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Tokyo’s change, Moscow’s echoes

Christoph Neidhart
28 September 2007

The party has ruled the country for many decades, monopolising political power. But it has seemed to run aground. Its head of government was deeply unpopular, with approval ratings in low single figures. That was when the party elders nominated a young leader: an unusual character in terms of the state's political tradition, colourful, lively and totally different from what the country's people were used to. The new leader was also TV-savvy, and knew how to appeal both to the public and to foreign dignitaries.

Christoph Neidhart is a Swiss writer and journalist based in Tokyo. He was previously a research fellow at Harvard's Davis Center of Russian Studies and (1990-97) Moscow bureau chief of Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche.

His books include Russia's Carnival: The Smells, Sights and Sounds of Transition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Ostsee, das Meer in unserer Mitte (Marebuchverlag, 2003)

Also by Christoph Neidhart in openDemocracy:

"Vladimir Putin, ‘Soviet man' who missed class" (24 October 2006)

The country in question is not the Soviet Union, the party not the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This is Japan and its Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). When Yoshiro Mori resigned as prime minister in April 2001, his support in opinion-polls had indeed dropped to as little as 1%. If the LDP had headed into the general elections of 2003 with Mori at its helm, the party would have almost certainly endured heavy defeat. That is why the LDP elders gambled on the maverick Junichiro Koizumi. It paid off: Koizumi managed to stay in office for five years, longer than any other postwar Japanese prime minister.

Like Koizumi, Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev was a choice faute de mieux. The Soviet state could simply not afford another Leonid Brezhnev or Konstantin Chernenko, though many comrades were suspicious of this young Turk.

The LDP has - apart from a brief interruption in 1993-94 - been in power since its inception in 1955. It has never been a "normal" political party, but always rather an umbrella organisation for Japan's political elite. Inside the LDP, liberals found their political home as well as nationalists, neo-conservatives as well as people leaning toward a strong welfare state.

The CPSU was - contrary to western beliefs - quite similar. It had neither been ideologically homogenous nor a normal political party: it was a political machine to maintain power in the hands of a few. Whoever wanted to have a career in the Soviet Union was obliged to join the party.

In the Soviet Union, most politicians did not play any significant role; they were but extras. All major decisions were made at the top, where the state was run by bureaucrats faithful to the ruling party. In Japan, where governments usually last for only a year or two, real power lies with bureaucrats who are willing soldiers of the LDP. The party has systematically rewarded cities and provinces for their political support with subsidies and major construction projects (including highways and bridges that go nowhere).

Parallel worlds

Japan is no Soviet Union, Yoshiro Mori is no Brezhnev or Chernenko. This is an open, free and rich society, integrated with the world, affluent and with a comprehensive welfare system. Despite fifteen years' stagnation and its current anaemia, the Japanese economy remains the world's strong number two. In comparison, the Soviet Union's contribution to the world economy at the height of its power was on the scale of Singapore's.

Yet there are more structural similarities between Japan and the former Soviet Union than meet the eye. At one time, the Stalinist command economy was considered a threat to the western way of doing business. Besides, Japan's post-war recovery was centrally planned - a kind of macro-Leninism with a smile, executed through "grassroots capitalism". However, Tokyo enforced its plan with with carrots rather than sticks.

The parallels between the CPSU and the LDP do not end there. Mikhail Gorbachev was a brilliant communicator, especially to those who did not speak Russian and thus did not understand what he said and how he said it; so was Junichiro Koizumi. Gorbachev talked of reforms, but achieved little; almost the same can be said of Koizumi. Both Gorbachev and Koizumi focused their energy on the power struggle within the party; both hoped, by renewing the party and weakening the old guard, to change their country.

Gorbachev failed spectacularly; his period in office ended in his close friends and colleagues staging a coup against him. The CPSU collapsed, and so did the country.

Koizumi, by contrast, left Japanese politics with his party a gleaming winner. In a snap election of September 2005, he won a two-thirds majority for his governing coalition. However, this victory was shallow; it was not based on decisive political achievements or a clear programme, but on his performance as a showman. Koizumi's legacy after five years as prime minister was a party with no sense of direction and no successor ready to take over.

In this sense, the cost of Koizumi's failure to reform the party and the country was the further postponement of Japan's renewal. He talked about it, but lost five years. One example: while China kept signing free-trade agreements with her Asian neighbours during those years, Koizumi did not bother about trade but was busy annoying Japan's neighbours by visiting the notorious Yasukuni shrine.

But Koizumi did oversee one intra-party innovation: to change the LDP's method of choosing its president. He replaced the traditional approach (secret backroom dealings among faction leaders) with an election, which he saw as a step toward the LDP's internal democratisation. The new system gave the right to vote on Shinzo Abe's successor to all LDP deputies in both houses of parliament (381 in total), along with three votes for each prefectural (regional) chamber, 141 in total.

This is no way to find a strong and determined chairman for the LDP - a party both heterogenous and handicapped by its lack of able leaders. Why is that so? In the absence of competition, Soviet-style monopoly parties have always valued loyalty over competence. They saw no need to recruit the brightest and the best, but selected people who promised to be the most loyal. Thus, the level of competence within the CPSU steadily deteriorated over time. The same is true for Japan's LDP. For decades, it has been the only political institution to offer young Japanese the chance of a successful political career. Ichiro Ozawa, the current leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is only one of those who went through this LDP "school" before defecting from the party.

It is no wonder that political commentators in Tokyo lament the lack of political talent in Japanese politics.

A question of leadership

openDemocracy writers analyse Japanese politics:

Takashi Inoguchi, "An ordinary power, Japanese-style" (26 February 2004)

Yoshio Okawara & John Dower, "America and Japan: the next century and a half" (25 October 2004)

Noriko Hama, "Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains" (12 September 2005)

Andrew Stevens, "Japan's first presidential election" (19 December 2005)

Andrew Stevens, "The Koizumi legacy and Japan's future" (21 September 2006)

Noriko Hama, "Shinzo Abe: riding high on ambiguity" (18 October 2006)

Noriko Hama, "The China-Japan spring romance: thus far, how much farther?" (17 April 2007)

Andrew Stevens, "Japan's lost election" (31 July 2007)

Noriko Hama, "Shinzo Abe: out of time" (24 August 2007)

Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to renew the CPSU by introducing elements of democracy and by opening up politics to people from outside the party. This created the worst of both worlds: it created instability while failing to improve the way the country was run. Many individuals from outside the power apparatus were guided by their short-sighted particular interests. Similarly, when Junichiro Koizumi opened up the LDP to celebrities from outside politics and introduced elections for the party presidency, he intended to break the old guard's power. Yet, even before his departure, the old guard had nominated a poster-boy, young by Japanese standards, personable, soft spoken, conservative - and very weak: Shinzo Abe. It was his assumed popularity with the public and his weakness that helped him gain support from all factions of the LDP.

Most likely, the party elders did not expect Abe to govern the country well. His job was to use his sad smile to win elections, and thus to secure the LDP's grip on power and on the nation's treasury. That went terribly wrong. In the upper-house elections of July 2007, the boyish, insecure, and glaringly incompetent Abe took the worst blow his party ever suffered. But instead of blaming those who nominated him, history might remember him as the one who unwittingly sparked the implosion of the LDP.

Abe's successor Yasuo Fukuda may prove to be a more skilful operator. Yet, in many ways, he looks like an Abe of the previous generation: humble, friendly, diplomatic and acceptable to virtually everybody. He has no discernible convictions save a willingness to open Japan to her neighbours (a policy his father Takeo Fukuda, prime minister 1976-78, stood for). This is a matter of political convenience as well as personality. Before his election as prime minister on 25 September 2007, he simply could not afford to offer opinions; now, whatever policy he embarks on, he will immediately meet resistance from within his own party. Thus, even if Fukuda turns out to be an unexpectedly able leader, he won't have a free hand to lead Japan into a different future.

The party prospect

The CPSU, its communist propaganda notwithstanding, never cared abut ideology; it was an all-encompassing apparatus of power. The statements of its leading members may have been deciphered (by the "Kremlinologists" of the time) for variations across the defined spectrum of acceptable views, but more characteristic was the endless repetition of party slogans as a marker of obedience and belonging to the party.

By its own admission, the LDP has never stood for a single policy. However, a party based on sheer power and access to money rather than on conviction will almost certainly collapse when it loses that power.

The CPSU kept itself in power partly by issuing threats to its (real or potential) enemies and offering guaranteed privileges to its cadres; but mostly through repression. In Japan, nobody has ever been compelled to support the LDP; it has stayed in power by distributing generous perks.

In 1955, the CIA assisted the merger of two minor Japanese opposition parties into a united force against the then popular Japanese socialists. The United States secret service clandestinely helped to finance the new party. With Nobusuke Kishi (grandfather of Shinzo Abe) at its helm in 1957-60, the LDP started to built up its monopoly through "pork-barrel" politics. Kishi turned the LDP and the governments it came to lead almost into a client organisation of the United States.

With all this in mind, the LDP may be better compared with Soviet client parties such as the Czech communist party or East Germany's SED than with the CPSU itself. It may be recalled too that when the Soviet Union started to shake, these parties imploded even faster than their Moscow mother-ship.

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