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  • Japan Transformed: Political Change and Economic Restructuring
  • Alisa Gaunder (bio)
Japan Transformed: Political Change and Economic Restructuring. By Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Michael F. Thies. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010. xvi, 243 pages. $65.00, cloth; $27.95, paper; $28.95, E-book.

Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Michael F. Thies’s Japan Transformed: Political Change and Economic Restructuring provides a comprehensive [End Page 195] analysis of the ways that politics and economics have interacted in postwar Japan. The authors’ political economy approach sheds light on some of the most important questions of postwar Japanese politics: What explains the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from 1955 to 1993? What is the relationship between LDP dominance and Japan’s phenomenal economic growth in the postwar period? How did an economic superpower such as Japan find itself stuck in a prolonged recession in the 1990s? What were the causes and consequences of the 1994 electoral system reform? What is the relationship between political reform and economic policy? And finally, what legacies of the 1955 system remain and why? At the heart of their argument is the contention that the 1994 electoral reform marks a regime shift comparable in scope to the Meiji Restoration. According to the authors, electoral reform has not only affected party organization and the electoral politics of individual politicians, but it has also increased the importance of the median voter, something that has moved politicians to consider policies of greater interest to competitive sectors, urban taxpayers, and consumers, groups largely ignored by the old LDP political machine.

Japan Transformed brings together history, culture, politics, and economics to illuminate the major developments of postwar politics in a way that will appeal to Japan specialists as well as broader audiences. While the book is not divided into explicit sections, it essentially covers three topics: history and culture as backdrop for the authors’ analysis of postwar politics; the electoral rules that guided the politics and economics of the 1955 system; and the causes and consequences of the 1994 electoral reforms for politics, economics, and foreign policy. The book also contains an epilogue that considers the implications of the 2009 Lower House election that occurred shortly before the book’s publication.

The section on history and culture provides significant background information for more general audiences. (Indeed, the structure of the book as a whole lends itself to undergraduate course adoption as it follows a very logical structure for a Japanese politics class). One of the main objectives of this section is to use history to put cultural explanations of Japanese politics into perspective. The succinctly written overview of the major developments in Japanese history demonstrates how a variety of values and beliefs have emerged as dominant in varying time periods. These examples debunk the notion of an immutable cultural core, something that often plagues the study of East Asia more generally. As I read these chapters, I was pleasantly reminded of Steven Reed’s insightful and entertaining book, Making Common Sense of Japan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993). Like Reed, Rosenbluth and Thies nicely illustrate how the environment/rules/institutions often dictate behavior that then influences values. For example, the authors point out that the hunting and gathering nature of the Jōmon period lent itself to greater gender equality as women could support themselves [End Page 196] without the need of defending the land. The authors argue that the more hierarchical nature of gender relations emerged when society became organized by sedentary agriculture. This argument is quite similar to Reed’s notion that the situation, not the values, should be seen as the primary causal factor when explaining behavior. This point is important both for Rosenbluth and Thies’s later argument about electoral rules and also more generally for questioning the predominant tendency of general audiences to explain Japan as different due to stereotypical notions of the values and beliefs that constitute its supposedly enduring and unchanging culture.

The remaining sections of the book are organized to highlight the ways politics and economics interact as well as the impact that a significant rule change (electoral reform) can have on politics and economics. The symmetry in organization with the authors...


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pp. 195-199
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