At last, almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War, with the fall of the Berlin Wall leading to Velvet and variously colored revolutions across Eastern and Central Europe, the easternmost island nation of Asia finally has taken what seems like a giant step to end the one-party dominance that has endured almost uninterrupted for more than half a century. Yet it was not Communists who were driven out of power in Japan’s August 30 general election, but conservatives. Sort of.
What is striking about the election and its aftermath is the contrast of the media ballyhoo with how unimpressed the Japanese are with what they have wrought. The general election, which was for the Lower House of parliament, the more powerful body of Japan’s bicameral legislature, toppled the long-dominant conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from power but put in its place the only-slightly-less-conservative Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Voters gave the DPJ 308 of 480 seats, up from 115 before the election; the LDP saw its strength dwindle to 119 seats from 300. As election numbers go, that is a dramatic shift. Yet the campaign itself was anything but. It was fought over such non-ideological issues as a toll-free expressway and a cash handout scheme to families with children—not about, say, a choice between liberal democracy and social democracy, as one commonly finds throughout Europe. Indeed, in philosophical terms, Japan’s main political contenders evince even less ideological distance between them than do Democrats and Republicans in the United States.
Japan has been, and arguably may still be, the most socially and politically conservative among the world’s developed nations. Nevertheless, the August 30 election could turn out to be revolutionary in its impact because the DPJ is coming to power in pursuit of a grand agenda: to relax the iron grip of the bureaucrats on the levers of government, a phenomenon that has prevailed in Japan since well before World War II. Even this major, ideology-transcending issue was little debated during the campaign, but there is a good reason for that: Nearly all political players in Japan now accept it as an imperative. How it got that way constitutes critical background for understanding what happened on August 30.
The bureaucratic lock on power in Japan is historically comparable to the pervasive influence wielded by Communist Party apparatchiks in the Soviet Union and other totalitarian states, though Japanese bureaucrats are more dedicated. A prominent scholar on Japanese politics once called the Japanese state “the United Ministries of Japan”, and he was not exaggerating. More than half a century of LDP rule was in reality based on an intricately structured governing system dominated by the country’s powerful bureaucrats. LDP politicians found it difficult to control them, except when the party was led by strong reformist leaders such as Kakuei Tanaka (1972–74), Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982–87) and especially Junichiro Koizumi (2001–06). Even such strong-willed politicians as these barely managed to bring the bureaucracy in line with policy. Other powerful leaders such as Eisaku Sato (1964–72), former bureaucrats themselves, represented the interests of the bureaucracy more than that of their own parties. Indeed, the LDP is a fighting arena for party factions as normally understood in parliamentary systems, but also for contending powerful ministries represented by powerful LDP members. The shape of governance in Japan has formed on the basis of long-term in-fighting among the major ministries for the lion’s share of the state budget, both to implement programs believed to be in the national interest and, not incidentally, to expand ministerial turf.
This competition among the ministries, for which the LDP was merely a vehicle, helped energize Japan’s government-led growth during the Cold War years. The system, however, bred widespread, structural corruption, exemplified by the phenomenon of the amakudari (descent from heaven)—a practice of awarding retired bureaucrats plum jobs at the organizations or companies operating in areas they had once supervised. Amakudari amounted to a unique Japanese-style combination of “regulatory capture” and the “revolving door”, which the public tolerated as long as the country’s economy maintained high rates of growth. That has not been the case for some time now, however. And it is Japan’s economic malaise, above all else, that ultimately called into question the “United Ministries of Japan.”
The end of the Cold War almost neatly paralleled the bursting of the bubble economy in Japan, revealing the accumulated institutional fatigue of the Japanese system. On the one hand, an identity crisis erupted from the political side: Japan’s security strategy had been anchored in U.S. Cold War strategy, whereby Japanese politicians happily let Americans do all security work while Japan merely subsidized the arrangement. The shokku of the 1991 Gulf War put an end to the happy pattern. Japan contributed $13 billion—$100 for every man, woman and child in the country—to the U.S. war effort, but despite this huge sum, Kuwait left Japan out of the long list of nations it thanked after the war. That was the nadir of Japan’s postwar diplomacy, a fiasco that opened a new if generally quiet debate in Japan over what its new security identity ought to be. Differences with Washington over Korea have intensified and deepened this debate, but there is no national consensus over where it should lead. For example, Tokyo currently deploys naval vessels in the Indian Ocean for refueling operations in support of U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts; the DPJ vowed during the election campaign to call off the operation once in power.
On the economic side, Japan’s slump has continued now for nearly two decades, and most now recognize that the problem is structural, not cyclical. It has to do with a shift in the Asian and the international economic environment (in which Japan’s export-led growth strategy cannot prevail) and such indomitable factors as demography. The 2008 financial meltdown in the United States sounded a requiem bell for what everyone knew was a dead, if not yet buried, system. Together, the collapse of Japan’s security identity and the protracted malfunction of its economic sector gradually stoked a latent public demand for change and triggered the ousting of the LDP from power after a long process of dithering and soul-searching—or what some might call the peculiar Japanese method of reaching national consensus.
If one studies this long process, one soon sees that it was largely a two-step affair organized around two key political figures. It began with Ichiro Ozawa of the DPJ and continued with Junichiro Koizumi of the LDP, both 67-year-old graduates of Keio University, the school founded by Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of the greatest enlightenment thinkers who intellectually led the modernization of Japan in the Meiji era.
Ozawa, the main architect of the DPJ’s landslide victory, along with the next Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is known in Japanese political circles as “Kowashiya” (“the Breaker”). Ozawa formed, merged and dissolved a string of political parties after he and more than forty colleagues left the LDP in 1993, his stated goal being a change in the electoral system itself. (His defection led to an 11-month lapse of LDP rule, which had otherwise run non-stop since 1955.) Ozawa had wanted to build a two-party system in parliament by replacing Japan’s multiple-seated constituencies with single-seated ones, thereby offering the opposition an opportunity to take power and end the LDP’s one-party rule. In 1994, Japan eventually adopted a mix of single-seat and proportional-representation constituencies—a 300 to 200 ratio, respectively. The August 30 balloting, the fifth held under the new electoral system, seems to be yielding Osawa’s dream at last: a functional two-party system.
In his 1993 bestseller, Nippon Kaizo Keikaku (“Blueprint for a New Japan”), Ozawa elaborated his other goals, the five freedoms: freedom from Tokyo (decentralization), freedom from companies (job mobility), freedom from overwork, freedom from sexism and ageism, and freedom from regulations. He also urged Japan to become “a normal country” by reorganizing the Self-Defense Forces and establishing a standing UN peacekeeping unit—a functional two-party system being necessary in his opinion for Japan to fully debate and decide upon these fundamental issues.
Since Blueprint for a New Japan was published, ten prime ministers have come and gone, but Ozawa has always played his role as “the Breaker”, rattling Japan’s political scene with his high-handed and aggressive style of operation. Only one other politician has loomed as large as Ozawa as a political mover and shaker: former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who held office for almost six years. (Other Prime Ministers since Ozawa’s defection only managed tenures ranging from 64 days at their shortest to 932 days at their longest.) Since he made his bid for the LDP presidency in 2001 with a vow to “destroy the LDP” from the inside, Koizumi’s determination to challenge Japan’s political traditions never wavered until he stepped down from office in 2006. His reform agenda from within the LDP was similar to Ozawa’s—deregulation and decentralization—although he emphasized privatizing Japan’s postal savings bank system as a key to reform, an issue from which Ozawa has kept a distance.
Clearly, both Ozawa and Koizumi have sought similar goals, such that one could say Ozawa cleared a path for Koizumi and Koizumi has now returned the favor. Both have sought to scrap Japan’s bureaucracy-controlled system to build model better suited for a globalized economy and an aging and shrinking Japanese population. Both have sought to redefine the country’s role in the world and secure a respectable place for it in the international community by actively participating in global security affairs. Now we will see if these two conservative reformers will finally get what they have sought in a Hatoyama government. If so, the August 30 election will come to be seen as a watershed for a new phase in Japanese politics, and in U.S.-Japan relations as well.