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Opinion: Is Japanese politics a manifestation of groupthink?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee is housed here in Harumi Triton Square, in Tokyo's Chuo Ward. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)
(Mainichi)

It is looking like the new president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be decided before the end of the week.

    Because the process of deciding the new chief was forced back to the drawing board after former president, Yoshiro Mori, tried to name his successor behind closed doors, we expect that we will be assured transparency in the selection process this time around. When protocols are followed and the how and whys of a decision are made clear, it helps members of the public who are watching to take an interest. We hope that the new president of the committee will make all operations of the committee as transparent as possible.

    And to achieve that, we should be aware of a type of thinking that makes it easy for us to fall into the trap of closed-door politics. The keyword here is: groupthink.

    Groupthink was a concept set forth by the late American research psychologist Irving Janis. He conducted thorough research of such historical judgment errors as the Bay of Pigs Invasion under the administration of President John F. Kennedy and the Watergate scandal under the administration of President Richard Nixon, and analyzed the mechanism behind the thinking that led the super elites that controlled the U.S. government to make such grave mistakes.

    According to Janis, groups that are prone to groupthink have strong bonds, are not easily affected by external forces, have a domineering leader, and do not have the protocols in place to allow for the deliberation of a diverse range of options, among other characteristics.

    Such groups tend to assume that they are highly versatile, have great faith in their morals, look down upon those outside their circle, do not allow themselves to have doubts or objections to the rest of the group, believe that unanimity is important above all, and tend to apply pressure on those who do object, Janis said.

    It's a trap that highly homogenous and overly confident groups can easily find themselves in. Apparently, such groups tend to reach more foolish and extreme conclusions than if an individual tried to draw a conclusion themselves, and the success rate of missions carried out by such groups is inclined to be significantly lower.

    Groupthink appears to have something in common with the scandal surrounding Mori, and Japanese politics in general in recent years. If anything, in Japan, where there is much less racial diversity than in the U.S., and where paternalistic values and a culture of top-down politics are deeply rooted, homogeneous groups are easily formed and backdoor meetings where decisions are practically made without any objections are likely more common.

    To counter groupthink, Janis proposed such measures as allowing people with the least experience to speak first in meetings, setting up opportunities to listen to the views of experts from outside the group, and naming at least one member of the group to be a critic and forcing them to highlight any problems in the group.

    The U.S. government and companies have taken this psychological phenomenon into consideration and have made efforts to create environments conducive to the birth of audacious ideas, such as purposely removing decision-making executives from meetings. Some companies in Japan have recently adopted this way of doing things.

    Hopefully we can understand the mechanism behind groupthink and work to avoid it.

    (Japanese original by Tomoko Ohji, Expert Writer)

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