Japan's fifty-year political itch

About the author
Andrew Stevens is an adviser for a Japanese research centre based in London and also political editor of www.CityMayors.com. He writes in a personal capacity.

The ceremony to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima saw the city’s mayor Tadatoshi Akiba feature prominently in news bulletins during the weekend of 6-7 August.

The mayor’s stern address featured a humanitarian appeal for the world’s nuclear powers to abandon their weapons for good. The contingencies of Japan’s national politics meant that the speech gained less attention than it deserved, for a day later the country’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, announced a snap general election (to be held on 11 September) after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) colleagues in the upper house of parliament voted down his flagship reform of Japan’s postal services.

Andrew Stevens is an adviser for a Japanese research centre based in London and also political editor of www.CityMayors.com. He writes in a personal capacity.

Between reform and sclerosis

A second anniversary makes 2005 a significant year in Japan’s political calendar, marking a half-century since the “1955 system” – the moment when the Liberal Democratic Party’s long-term hegemony over Japanese parliamentary politics – was established.

The LDP’s almost perpetual governance since then has made it appear Japan’s “natural party of government” throughout an era of exponential economic growth and (since the early 1990s) ossification. This system – oligarchical, clientilist, interest-driven and faction-ridden – may face its greatest test in the 2005 election.

The electoral alliance that produced the LDP took shape when independent politics in Japan resumed in 1952, after the post-war years of American occupation; it was designed to prevent the then Japanese Socialist Party leading the first administration under the new constitution. The LDP itself was born of the 1955 merger between the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, and has governed the country ever since – apart from a brief period when a doomed coalition of opposition parties took power in 1993, which the LDP then entered in 1994, before regaining its ability to govern by majority in the 1996 election.

Many observers argued that 1993 heralded the demise of the “1955 system”, and the LDP with it. They were wrong, as the party proved capable of reinvention. The election of Junichiro Koizumi as LDP president in 2001 enabled it to partially rebrand and re-energise itself with a positive and youthful (by Japanese standards) leader who resonated with the electorate, and – hard though it is to recall four years on – even acquired rockstar status among some of the nation’s teens.

The LDP’s endurance is greatly aided by institutional advantages, particularly the inherent bias in Japan’s electoral system. The country’s multi-member constituency voting system favours rural constituencies over urban centres, increases the attractions and rewards of political patronage, and makes it easier for an establishment party of the centre-right to cultivate and maintain its power.

Despite this, three political developments have begun to threaten the hegemony of the LDP before and during the four years of Koizumi’s premiership.

First, the party is forced to rule in coalition with a difficult partner, the New Komeito Party (Buddhist, but lay), which has signalled a willingness to enter coalition talks with the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) if the latter won the largest number of seats in the election.

Second, an acceleration of mergers among the opposition is at last starting to reap electoral dividends – most recently in the July elections to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. The DPJ was formed in 1998 out of a merger of four left and centre parties, adding another for good measure in 2003. The recent decision of the Japanese Communist Party to give the DPJ a clear run in marginal areas will make a difference to its voting tally.

Third, the strains between factions in the LDP are intensifying under conflicting political pressures, resistance to Koizumi (who has already announced his intention to leave office in 2006) has been growing; the postal crisis has brought these differences to a head.

Going by post

Japan may be a capitalist economic superpower, but it also has an expansive public sector whose employees and officials enjoy a secure existence, especially in comparison with the liberalising reforms of their western counterparts since the 1980s. Any plans to reduce the size of a civil service whose bureaucrats receive both respect and derision from taxpayers have thus far proved notional.

The cost-saving efforts have included proposals to decentralise key public services from Tokyo-based ministries to the nation’s forty-seven prefectures (regions) and 3,000 municipalities. This is controversial enough, but plans to dissect Japan Post, the world’s largest public enterprise, then privatise its constituent parts, have become Junichiro Koizumi’s flagship policy: one that appears to embrace economic liberalisation and a reduction in the size of the state without challenging the rest of the public sector.

In seeking to improve the fortunes of the ailing Japanese economy – still the second largest in the world, but languishing for over a decade – Koizumi had hoped to root out “financial socialism” in the public sector and the jobs-for-life culture. It could in principle be artful as well as ambitious politics, but where the script goes awry is the strong support for the status quo within certain factions of the LDP and the party’s grassroots, especially in rural areas. Some of Japan Post’s 400,000 employees act as LDP party workers during elections; including family members and related workers, the postal industry could command as many as a million voters.

The postal privatisation crisis is significant, but to assess whether it will be enough to herald the collapse of the “1955 system” requires a look at developments elsewhere in the Japanese political system.

A new nationalism

Junichiro Koizumi’s attempt to kick-start Japan’s sluggish economy through liberalisation of its largest public sector enterprise is not the only challenge facing Japan’s politicians. Most of the others relate in some way to foreign policy, in particular the country’s regional role within east Asia.

A third anniversary, the centenary of the end of the Russo-Japan war, is another relevant marker: this saw Japan emerge as the dominant power in the region and helped fuel the military ambitions that ended so catastrophically in Hiroshima and Nagasaki forty years later. Japan remains involved in territorial disputes with all its neighbours – in the case of Russia, the concern is over the Kuril (Kuriru) islands north of Hokkaido, occupied by Soviet forces in 1945 following Japan’s defeat.

More recently, the governor of Tokyo and nationalist provocateur Shintaro Ishihara has manufactured a territorial dispute with China. The governor claims that the uninhabitable Pacific islets of Okinotori, 1,740 kilometres south of Tokyo, lie under his jurisdiction; his city administration, as well as the national government, have spent considerable funds on fortifying the outcrop to pass it off as an island under the 1958 Law of the Sea and thus affirm sovereignty over the surrounding, possibly resource-rich, area.

Also on Japanese politics and foreign policy in openDemocracy:

Takashi Inoguchi, “The Japanese decision” (August 2003)

Takashi Inoguchi, “An ordinary power, Japanese-style” (February 2004)

Yoshio Okawara & John Dower, “America and Japan: the next 150 years” (October 2004)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

The standard Ishihara rhetoric – including the call for a “Falklands-style” war to decide the islet’s fate – is empowered by a substantial base of support; the maverick independent (and former LDP cabinet member) has been elected twice with massive majorities over his former party allies. His campaign has also intensified already tense diplomatic relationships between Japan and China, and become one of a range of unresolved simmering frictions with Japan’s east Asian neighbours.

These tensions – over history textbooks used in Japan’s schools, official visits to the Yasukuni shrine, disputes over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands and Takeshima/Tokdo – have been acutely felt within Japanese politics.

Rightist groups have desecrated peace monuments, arguing that the word “evil” in dedications inscribed on them insults Japan’s honour. The desire to shatter Japan’s post-war consensus around “peace” has entered establishment politics, with (for example) more questioning of the legitimacy of the 1946 Tokyo tribunal which judged – and in some cases hanged – those accused of war crimes during the 1941-45 war.

Visits to Yasukuni, which houses fourteen “class A” war criminals among Japan’s millions of war dead, by Koizumi and Ishihara have been especially contentious, inside Japan as well as in China and both Korean states; there have been several unsuccessful legal attempts to invoke constitutional provisions for the separation of the state and religion.

A constitution in question

The Japanese constitution of 1947, developed and written under United States tutelage during the occupation years, has become another contested issue in contemporary Japanese politics. The “pacifist objective” contained in Article 9, which sanctions the existence of a “Self-Defence Force” greatly restricted in its capacity for action, has been stretched to breaking-point through the historic vote of the Diet to commit forces to the US-led coalition in Iraq.

Japan can be said to benefit from its comprehensive defence treaties and sharing of intelligence capabilities with the United States, but many Japanese think that becoming a mature, independent nation requires freeing itself from their restrictions – and that doing so might remove the wind from the sails of the emerging nationalist right.

A general sense of national insecurity is reinforced by the absence of a male heir to the throne, a constitutional necessity under the 1947 settlement. Crown Prince Naruhito and Priness Masako have so far produced only Princess Aiko, whom a consistently large majority of Japanese citizens would welcome as their empress. A panel of eminent scholars and constitutional experts has suggested two options: allow a female to ascend the throne on Akihito’s death, or widen the pool of eligible royals to find a suitable male within his extended family.

A normal state

The younger generation of Japanese politicians, mostly gathered around the DPJ, hunger for a vision of nationhood based on the idea that Japan should be a “normal”, modern liberal democracy. But fresh thinking on the constitution and Article 9 has come from within the LDP also.

Those seeking “normality” and a modern state are frequently accused of “neo-conservatism”, though this may be a skewed description of people who may be seeking a more robust approach to foreign policy – including efforts to gain permanent representation on the United Nations Security Council – but subscribe to no over-arching ideological blueprint for imposition elsewhere.

Two groups are worthy of mention: the “21st century Rincho” group includes academics and business figures seeking practical reform of Japanese public life, and the “Young Lawmakers’ Group for Security in the New Century” represents younger and foreign-educated Diet members in the LDP and the DPJ alike.

As the election campaign grinds into gear, the opposition parties (with the exception of the moderate Japanese Communist Party and the leftist Social Democratic Party) have coalesced behind the DPJ, which can barely disguise its elation at the collapse of the government programme and is talking up its chances of power in the face of a heavily divided LDP.

The recent moves towards genuine two-party politics in Japan, indicated by the Tokyo elections, make the September 2005 election a possible breakthrough moment for the opposition. LDP sources have already suggested that Koizumi’s threats to split the LDP will be realised if the party is forced to endure the humiliation of defeat.

Postal privatisation may have triggered it, but clearly much more is at stake in Japan’s election than the career of the prime minister and the future of the country’s post offices. Whatever the result, the “1955 system” will not be dismantled in a day.