Features | Politics | East Asia

Japan’s Political Tremors

The earthquake and tsunami were preceded by major tremors in the country’s political system. Their continuation will help shape post-disaster Japan.

By Karel van Wolferen for

In September 2009, the relatively new Democratic Party of Japan ended a virtual one-party system that had been in existence for over half a century. But the election of the DPJ was significant for another reason—it raised the still unsettled question of who has the right to rule?

The Japanese Constitution undoubtedly gives that right to elected officials representing Japanese citizens. But tradition, rooted in pre-Meiji restoration times, has always favoured career officials in the mighty bureaucracy. The post-World War II ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party formed in 1955, didn’t actually do much actual ruling once postwar reconstruction had been completed by politicians who had emerged from the bureaucratic elite. That reconstruction of a war-devastated country was never halted by a political debate about what to do next; it automatically evolved into an unofficial but very real national policy of seemingly limitless expansion of industrial production capacity, with little regard for other possible economic and social priorities. Alternatives hardly registered in general discussion. 

But the earlier successes of an extraordinary, finely-tuned system of industrial, financial, and political entities operating in concert—which all combined to produce the so-called Japanese economic miracle—turned into a political burden. Overcapacity, neglected prefectural development, huge dollar profits that had to stay in the US economy, and dwindling demand from world markets befuddled incumbent authorities. Officials in the economic ministries and their always cooperating counterparts in the higher echelons of industrial federations, the corporate clusters, and financial circles frequently produced miracles of adjustment, but they couldn’t replace or even question Japan’s basic set of priorities. The necessary political decisions for such an overhaul were forever postponed because those weren’t part of how the LDP exercised its power.

What was needed, a widening circle of politically concerned Japanese were concluding, was a political steering wheel with which to deviate from the course set in the early post-occupation years. When in 1993 two major political figures bolted from the LDP with their followers (beginning a reformist political movement in the process) the well-established structures and bureaucratic vested interests were finally questioned.

A first attempt to replace the LDP with a couple of coalition governments ran aground because elected politicians were no match for the bureaucrats controlling their own lines of communication with the administrative apparatus. It took five years for the reformists to come together in the DPJ, the first credible opposition party that was prepared actually to win elections, and replace the façade of government that had become the norm under the LDP with genuine cabinet-centred government intent on actually governing. (The Socialists had only been interested in mere ritualistic opposition.)

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But to really understand Japan’s political situation, it’s also important to be aware of the hugely important role played by the country’s major newspapers in creating what is understood to be political reality. Whenever significant changes are afoot, the papers tend to speak with one voice—one that’s usually critical of anything that threatens the established order. Indeed, some senior editors share what’s nothing less than an obsession of the senior bureaucrats, namely social tranquillity and harmony.

Why do I mention this now? Because it matters when trying to judge, based on media evaluations, how Japan’s current government has been dealing with the recent calamity. Japan’s newspapers indulge in routine criticism of politicians in government, no matter what. Unfortunately, foreign reporters and commentators, including at venerable newspapers like The Financial Times and The New York Times, tend to rely on their Japanese counterparts’ tone and opinion for lack of independent knowledge.

The Japanese business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, to take just one example, lamented the shortcomings of current government action, emphasizing the poor lines of command running from responsible politicians to the officials carrying out rescue and supply operations. This was perfectly true. But the paper failed to mention that the feebleness of such coordination was precisely the number one weakness of Japan’s political system that the founders of the DPJ had focused on as something needing repair. The party is genuinely trying hard to overcome bureaucratic rigidity and untested chains of command and lines of communication.

Those who have impatiently decided that the DPJ taking over from LDP has been Tweedledee replacing Tweedledum ought to pause and remember how after the previous catastrophic earthquake, which struck Kobe in 1995, the central government appeared to be washing its hands of the miseries of the victims. The contrast could hardly be greater with what’s happening now.

Citizens of Kobe who were extricated from the rubble of their collapsed homes, and survived the fire that eliminated an entire city district, were treated as if they belonged to corporations or religious groups. Those who weren’t so lucky were expected mostly to fend for themselves. This reflected a feudal approach that comes with Japan’s peculiar form of corporatist political structure, in which the link between the citizen and the state plays significantly less of a role than it’s expected to do in modern democracies. The government neglect of the Kobe earthquake victims was widely decried, and it became one of the major sources of public indignation that gave significant impetus to the reformist movement from which Prime Minister Naoto Kan emerged.

This time around, things haven’t been left to local authorities. The Kan government has demonstrated that it really wants to be in charge of rescue and support operations, with frequent cabinet meetings and newly formed task forces. Kan himself has been on TV with relevant officials, all wearing the uniform work fatigues typical for Japanese engineers. Admittedly, Kan shows no particular knack for projecting a grand image of leadership, leaving it to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who holds daily press conferences, to be the face of the government. But under the current situation of multiple crises, DPJ politicians have already set a standard of political command unprecedented in post-Meiji Japan.

The fact is that rather than dealing with a single emergency, as was the case with the Kobe earthquake, the DPJ government is being expected to deal with three crises simultaneously, and is hampered by huge logistical problems that since the end of World War II no cabinet has had to face. Aside from the early breakdown of communication and transportation networks, it must cope with an administrative system over which the LDP had neglected to establish control. Important parts of it are, as it were, out of effective reach of the cabinet ministers supposedly in charge of them. The confusion over information about the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactors underscores this. Their owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, along with its ‘regulators’ in the bureaucracy, exist in a political twilight zone that is in effect neither public nor private, with discretionary power outside the purview of the elected officials. As is the case with many other industrial–government interfaces, responsible officials just aren’t used to being held to account by Japan’s politicians. 

All this meant that the DPJ hadn’t found its footing when disaster struck. As was entirely predictable, what it wanted to accomplish has required a major struggle with career officials in many parts of the bureaucracy, including the judiciary, who have been battling to preserve the world they’ve always known. The attempt to alter a political status quo that has had half a century to form and consolidate is no joke, and the world could learn much about the mutual frustrations of preservers and reformers.

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The latter, inexperienced, may wield hatchets in a counterproductive manner. The former are, of course, better equipped, and in Japan’s case well experienced in cutting down to size politicians whose ambitions include major changes to the ministries. They are helped in this by what I think of as a built-in systemic immune system, one which is activated by the combined efforts of the public prosecutor and the major newspapers. These manage to create political scandals almost at will, with overhyped ‘violations’ of political funding laws (that were purposely vague when designed) for forcing difficult politicians to step aside or down.

This tendency was in evidence in the treatment of Japan’s most formidable politician, Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa was expected to become the DPJ’s first prime minister, engineering its astonishing electoral success in 2009. But as the talented giant on Japan’s political scene, he has been highly controversial, and has long faced a campaign of character assassination of varying degrees of intensity over the years.

In the face of DPJ victory at the polls, the defenders of Japan’s political status quo, as well as influential newspaper editors and those fearing the opening of bureaucratic skeleton-filled closets, decided that Ozawa shouldn’t be allowed to manage a government. The ‘discovery’ of supposed financial misdoings by his secretaries forced Ozawa to withdraw to a position behind the scenes. If the DPJ has since 2009 been the single biggest threat in half a century to Japan’s bureaucracy-dominated status quo, Ozawa is its single biggest threat within the party. He made political history shortly after the DPJ came to power by arranging for China’s visiting vice president to meet with the Emperor. When this seemed to give the ultraconservative Imperial Household Agency a collective heart attack, he reminded these career officials that they had to begin reckoning with the fact that the elected officials in the cabinet, and the elected politicians in the Diet, would now be making the major decisions.

However, the DPJ was almost immediately scarred by the demise of its first cabinet, formed by Yukio Hatoyama. The cause has been mostly overlooked outside Japan—the reality is that Washington administered that major blow to the reformists. For decades, US officials dealing with Japan had been critical of its low profile in international affairs, and of the difficulty of negotiating with a country whose political centre couldn’t be found. (Few ever understood the connection between that peculiar political structure and the odd reliance of Japan’s bureaucrats on Washington of not having to submit themselves to a made-in-Japan political steering wheel).

But when Ozawa made clear that improved relations with China would be a good idea, and Hatoyama announced that he was interested in helping to bring about a ‘more equal’ relationship with the United States, Washington got cold feet. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Tokyo before the elections that were expected to bring the DPJ to power, followed by Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Both came with the message that no matter who was going to actually run Japan, the country’s position in the world, and especially what it is expected to do for the United States, couldn’t possibly be changed.

The centre of gravity among US officialdom overseeing and managing US-Japan relations has in recent years shifted from the State and Treasury Departments to the Pentagon, while the diplomats dealing directly with Japan have tended to be Pentagon alumni. Unfortunately for this point of Japan’s political overhaul, and with a new government composed of a new political party announcing its intention to actually do some governing (for instance, by playing a more positive role vis-à-vis its Asian neighbours), Washington decided to test its loyalty with a plan to build a new Marine base on the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, in an aquatically vulnerable environment.

The LDP had earlier buckled under then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s intimidation, but in venerable LDP style had proceeded to do nothing, and had been happy to dump the agreement into the lap of the new government. Yet the base building plans aren’t feasible. Forcing the issue would almost certainly create an uproar in Okinawa that no government in Tokyo is likely to survive. But Hatoyama miscalculated. Insufficiently aware of the sacred status of the United States Marine Corps, and of the extent to which US decision-making with regards to Japan is now directed by the Pentagon, he believed that in a face-to-face meeting with the new US president, in which he hoped to discuss long-term matters affecting the East Asia region, the conflict could be settled. It was an entirely reasonable idea if the constant avowals by Washington of Japan being America’s most important ally in the Pacific region are to be taken seriously. But at least three attempts to achieve such a meeting were rebuffed by Washington, and Barack Obama was reportedly told by his advisers not to give Hatoyama more than 10 minutes of his time in case they ran into each other at some international event.

In the meantime, the US media—particularly the Washington Post, which no longer had a regular correspondent in Tokyo—contributed to the denigrating of the prestige of Japan’s new governing party, including by referring to Hatoyama as a ‘loopy’ prime minister. The clear indications that the DPJ cabinet wanted to improve relations with Beijing, as well as its interest in the idea of ASEAN+3 (China, Korea and Japan), meant it was clear by December of 2009 that Washington wanted to be rid of the Hatoyama administration.

The following May, the United States got its wish after Hatoyama, misinformed and misled by an adviser operating on the US-Japan interface, couldn’t keep his promise of safeguarding the interests of the Okinawan people, and offered a customary resignation.

The easily intimidated career officials in Japan’s foreign and defence ministries, along with a bunch of supposedly wise men, have long been oblivious to the fact that the United States needs Japan more than the other way round. In this case, they won an early major confrontation with the DPJ. But all this has meant that the United States missed a valuable opportunity to plan new policy with a genuine ally, rather than the reluctant vassal that Japan has always been. And Japan’s reformist movement was thrown off course.

Meanwhile, Japan’s newspaper editors, ill-equipped to handle the confusing details of an entirely new situation, were effectively playing on Washington’s side against the DPJ before they began to understand what was happening. It was under those circumstances that Kan, a prominent member of the first group of reformist politicians, took his turn as prime minister.

Fast forward to today, and it’s clear that 17 months of struggling against external enemies has prompted an inner turmoil in the DPJ that has provided an additional obstacle for Japan’s reformist movement to show its worth in the current crisis. Kan’s government and his own position in it was anything but stable before the Tohoku earthquake shook the country. A number of political analysts, and a considerable number of politicians in his own party, had been predicting the imminent end of his prime ministership. Rumours had begun to spread of the possibility of an irreparable split within the DPJ, with as many as half the party considering joining Ozawa in an attempt to forge a new reformist coalition with parts of the disintegrating LDP and other opposition groups.

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How all of this will play out now, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, logistical problems, the energy crisis, and the nuclear radiation scare will, without question, play a major role in determining how Japan emerges from its greatest catastrophe since World War II.

For the moment, it seems the Kan cabinet will have a longer lease of life than had been anticipated. But Kan’s mistake of allowing himself to be intimidated by Ministry of Finance bureaucrats who, influenced by neoliberal dogma, had turned reduction of government debt into a misplaced priority, could yet dash the potential for the economic and socio-political rejuvenation that hopeful Japanese believe may still come out of the disaster.

Karel van Wolferen is Emeritus University Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of numerous books, including ‘The Enigma of Japanese Power’. His website in English is karelvanwolferen.com