JPRI Working Paper No. 29: January 1997
Japan's Amoeba Politics
by Sam Jameson

In the early 1970s Sociologist Chie Nakane came to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan for a luncheon speech when I was president of the club. I introduced her and served as master of ceremonies. It was not long after she had given an interview to Bernard Krisher of Newsweek in which she made what even today stands as one of the most controversial declarations ever uttered about Japan: "Japanese have no principles," she said.

Nakane suffered a great deal of criticism from her fellow citizens for that remark, and she spent a good portion of her presentation trying to explain what she had really meant by her statement. Finally, she wound up saying that Japanese are like amoeba, an animal with no back-bone. Touch it, and it changes shape, she said. But its core does not change. After she finished her presentation, I stood up and-before taking questions-commented to the audience: "I can see the headlines now: Tokyo University Professor Calls Japanese Spineless."

Putting humor aside, Nakane's amoeba statement marked a defining moment of truth, and the results of the Oct. 20, 1996, election for Japan's powerful lower house of Parliament brought it to mind. Changes of a near revolutionary scale and crises cutting to the core of Japan's economy abounded on the surface since the last general election in 1993.

By 1995, an economic machine that once produced incessant growth had sputtered to its fourth year of virtually no growth in the biggest, longest and broadest period of stagnation in Japan's post-World War II history. Economists predict a recovery to 3% growth this year, but they expect another setback in 1997. A financial system that is the world's principal supplier of capital continues to shake under the weight of untold bad loans. Trade surpluses that used to expand inexorably have been contracting. Budget deficits outstripping even those of the United States have emerged. Real estate has plunged to as low as one-fifth of its former value, and is still falling. Stocks remain barely above 50% of their peak. Fears are rising that industry is hollowing out as manufacturers build plants overseas. And with the rapid aging of society, many say Japan has lost its vitality, or stands in danger of losing it.

Politics also turned on its head. For nearly two years after the 1993 election, total uncertainty replaced nearly total predictability: a Socialist, Tomiichi Murayama, was elected prime minister. "It was as if an East German had been named chancellor of Germany," said an astonished former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa when Murayama was elected in June 1994. Hosokawa's own election as prime minister in August 1993, after only 15 months as the head of a new political party, was only slightly less astonishing. The choice of Murayama as prime minister and his decision to abandon more than four decades of Socialist advocacy of unarmed neutrality and opposition to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty seemed to prove that even the wildest of presumably inconceivable events was possible.

A country that couldn't oust its single ruling party for 38 years saw three changes of government, five prime ministers, and the sharing of power by 11 political parties all since the 1993 election. Formerly arch rivals, the Liberal Democrats and the Socialists- the two parties that suffered the worst setbacks in 1993-wound up running the government.

New Electoral System

Under Hosokawa, the biggest reform of Japan's electoral system in 70 years was enacted. It replaced multi-seat constituencies in which four or five representatives were elected, some with as few as 20% of the votes, with 300 single-seat districts. A separate proportional representation ballot picks another 200 party representatives. Yet, the Oct. 20, 1996, election that put those innovations into effect produced hardly any change.

Voters and their proclivities for pork barrel politics remained unchanged. They continued to think of politicians as lobbyists to whom businessmen and interest groups must turn to win favors from the bureaucracy. Policy debates that had been expected failed to materialize. Personality contests remained as strong as ever. Organizing and mobilizing votes turned out to be the key to success, as always. And rather than opening a path toward a two-party system, in which regular changes in government would be possible, voters once again "bought the stocks" of the so-called "seiken tanto kabushiki kaisha" (the company incorporated to run the government)-namely, the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP fell 12 seats short of a majority but its dominance was reestablished even with just 48% of the 500 seats. In the voting, hardly any change occurred. The 239 seats the LDP won this time actually amounted to only 11 more than the party held after the 1993 election.

In 1993, it was not the voters who deprived the LDP of a majority. Rather, it was Ichiro Ozawa and Masayoshi Takemura who staged a rebellion and led 50 Liberal Democrats out of the party. To the rebels, the issue was reforming Japan's electoral system, and when Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa balked, they walked out.

To the voters, however, the rebellion meant very little. In the July 1993 election, which occurred only a month after the revolt, voters re-elected all of the remaining LDP incumbents as well as the rebels who bolted the party-thus underscoring the unchanging affinity for personalities, not policies.

This time, Naoto Kan (the now-famous Health Minister who uncovered the HIV-tainted blood scandal) and Yukio Hatoyama staged another rebellion and led 52 incumbents out of two established parties to form a new Democratic Party as an alternative to the two business-oriented conservative parties led by Ozawa and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

Once again, personalities, not policies, prevailed. Voters sent back into office the party's 52 incumbents, and no more. The party's talk about seeking yuai (brotherly love) and its pledge to give priority to the people's daily lives instead of to the interests of big business led one critic to dismiss it as nothing more than "soft cream" that would soon melt away.

Even the biggest change was not as big as it appeared. The old Socialist Party lost a whopping 62 seats compared with its showing in the 1993 election, but it was internecine warfare among politicians, not the voters, who caused most of that loss. Nonetheless, it was a historical turning point for the minority in Japan. The party that had dominated the opposition throughout most of the postwar period with as many as 167 seats-or one-third of the total-at its peak was reduced to holding only 15.

Individual candidates ignored issues in their own campaigning. But the election did offer voters a real choice in policy. Although all the parties advocated reforming the state bureaucracy and easing government regulations, the New Frontier Party proposed to cut taxes to stimulate consumer spending and expand the economy-a clear alternative to the LDP's "business as usual" economic platform.

The Irrelevance of Policy

Unlike the old days when voters had to choose between socialism and unarmed neutralism, on one side, and a free economy with the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, on the other, the 1996 policy choice was one that could be made without overturning the foundations of the country. Despite this, voters repeated their standard refrain that "no matter who is elected, nothing ever changes," and paid no attention to the policy choices. Forty per cent of the voters-a record-didn't vote at all.

Ozawa complained that Japan is a country "in which you make your opinions known only at the risk of suffering severe criticism." His Frontier Party had other problems. Among them were inner-party feuds, a lack of credibility and voter aversion to its alliance with the controversial Buddhist laymen's group, the Soka Gakkai (Value Creating Society). But Japan, indeed, does remain a society in which the "nail that protrudes gets hammered down."

One politician's secretary commented that "Japanese, by their very nature, don't like to debate anything-especially not policy." Developing policy debates between parties that agree on the fundamentals of national interests is essential, however, if voters are to start participating in the political process. Even after a half century of free elections in which both men and women have voted, many average Japanese say they feel no responsibility for the governments that run Japan. Without policy debates, Japanese politics is doomed to remain little more than a semblance of Tammany Hall politics.

Indeed, the new election system increased the importance of organizational strength based upon personal connections. Koenkai, or supporters associations-in effect, "political machines" that cater to individual voters and their needs and pay no attention to policies-solidified votes against a splintered opposition and gave the LDP a majority of the seats in Tokyo for the first time in decades. The mini-machines also continued to sustain politics as a family business. One hundred and twenty-two members of the new lower house are "hereditary representatives," or politicians who followed their fathers or other relatives into Parliament. Among them were the daughter of one former prime minister (Makiko Tanaka), the grandson of another (Takeo Miki's grandson), and the son and grandson of a strongman of the 1950s and 1960s (Ichiro Kono's descendants). Yukio and Kunio Hatoyama, brothers who helped launch the new Democratic Party, are themselves fourth generation politicians.

By contrast, a lack of political candidates who had their own koenkai forced the Frontier Party to give up without a fight in more than a fifth of the single-seat districts. Park Cheol Hee, a disciple of Columbia University Professor Gerald Curtis, described koenkai by calling them the Jibunto, instead of the Jiminto-"My Own Party" instead of "the Liberal Democratic Party." Just how important the koenkai were was shown by the fact that in races involving individual politicians, LDP candidates won 56% of the seats. But in balloting for political parties, the LDP got only 35% of the proportional representation seats.

Apart from cultural inhibitions, the biggest obstacle to conducting politics on the basis of policy choices is the philosophical divisions that prevent unity within both the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Frontier Party. Both conservative parties have in their ranks influential old politicians who profess to believe that Japan went to war first against China and then against the Allied Powers not as acts of aggression but rather to liberate Asia from Caucasian colonialists. Since becoming prime minister, Hashimoto has down-played his own hard-line historical views. But before taking office, he declared that Japan had gone to war against the colonial powers in Asia-the United States, the Netherlands, France, and England-and hence owed these nations no apology. Other conservatives in both the Liberal Democrat and the Frontier Parties, however, are deeply contrite about the war and recognize it as aggression.

Doves and hawks, big government advocates and small government advocates, also sit side by side in both parties. Consensus on specifics can't be reached, and therefore the parties resort to slogans and generalities. In addition, since 1993 so many politicians have switched parties that some critics are now saying "to a Japanese politician, policy is like a subway station. You only stand on the platform until the train comes in."

The post-1993 political turmoil, however, has brought about one fundamental change. No longer is there any notable force advocating abrogation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty or removal of the American bases. Today, the most radical views against the treaty and the bases come from such leaders as Yukio Hatoyama, who during the campaign advocated renegotiating the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to downgrade its military aspects and abolishing all U.S. bases in Japan by 2010. Former Prime Minister Hosokawa, for his part, has advocated removing the U.S. Marines from Okinawa.

No Political Opposition

Although most of Japan's political analysts insist that another one or two elections will lead to a full re-alignment of politicians into new political parties, the Oct. 20 election, for me, dashed all hopes of a two-party system. Once again, there is no opposition party capable of taking over the government. Japan's "political amoeba" appeared headed back to a "1970s system," when there were one-and-a-half parties plus a smattering of also-rans. In the 1970s, the LDP was the "one" party and the Socialists were the "half party."

Today, Ozawa's New Frontier Party is shaping up as the new "half party." From August, 1993 when the anti-LDP cabinet of Prime Minister Hosokawa was installed until the Socialists bolted from the nine-party coalition in May, 1994, Ozawa's forces continued to grow with a steady flow of defectors from the Liberal Democratic Party. But since then, it's been all down hill. The ranks of Ozawa's New Frontier Party, which had 180 seats in the lower house when it was inaugurated in December, 1994, have been depleted by defectors. In the latest walkout, which occurred after the election, three more representatives left. The party now holds only 153 seats (including the vice speaker) . That's not even within shooting distance of a majority. Worse yet, its tie-up with the Soka Gakkai -an organization that is looked on with suspicion by the majority of Japanese who do not belong to it- limits the Frontier Party's potential growth.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have reestablished their old networks and, according to political analyst Minoru Morita, the "Iron Triangle" of politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats "is back in business." The LDP, however, is not yet home free. Not only does the party lack a majority in the lower house, which elects the prime minister. It also lacks control of the upper house, which must approve all bills except the budget and treaties.

In the next upper house election in 1998, the Liberal Democrats would have to win nearly two-thirds of the seats at stake to regain a majority-a mathematical impossibility. So if it is to be the voters who restore the LDP to full power, it will take until at least 2001, or the second upper house election from now.

Politicians, however, may turn that trick long before then. A split or a total collapse of the Frontier Party could restore 'overnight' a unilateral majority for the LDP in both houses as the former Liberal Democrats and other conservatives in its ranks flock back to the perennial ruling party. Some LDP leaders, like Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, already are dropping hints they would like to form a coalition with the Frontier Party. If that happened, a monster force of conservatives would emerge. The two parties together hold 80% of the seats in the lower house. Even in their heyday of the 1950s, the old Liberal Democrats never controlled that many seats.

Already, the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the dying gasps of the Japan Socialist Party and its Marxist ideology has created a new political milieu: everybody has seemingly joined the ruling party-at least in spirit. The Communists are the only exception.

Labor unions have so drastically abandoned their old class-struggle consciousness that Hashimoto became the first incumbent Liberal Democrat prime minister ever to attend a May Day rally this year-truly a mind-boggling event. May Day used to be the major Communist festival of the year in Japan. The labor federation Rengo nominally supported the Democratic Party in the Oct. 20 election but many of its members actually voted for LDP candidates. Nikkyoso, or the Japan Teachers Union, has abandoned its half a century of opposition to the Kimigayo national anthem, which glorifies the emperor, and the Rising Sun flag of Japan, which leftists associate with wartime militarism. Indeed, the one-time leftists of Japan have moved so far to the right that a Socialist has come and gone as prime minister without really changing anything.

Mission Impossible

If, indeed, Japan winds up with a single mammoth "company incorporated to run the government," however, the likelihood is that it would be a faction-infested party with internecine quarrels replacing what, in other countries, would be battles between different political parties. Japanese as a people may act in groups, but strong centrifugal tendencies run through these groups. In almost any field of endeavor, if you get three Japanese together, you will soon have two factions.

The big question right now is whether Hashimoto's loose coalition with the Socialist Democratic Party and the remnants of the New Party Harbinger can-or want to-carry out the multitude of promises for reform that formed the core of the campaign. Japan is a country where nothing ever happens without a lot of talk. But a lot of talk doesn't necessarily mean that something is going to happen. The same doubts that exist about Hashimoto carrying out more than a kabuki performance of reform would probably have arisen if Ozawa's party had won.

For all his faults, Ozawa stands out as the only leader in Japan who clearly wants change. In seeking to create a new power center around which a two-party system could evolve, Ozawa has taken the low, hard road, not the high, easy road. His main trouble is that he is too extreme in his zeal for reform-even for his own party. Once, after expounding on how Japanese people must start assuming responsibility for their own decisions and stop seeking protection from the government, Ozawa was asked by a reporter if he thought the Japanese people really wanted to become that self-reliant. "Of course not! That's why I'm bringing up the issue," he retorted. Frequently, Ozawa refers to the "need to change the consciousness of the people"-which in any society is "Mission Impossible."

In a country where most decisions are made by adding the positions of the opposing parties and dividing by two, Ozawa's significance lies in the fact that the extremes he demands make the number to be divided in half much larger than it would be without him. But the likelihood of Ozawa changing Japan to his own liking is remote. The jury is still out on Hashimoto. In a news conference after he formed his cabinet, he declared that "failing to enact reforms would extract a much higher price than the loss of my political career. It could never be excused with a single politician's resignation."

Seldom has public opinion been so ripe for an overhaul of the bureaucracy. Endless exposes of bureaucratic corruption and blunders have filled the mass media: bureaucrats entertaining bureaucrats on taxpayers' money; the Welfare Ministry's cover-up of HIV-infected blood supplied to hemophiliacs; Welfare Ministry officials taking bribes for giving subsidies and permits to builders of nursing homes for the aged; the mess that the Finance Ministry failed to prevent in the banking system; the Agricultural Ministry's pampering of financial cooperatives now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy; and even the police, their mishandling of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and an apparent cover-up of a confession by a policeman who said he shot the chief of the National Police Agency in March 1995.

But despite debates over administrative reform that have been going on since the beginning of the Nakasone Administration in 1982, Hashimoto has now agreed with the Social Democrats and the New Party Harbinger remnants that he will submit administrative reform bills sometime in 1998 and carry them out by 2003. This sounds like a cruel joke. More recently, he promised to try to speed up that schedule to implement reforms by 2001.

A much-heralded reform of the Bank of Japan to make it independent-which was the only concrete reform Hashimoto was pushing before the election-is already being sabotaged. An advisory panel to the prime minister proposed on Nov. 12 to retain the Finance Minister's authority to supervise the central bank. Two new vice ministers of finance also spoke out against a pre-election coalition agreement to strip the Finance Ministry of its supervisory powers and its power to compile the budget.

Meanwhile, the issues proliferate. They include calls for renovating the pension and welfare system; overhauling the entire tax system; streamlining government administration; dispersing the powers of the central government; easing government regulations; enacting freedom-of-information laws and establishing transparency in decision-making; getting the nation's banks, burdened with possibly as much as $800 billion in bad loans, back on their feet; and resuscitating government finances from a deficit equal to 5% of the GDP, which is bigger than the United States ran up under Ronald Reagan.

Support appears relatively solid for continuing a successful, albeit painfully slow, process of removing at least another layer or two of the government's multitude of regulations. Hashimoto may yet turn into a leader. So far, however, he has acted not as a leader but rather as a political "manager," the kind of prime minister Japanese seem to like the best. He has yet to produce any "vision" for Japan. While skillfully managing relations with the United States, Japan's only ally, and defusing an explosion of anti-U.S. military base sentiment on Okinawa, Hashimoto hasn't made a definitive decision on any issue.

If critics are correct in warning that dramatic reform is needed to avoid not only losing vitality but even the ability to maintain living standards at the current levels, some kind of new shock may be needed to spur Japan into action. Political analyst Morita predicts that precisely such a shock will come to Japan in two to three years in the form of "a fiscal collapse." But without real and present economic suffering, the incentives for reform remain weak.

In arguing for reform, the Economic Planning Agency has declared that with it Japan could add 1.25% extra growth to a 1.75% expansion of the economy that would occur anyway. That's like the government telling businessmen that "you've got 1.75% growth now-but if you give up the protection we've been giving you and undergo restructuring, endure new competition, and cope with resulting social disruption, we'll guarantee you an extra 1.25%." Even worse, some economists suggest that the incremental gain would be far smaller.

In spite of all the troubles cited by businessmen, economists and scholars, the average Japanese is not yet suffering. Even Ozawa, during the campaign, admitted in an interview that his pleas for dramatic tax cuts to get consumption moving again were falling on deaf ears because the people have not yet been hurt. Most people don't have a sense of crisis. They aren't worried about their livelihoods. At least for the moment, that fact of life represents the Liberal Democratic Party's greatest accomplishment, even if it was achieved not through parliamentary democracy but only by permitting the bureaucrats to run the country.

SAM JAMESON is a Visiting Scholar in the Institute for Policy Science at Saitama University. He has worked in Japan for 36 years for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Stars and Stripes. He was bureau chief for both the Times and the Tribune and is currently a contributing correspondent to the Asia Times. An M.S. graduate of Northwestern University Journalism School, he studied Japanese at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. This paper was presented at the JPRI conference on "Stresses in Japanese Society," held at the Faculty Center of UCLA on December 5, 1996.


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