The year 2016, when the minimum voting age will be lowered from 20 to 18, is a good opportunity to consider the meaning of democracy.
The maturity of Japan's postwar democracy was put to the test throughout last year by debate on various policy issues, particularly the security-related legislation that opened the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.
Although many members of the public did not think sufficient debate was held on the issue, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went ahead with a vote on the security bills in the Diet on the grounds that the administration gained public confidence through election results.
This year began with society having yet to find a common answer to what constitutes democracy -- elections, decision by majority, respect for minority opinion or staging demonstrations.
How to prevent a split in society is a global challenge. In Europe, multiculturalism is being threatened by the influx of a massive number of refugees. Terrorist attacks on Paris last year have fueled hatred between religions, while the tendency to reject different values is spreading in various countries.
On Christmas Day last year, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the highest-ranking bishop in the Church of England, described extremists as those who "hate differences" and warned against intolerance toward diversity spreading throughout Europe.
In the United States, exclusionist remarks being made by business mogul Donald Trump, who is seeking to run in the next presidential election on the ticket of the Republican Party, have been creating a sensation, causing a split in U.S. society.
The world in the 21st century that followed the end of the Cold War is a world without models. If Europe, the United States and Japan were to neglect their efforts to overcome differences and pursue reconciliation, their democracy would drift, jeopardizing their societies.
Japan now faces difficult issues that could determine the fate of the country -- security, nuclear power, the concentration of U.S. bases in Okinawa and the role of families and regional communities, among other issues. The past experiences of using steady economic growth to cover up social problems never provided hints on how to resolve various issues Japan currently faces. How Japanese society as a whole can overcome these problems through the choices and decisions it makes will be called into question.
There is not a single decision that can satisfy all members of the public. As such, social stability cannot be maintained unless Japan pursues a decision-making process that will be acceptable to as many members of the public as possible and decrease the number of those dissatisfied with the decision.
Therefore, those who won a majority in elections should use their power to not outdebate opponents but to seek common ground with their opponents. Any policy decision can take root only if those in a minority group are convinced that their opinions have been sufficiently considered.
A society in which a wide diversity of options are offered, various opinions are heard and broad consensus is formed on policy issues is a strong society where democracy is functioning.
Fully fledged party politics in which members of the public played a key role in politics began in Japan 100 years ago during the Taisho Era in a movement called "Taisho democracy."
However, democracy rapidly declined because the government misjudged the international situation and made a mistake in its economic policies after the beginning of the Showa Era. Japan became an intolerant society in which people were not allowed to freely and actively express their opinions and different opinions were rejected. As a result, political parties stopped holding active debate and the government steered the country in the wrong direction. A country could be driven to ruin if society lost its diversity.
Japan faces a choice of two different trends.
One is a society in which the government sets targets for the country in politics and the economy and leads the people to achieve them. In such a society, leaders are confident of their decisions, but tend to have insufficient awareness that they must fulfill their accountability to the public. Concerns remain that political leaders in such a society could be self-righteous in that they tend to believe their policies will be evaluated by history even if the public does not support their decisions.
The other is a society in which each and every member of the public gathers information, carefully examines the information, expresses their opinions and participates in decision-making processes, in other words a society in which diverse opinions expressed by independent individuals are reflected.
Japan should choose the latter path in which the public can play a leading role in decision-making processes in order to reinforce the country's democracy. Younger people should be encouraged to participate in politics to achieve such a society.
News organizations play a certain role in democracy by covering the news in a fair and impartial manner.
Fairness and impartiality are indispensable for democracy in order to spread political decisions through society, prevent public opinion from splitting and achieve reconciliation in society.
Fairness and impartiality in society are measured by how far those who have minority opinions are satisfied with the decision-making processes. Media outlets can achieve fairness and impartiality by listening to diverse opinions and criticism.
Democracy is not a goal but merely a means to create a society in which each and every member can live comfortably.
British critic and novelist E. M. Forster wrote that "we may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy" because diversity and criticism are permitted. Wouldn't this perfectly answer the question on the meaning of democracy?