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  • The Rise and Fall of Japan's LDP: Political Party Organizations as Historical Institutions.
  • J. A. A. Stockwin (bio)
The Rise and Fall of Japan’s LDP: Political Party Organizations as Historical Institutions. By Ellis S. Krauss and Robert J. Pekkanen. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2011. xvii, 318 pages. $65.00, cloth; $26.95, paper.

The authors of this magisterial work on Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) designate it as “arguably the most successful political party operating in a democracy in the post–World War II era” (pp. 260–61). It therefore seems odd that here is the first serious book in English on the LDP since [End Page 199] Nathaniel Thayer’s How the Conservatives Rule Japan (Princeton University Press, 1969) and Haruhiro Fukui’s Party in Power (University of California Press, 1970). Such neglect is extraordinary, given the role the LDP has played since its foundation in 1955.

Ellis Krauss and Robert Pekkanen concentrate on what they portray as a serious prediction failure about the effects of 1994 reform of the lower house electoral system. Political scientists of a rational choice persuasion argued forcefully that changing the electoral system from one based on multimember districts (with a single nontransferable vote) to the current system of single-member districts with a proportional representation element would rapidly and profoundly alter the structure of the LDP. Although some structural evolution occurred over several years, the changes were far less than predicted.

Apart from nine months in 1993–94, the LDP was in power, latterly in coalition, from 1955 until its comprehensive defeat in August 2009. This reversed a stunning victory in elections held in September 2005. Thus why, after years of stable LDP majorities, did the champagne of victory so soon turn into the vinegar of defeat?

The authors base their work on historical institutionalism. They concede that the 1994 electoral reform had some impact on the LDP but argue convincingly that reliance on that factor alone produces false conclusions. They emphasize the need for process tracing, to unearth the sequencing of historical developments, since timing is important. They criticize an ahistorical focus on current incentives and warn against falling into “actor-centred functionalism” as well as retrospective determinism. They are also suspicious of the much-vaunted ideal of parsimonious explication, which may give elegant solutions but at the expense of empirical detail and historical understanding.

The authors’ historical institutionalism focuses on three explanatory variables: institutional complementarity, sequencing, and path dependence. The first (following Paul Pierson) means that interacting institutions may reinforce each other and increase the survivability of each. The second concerns the order in which things happen: for instance, whether electoral reform precedes or is preceded by the widespread political use of TV and the Internet. The third, path dependence, shows that the longer things have been done in a certain way, the harder it will be to change (there might be better alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard, but nobody wants to have to relearn how to type).

By comparison with other major parties in democracies around the world, the LDP has been unusually decentralized. Krauss and Pekkanen spend a great part of their book examining why. They analyze in turn four LDP institutions: the personal support machines of individual parliamentarians [End Page 200] (kōenkai), intraparty factions (habatsu), the Policy Affairs Research Council, and party leadership.

The phenomenon of kōenkai was widely explained by reference to the pre-1994 lower house electoral system, based on multimember districts with voters casting a single nontransferable vote (SNTV in MMD), so that with the replacement of that system rational choice suggested that kōenkai would quickly disappear. This prediction proved wrong, since nearly all LDP candidates continued to set up (or inherit) kōenkai. The authors show that while kōenkai use is now slightly less crucial than before, this stems from the greater use of TV and the Internet, despite draconian restrictions on what would be considered in other countries as normal forms of electoral campaigning. The importance of kōenkai is underlined by the fact that the number of parliamentarians who have “inherited” their seats, less than one in seven in 1958, had risen to...


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pp. 199-204
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