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  • The Axis Powers 50 Years LaterJapan's New Politics
  • Frank McNeil (bio)

It is a good time to be writing about democratic institutions in Japan. The most recent version of Western conventional wisdom about that country, which held that democracy there was just a facade, has taken a battering. In a summer of popular discontent, sparked by cascading scandals, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cabinet lost a June 1993 parliamentary no-confidence vote over its unwillingness to reform archaic political institutions, forcing elections for the 511-member House of Representatives, the predominant lower house of Japan's bicameral Diet. In July elections, a supposedly docile citizenry took out its anger at corruption, gridlock, and recession on the LDP, Japan's ruling party since 1955, and stripped it of its majority.

In August 1993, a new kind of politician with a reform agenda, Morihiro Hosokawa, became prime minister at the head of a governing coalition of seven former opposition parties. Four of the parties were new, including Hosokawa's party and two formed by the reform-minded defectors from the LDP who had precipitated the no-confidence vote. The remaining three were parties from a traditional opposition that had seemingly lost all notion of holding power. In forming a government, Hosokawa confounded the numerous Japanese and Western experts who had predicted that an "eternal opposition" would never manage to unify its disparate parts into a governing coalition, and that the LDP would garner enough opposition votes to stay in power.

By November, the new government had submerged internal differences [End Page 5] and rallied its narrow majority behind the unifying theme that got it elected: major political reform, particularly of the archaic and unrepresentative electoral system for the Lower House. The LDP, now in opposition and under more modem leadership, had come to support electoral reforms that were close to the government bills. Although efforts at formal compromise failed, Hosokawa altered his proposals sufficiently to ensure that 20 LDP members either cast votes of conscience in favor of the government bills or abstained, enabling passage of the electoral reforms in the Lower House by an ample majority of 270 to 226 votes.

The reintroduction of competition into national politics after so long a time means that nothing will ever be quite the same. Already generational change has taken place in the government as well as in the LDP leadership. Passage of the electoral bills in the Diet's upper chamber, the 252-member House of Councillors, seems likely at the time of this writing, but there are more tests ahead for reform, including an election under the new system, in which there is likely to be more shakeout among the parties. Even if fresh revelations about past scandals taint a few old faces in the new coalition, further reform is likely, particularly since Hosokawa's popularity has reached unprecedented levels for a prime minister (79 percent in an October Tokyo Shimbun poll).

Nothing is certain, of course. The new worst-case scenario for Japan, a series of shaky majorities and frequent elections à la the French Third Republic, is at the other end of the spectrum from the previous favorite, political entropy. My own view, however, is that the changes in Japan's politics march to tectonic movements in society, where subterranean stirrings have for several years disturbed the glacial pace of surface change. If so, electoral reform will not only alter the practice of politics in Japan but open the door to further reforms aimed at making government at once less pervasive and more responsive to the citizenry.

No matter who wins the next election, the victors will likely have a mandate to pursue other major items on the reform agenda, such as decentralization, deregulation, and the subordination of Japan's bureaucracy to elected leadership. Indeed, since nothing succeeds like success, Hosokawa may have earned enough of a mandate to make progress on some of these issues prior to the next election. The reform agenda, it should be understood, responds directly to the quality-of-life issues that have assumed more and more salience for the average Japanese. It also has favorable implications for Japan's engagement with the...


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