Japan’s Political Tremors
Image Credit: US Navy

Japan’s Political Tremors


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.

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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.)

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.

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