UW News

April 8, 2022

UW professors show that Japanese democracy is ‘flourishing’ as co-editors of first Oxford Handbook of Japanese Politics

Book cover against a background

Students and scholars can access the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Politics online though the subscription of their academic institutions.

Many of us started pandemic projects over the past two years, getting creative with activities like baking bread and learning to sew.

Robert Pekkanen and Saadia Pekkanen created something, too.

The married couple, both professors in the UW Jackson School of International Studies, are co-editors of the first Oxford Handbook of Japanese Politics, published online in September 2020 and in print in January 2022. They worked with dozens of collaborators around the world to add the topic to the respected collection of Oxford Handbooks that presents surveys of original research.

“The handbooks are kind of like those conversations with one of your faculty members who knows the field really well,” Robert said, “but it’s in a written form available for anyone.”

That’s why Saadia calls it “an ideal project for the pandemic.” It required experts to take their research and put it into an accessible format: the Oxford Handbook Online platform, which is available to many through the subscription of their academic institutions.

This volume’s 46 essays span the breadth of Japanese politics, from describing the political system to examining the country’s status within the region and world. It gives its audience — students and scholars — an overview of the field, while also providing a baseline of knowledge for anybody interested in Japanese politics.

First approached by Oxford University Press about the project in 2017, the couple decided what topics to cover and chose leading experts to contribute essays and research. Robert took the lead on domestic politics and Saadia headed foreign relations.

As a unifying theme, they asked every author to evaluate Japanese democracy, especially relevant at a time when democratic systems around the world are being challenged. The authors concluded that Japanese democracy is robust and healthy. In one measure, a democracy index by the nonprofit Freedom House, the country rated 96 out of 100.

Unlike the United States, Japan has not been as impacted by forces like populism, polarization and challenges to electoral integrity, Robert said.

“Japan’s democracy seems to be flourishing,” he said, “even as America’s democracy seems to be increasingly under threat.”

Saadia said a country’s internal democratic processes influence stances it takes in the region and on the world stage. Japan’s processes can help people understand its role in the Asia-Pacific region as China rises in power.

“Japan is clearly on the side of the democracies,” she said. “Japan is very purposeful, it’s very powerful and it’s not a junior partner to the United States. So how democracy helps Japan take that stand going forward is extremely important for understanding regional stability.”

Robert and Saadia are proud of the contribution they’ve made to the field — and how the Oxford Handbook Online platform “equalizes access” to their volume by making it more searchable, easier to assign in classrooms and more accessible to students on limited budgets.

They also enjoyed working with top scholars, who don’t get paid for their contributions but share their research as a service.

“It was terrific to learn from the best,” Saadia said. “I loved it. The handbook was really a joy to edit in that sense.”

Another joy? Robert said it was working with his “favorite collaborator ever.” While many couples learned the limits of their relationships during the pandemic, Robert and Saadia discovered just how well they work together. “I would write a book with Robert again,” Saadia said. “I think that’s good testimony to a wonderful collaborative relationship.”