- Purchase/rental options available:
Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 166-169
[Access article in PDF]
Japan's Political Transition
Steven K. Vogel
The Logic of Japanese Politics. By Gerald Curtis. Columbia University Press, 1999. 303 pp.
The field of Japanese politics has evolved in tandem with its subject matter--from sleepy stability prior to 1993 to disorder ever since. Prior to 1993, scholars simply debated how best to characterize a political system dominated for decades by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Now they suddenly confront a completely new set of questions. Why did the LDP abruptly lose power in 1993? How will the 1994 electoral reform reshape politics? And why can't the Japanese government reform the economy?
Scholars have been slow to take up these new challenges. Many are simply wary of taking a position when the political system remains in flux. One would be foolish to study a new political party, for example, when the fieldwork might very well outlast the party. Others are still waiting for clear new patterns to emerge. In the United States, younger scholars have been doing much of the trench work on recent developments, producing two very different kinds of studies. Those more enamored of electoral studies have focused on the 1994 electoral reform, generating predictions about how it will affect Japanese politics and reviewing the limited evidence on trends to date. Those more interested in policy have produced case studies showing how changing party dynamics affect policy outcomes.
Enter Gerald Curtis, professor of political science at Columbia University and a senior statesman in the field. Curtis does not shun the complexity and uncertainty of post-1993 Japanese politics; he revels in [End Page 166] it. He has produced a remarkable book that presents the political history of the 1990s in its full complexity, stressing the contingency of the chain of events. His study is based on extensive personal interviews with many of the principal actors in the drama, including a long list of prime ministers, as well as on primary documents and news reports. Curtis reviews developments in the 1990s in roughly chronological order, but he organizes each chapter around one or two key empirical questions. He scatters discussion of theoretical issues throughout the text, but uses theory to illuminate his subject matter rather than to generate or to test causal hypotheses. He prefers to explore the interaction between individual choice and institutional constraint rather than to make strong causal claims. He offers fresh insight into many of the lesser-known institutions critical to Japanese politics, from parliamentary strategy committees (kokutai) to parliamentary caucuses (kaiha). All this makes his book indispensable to the serious student of Japanese politics, but is likely to disappoint generalists looking for sweeping new theoretical insights.
Curtis is decidedly unapologetic in his empiricism. In fact, he uses his extensive narrative to assault the theoretical overstretch he sees in the field of Japanese politics and in political science more broadly. He makes this case most convincingly when addressing our first question: Why did the LDP, which had dominated Japanese politics for 38 years, suddenly lose power in 1993? We know that the immediate cause was the defection of Ichiro Ozawa and his followers from the party prior to the July 1993 lower house elections. Yet this only begets further questions. Why did Ozawa defect? And why did so many follow? Curtis rejects the contention that those who defected from the LDP in 1993 did so simply to enhance their electoral prospects, countering that most of the defectors were in no danger of losing their seats if they stayed in the party. He then goes on to provide an extended narrative that drives home the futility of trying to find a simple causal explanation for this single extraordinary event. He shows, for example, that one cannot understand it without examining the personal characteristics of Ozawa and the particular miscalculations of LDP leaders. He even suggests that the defection might never have happened at all if a last-minute deal to extend the parliamentary session had been properly reported to the opposition parties. Although he stops short of concluding...