The Post-war Roots of Japanese Political Malaise

Krystian Karolak

In order to fully understand the functioning of Japanese politics and what role certain elements have in that political system, we must look closely at changes that occurred after the defeat of Japan in World War II and the consequences of the Allied occupation. Apart from demilitarization, democratization, and adoption of a new constitution in 1947, the most significant happening was the reshuffle of the Japanese political scene that helped in shaping a better ground for a future showdown between socialists and conservatives. 

The first major step was the formation of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan created through the merger of mainly two right-wing conservative parties (the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party) and its victory in the 1958 elections to the lower house of Japanese parliament. From that point on, most contemporary scholars used to call this the ‘1955 system’ in order to show the long length of LDP’s rule (until 1993). Gerald Curtis mentioned in his book The Logic of Japanese Politics: Leaders, Institutions and the Limits of Change four crucial pillars supporting that system: 1) a pervasive public consensus in support of policies to achieve the catch-up-with-the-West goal; 2) the presence of large integrative interest groups with close links to political parties; 3) bureaucracy of immense prestige and power; 4) system of one-party dominance (Gerald L. Curtis, The Logic of Japanese Politics: Leaders, Institutions and the Limits of Change, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 39). Most researchers are also divided in their opinions regarding the consequences of post-1993 political trends and the transformation of Japanese politics. The defeat of LDP in 1993, recognized as the first major failure of this party to form a government since 1955, became the beginning of a Grand coalition that gave the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) a ‘seat at the governing table’. JSP, the biggest opposition party in Japan, did not benefit from that opportunity. Soon it lost in the 1995 and 1996 elections and with the establishment of the Democratic Party of Japan JSP was pushed on the scrapheap of Japanese politics. In the first part of the reviewed book, the author even showed how LDP and JSP competed in areas such as welfare, unequal administration, defense, economy, education, constitution, the emperor system, and the influence of the Yasukuni Shrine on relations with China and South Korea.

One of the most important questions that Dagfinn Gatu tries to answer in The Post-War Roots of Japanese Political Malaise is how LDP managed to dominate Japanese politics; to what extent the winning formula was challenged; what the situation of opposition parties was; and how LDP overcame so many obstacles (both within and outside the party) through the post-war period until its defeat in the 1993 elections and the formation of a necessary coalition that lasted until 1996. Looking into opinion polls since 1955 we might notice that the ruling party did not enjoy as much support as it wanted. In fact, this was mostly the consequence of corruption affairs and a lack of long-term socio-economic plans that could have prevented the outcome of the oil crisis or bubble burst. The other factor, which had a great influence on the Japanese political system, involved fragmented opposition parties such as the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party or the New Renaissance Party that could not offer an alternative for the LDP during elections. Additionally, those parties were unable to form a unified front, because of their different political stands and visions of Japan. This situation is commonly referred by a Japanese expression dosho imu (同床異夢 having different dreams in the same bed). Furthermore, the decrease in voters turnout, choosing a lesser evil over the ballot box, disaffection towards politics, and a large number of unaffiliated voters became obstacles that Japanese politics had to face.

Through socio-economic reforms and strong relations between business, bureaucracy, and political elites referred to as the iron triangle (or triangle of power), the ruling party maintained its influence over the decision-making process and secured a stable majority in both houses of the Japanese parliament. As for trade and labor unions, they became a valuable contributor and an asset used not only by the JSP (e.g. the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan’s intervention played an important role in altering the party’s focus), but also by the DPJ (e.g. the Japanese Trade Union Confederation supported its actions), and even by the LDP (e.g. the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives mobilized rural voters). Despite differences between two ideologically contrasting parties, not only did elites of the LDP became remembered through their actions, but also through individual members of the JSP such as Tomiichi Murayama and Takako Doi – chairpersons of the party (JPS changed its name in 1996 to Social Democratic Party of Japan). Murayama is well-known due to his speech ‘On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war's end’ in which he apologized for atrocities committed by Imperial Japan during World War II. Also, he was the prime minister of a coalition government with the LDP, JSP, and New Party Sakigake (1994–96). Doi, on the other hand, was the first woman in Japanese contemporary history to hold the position of a Lower House Speaker. Her most important goal was to change the party by for example recruiting more female candidates (this trend became known as the Madonna boom – large numbers of female candidates were fielded with success).

But the LDP, as the author further mentions in one of the chapters, is also considered an entity made of a few fractions that leaders, despite representing the biggest conservative party in the country, have different concepts of how to control the party and to rule Japan. LDP leaders usually came to the world of politics from different backgrounds and obtained contacts throughout their family connections (as second or third generation politicians) or connections established through networking (a process of exchanging information, resources, mutual alignment and potentiality that leads to creating a beneficial network of contacts) during their studies at prestigious universities. Leaders of JSP, on the other hand, were recruited mostly from intellectualists and members of leftist movements created before or after the war. A very interesting example that illustrates mechanisms of Japanese elections and maintaining power by elites in the region is the formation of koenkai (後援会) – local support groups. They serve as a pipeline through which certain funds and other relevant forms of support flow to constituents favoring certain politicians. Apart from that, the author also mentions how politics concentrated on interests and pork barrel projects are connected with each other. Even vague election pledges focused on public works subsidies and pork barreling turned into an institutionalized network of supportive interest groups.

Another factor that affected the development of Japanese politics, and impacted the right–left struggle, is kokutai (国体) politics. It is an example of how certain systematized informal negotiations among government and opposition leaders to manage the legislative agenda substitute for, or supplement, institutions bearing formal responsibility for dealing with such matters (Curtis, The Logic of Japanese Politics, p. 33). Analyzing everything that was mentioned previously, we also cannot forget about nemawashi (根回し), which represents an informal decision-making process that includes sharing information about the decision and seeking opinions from different angles (e.g. workers that occupy different levels of a hierarchical ladder). As for bureaucracy and their influence on reforms, it is worth noting that this group cooperated closely with conservatives. They provided their knowledge and information to a specific committee when the bill was introduced into the parliament. The author also considers amakudari (天下り) practice as one of many ways taken by individual bureaucrats. It is a form of post-retirement employment of senior bureaucrats that moved to public or private corporations and non-governmental organizations falling under the jurisdiction of the ministries they left.

To summarise, The Post-war Roots of Japanese Political Malaise is a well-written analysis that concentrates on the post-war activities of the LDP and JSP elites. Both parties influenced contemporary Japanese politics but proposed various solutions to the most troublesome aspects (e.g. different approaches to the US–Japan Security Treaty). The author also used a lot of various resources written by different researchers that enriched the main topic of this books. It shows the reader how the political environment changed after the Allied occupation, economic miracle of the 60s, oil crisis in the 80s, and scandals that erupted from the 90s. Interestingly, the author also compares the situation to political parties in Europe and Japan, especially those representing socialist and social-democratic ideology. Taking everything into account, this book should be recommended for young scholars interested in Japanese history and politics that would use it to deepen their knowledge, analytic skills, and understanding of the Japanese political system.