Democracy is in the midst of a change across the globe. At the same time, the world order is crumbling. This contour will become even clearer and it may one day influence Japan. I would like to focus on its course this year.

Ever since the U.S. presidential election and the British national referendum three years ago, no day has passed without mention of populism's growth with its exclusionary character. That is because both countries, proponents of freedom and democracy since the 19th century, have taken the first step onto a self-destructive path, making a historical mark. There are also cases where similar forces in major European countries are gaining entry into governments by gathering an increasing number of votes.

On the other hand, authoritarian nations such as China have steadily risen, spreading influence through growing productive and financial power. Authoritarian countries may present themselves as models if they wish but we cannot shut our eyes to the increasing possibility that some handsome portion of the world would accept it.

Lack of transparency, investments with little thought for the environment and safety or, more specifically, the combination of facial recognition technology and little respect for human rights being exported -- such elements are undermining the standard that the world community had been tending to. Unfortunately, this situation will be bolstered as the quality of politics in major democratic countries degrades.

Why populism?

There are two elements behind the weakening of democracy. One is that as the middle class shrinks, income disparity widens, furthering class divisions. In the past, there was a strong middle class which supported centrist parties. But as votes increasingly went to parties on the extreme left and extreme right, the political system became fragmented and undermined the fundamentals that had allowed the conduct of reasonable politics. The other element is the increasingly shaky identity. Rising immigration and globalization have spurred concerns about self-identity and questions about whom a country belongs to.

These two elements could be linked. The bottommost people of the shrinking middle class who toil without seeing real wages rise take out their frustration by targeting those on an even lower socio-economic class and on foreign workers. They may start becoming critical, asking why their taxes benefit the lower class and their wages are pulled downward by foreign workers.

Japan is not immune to this phenomenon. According to economist Eisaku Ide, 31.2 percent of Japanese households are low-income with a take-home annual income in the mid-two million yen range. Only 5 percent, however, recognize that they are low-income earners. The rest, or 26.2 percent, consider themselves as middle class, and the disconnect between their actual and self-perceived financial situation must engender a lot of stress. It is a real possibility that this group could turn their discontent toward foreign workers and those with lower income. This is where the potential pockets of populists reside.

Germany, where I recently visited, faces a similar situation. I asked a veteran researcher why the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) is rapidly losing support. He responded that their leaders were mostly highly educated elites who did not understand working class concerns. It is important indeed to have noble ideals, calculating how to mitigate unemployment risk, investing the nation's taxes into foreigners and the bottommost socio-economic rung, and providing them benefits and job training. But if the focus is solely on those groups, workers who are struggling with low income will turn away. The SPD is facing splintering within the lower socio-economic class and divided support for the party. Many in the working class who were past SPD supporters will start turning toward the extreme right who claim that they are the right choice for Germany.

A Divided Society

Japan will start accepting foreign workers in earnest by implementing new immigration policies from April. Foreign workers will arrive expecting an affluent country but will face a rather divided society. Sooner or later, they and their families' stay will lengthen because it is difficult for Japan, or any country, to have them return to their countries of origin. They will find themselves in a position equal to or below the low-income class. Will Japanese workers who gasp for relief as they work for little pay blame foreigners and the welfare class or not? I am concerned as I observe some foreign countries.

Democracies which value freedom and equality thus face a critical moment. However, those who believe in the potential of these democratic values cannot give up. T. Todorov, author of "The Inner Enemies of Democracy," proclaimed that democracies do not accept attitudes of fatalistic resignation. The future is a heavy responsibility because it depends on individual decisions but at the same time is constantly open to possibilities.

Rather than awaiting nervously the advent of a strained society, it is better to get around it early by seriously engaging with the middle class and finding ways to integrate the lower class and foreign workers.

Will Japan take the same rough path as the United States and Britain did? Or will it take a step toward one that leads away from it? Japan is at a crossroads.

(Ken Endo is a professor at the Hokkaido University Public Policy School. He earned a Ph.D. in politics at the University of Oxford and was a researcher at Harvard Law School, a research fellow supported by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a visiting professor at Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris. He is also the author of numerous books including Togo No Shu-en (The Demise of Integration) and Oshu Fukugo Kiki (Europe's Complex Crisis).