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  • Updates on Japan & ItalyRock of Sisyphus or Road to Reform?
  • Frank McNeil (bio)

For Japanese reformers, the ancient Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" must seem very poignant just now. The good news for reform, and it is emphatically good news, lay in the January 1994 decision of the Diet (Japan's parliament) to change the archaic and unrepresentative system of electing members of the Lower House, the dominant body in the bicameral legislature. That system was at the heart of the corruption, institutional decay, and lack of political choice that crippled the performance of democratic political institutions, particularly in the years after 1980.

The first piece of bad news was that the scandal involving the Sagawa Kyubin express-shipping company brought down yet another politician. This time it was not just another old-timer from the ranks of the former mling party, the Liberal Democrats (LDP), but the prime minister and leader of the reform coalition, Morihiro Hosokawa. He resigned in April, throwing the Japanese political world into turmoil, because of a loan he took from the company in 1982. Former deputy premier Tsutomu Hata, the natural choice, replaced Hosokawa, but the crisis exposed raw nerves among the seven parties in the shaky majority that backed the Hosokawa government. The Socialists (SDPJ) and Sakigake (Harbinger Party) voted for Hata but refused to join his government, leaving him to head a minority cabinet at a time when the [End Page 101] future course of reform is uncertain and economic recession still weighs upon the land.

Even after being bolstered by a few new defectors from the LDP, Hata's government lives at the sufferance of its former coalition partners, particularly the Socialists. His cabinet could be toppled at any moment by a vote of no confidence. The new electoral system will not be in place until an independent commission, established in law and appointed by Hosokawa in his last major official act, maps out new electoral districts. This process will not be complete until July at the very earliest; dissolution before then would force elections under the old system—an outcome that is desired by some in the LDP and the SDPJ, but would be tantamount to a fraud upon the electorate.

These events raise a question: Have the forces pushing major political change in Japan spent themselves? To put it another way, is reform destined to be a "rock of Sisyphus" that the reformers find roils back upon them before their goal is reached? Or are recent troubles simply the natural rites of passage to a more responsive set of democratic institutions, the consequence of what everyone knew would be a rough road to a more participatory political culture? No sure answer to these questions has yet emerged.

Electoral Reform

In November 1993, Hosokawa and his top collaborators, including Hata, Ichiro Ozawa, and Masayoshi Takemura (the Sakigake leader), pushed through the Lower House comprehensive electoral reforms that included not only a change in the method of electing the Lower House but new campaign-financing controls as well. An ample majority was achieved by slightly altering the government bills to ensure that some members from the LDP could either cast votes of conscience in favor of electoral reform or else abstain. The government and almost all Japanese and Western commentators—myself included—expected a rough but certain passage through the Upper House, where the ruling coalition supposedly enjoyed a secure majority. As it turned out, however, the grand compromise on electoral reform that won over the Lower House met a nearly disastrous defeat in the Upper House.

The old "midsized" Lower House electoral system was a legacy from the 1920s that the U.S. occupation authorities had accepted at the urging of Japanese elites. Electoral districts were represented by three to six members, but each voter could cast a ballot for one and only one candidate. By 1955, when two conservative parties joined to form the LDP, neither the ruling conservatives nor the Socialist-led opposition liked the system.

In the beginning, the LDP wanted single-member districts resembling British parliamentary constituencies so that it could amend the [End Page 102] Constitution (the midsized-district system virtually...


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