of citizens, but to place importance on the process of shaping it through “reasoning.” How can opportunities for mediating “reason” and “will” be institutionalized? (There are some institutions that already exist like “mini-publics” and “a participatory budget.”) Herein lies the key for the survival and revitalization of democracy.

Junichi Saito
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University


Professor Saito was born in 1958 in Fukushima Prefecture. After serving as a visiting researcher at Princeton University and a professor at Yokohama National University, he assumed his current position in 2004. He specializes in political theory. He is the author of Publicness [Kokyosei] (Iwanami Shoten, 2000), Freedom [Jiyu] (Iwanami Shoten, 2005), and Politics and Plurality: Toward Democratic Publicness [Seiji to Fukususei: Minshutekina Kokyosei ni Mukete] (Iwanami Shoten, 2008). He has also edited and co-authored The “Limits” of Expression [Hyogen no “Rimitto”] (Nakanishiya Shuppan, 2009), Social Integration: Toward a Mutual Recognition on Liberty [Shakai Togo: Jiyu no Sogo Shonin ni Mukete] (Iwanami Shoten, 2009), Access to Democratic Theory [Akusesu Demokurashi Ron] (Nihon Keizai Hyoronsha, 2012), and The Iwanami Course on Political Philosophy 5: The Ambiguity of Reason [Iwanami Koza Seiji Tetsugaku Dai Go-Kan: Risei no Ryogisei]. His major articles include “Reason and Passion in Political Space [Seijiteki Kukan ni okeru Riyu to Jonen]” in Thought [Shiso] (Iwanami Shoten, 2010) and “ Displacement and Life Security [Basho no Soshitsu/Hakudatsu to Seikatsu Hosho]” in Three Perspectives on Nuclear Power Policy: In Search of a Political Economy of Earthquake Reconstruction 3 (Waseda University Booklet, Thinking “Post-Quake” 27) [Genpatsu Seisaku o Kangaeru Mitsu no Shiten: Shinsai Fukko no Seiji Keizaigaku o Motomete 3 (Waseda Daigaku Bukkuretto “Shinsaigo” ni Kangaeru 27)] (Waseda University Press, 2013). His major translations include John Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Iwanami Shoten, 2011) and Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Writings (Misuzu Shobo, 2013).