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Reviewed by:
  • Changing Politics in Japan
  • Koji Murata (bio)
Changing Politics in Japan. By Ikuo Kabashima and Gill Steel. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2010. xiv, 186 pages. $57.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.

Japanese politics has been in transition since the end of the twentieth century, a transition that may be further facilitated by the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Changing Politics in Japan by Ikuo Kabashima and Gill Steel tries to explain the transition with various viewpoints and provides a well-balanced perspective. The study is concise and well documented with many statistics and other sources. The authors “set out to demolish further the once prevalent myth that Japanese politics are a stagnant set of entrenched systems and interests that are fundamentally undemocratic” (p. 1). They pay special attention to changes in representation and accountability. Kabashima is an authority on studies of Japanese electoral politics, and Steel specializes in political and social psychology, including voting behavior. Thus, the authors shed light on systemic and sociopsychological changes in Japanese politics. Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō is an icon of these changes.

Let me briefly review the content of this study. Postwar Japanese politics is often divided into four periods: 1945 to 1955, 1955 to 1993, 1993 to 2007, and 2007 to the present. In the second period, the longest so far, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was a dominant force in Japanese politics. In the LDP system, or the 1955 system, the authors note, “[m]achine politics fueled the system, and the party used all its incumbent muscle to channel public projects and financial assistance to rural areas. In turn, rural voters overwhelmingly supported the LDP, making it extremely difficult for other parties to challenge them in these constituencies” (p. 3).

The LDP politicians enjoyed personal ties with their constituencies. Thus, rural voters and vested interest groups were overrepresented in Japanese politics. Also, an unusual system of multimember electoral districts made it possible for the LDP to maintain a majority in the House of Representatives for almost the entire period, with only a few breaks. Furthermore, the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), the largest opposition party, was so ideological that voters did not see it as an alternative to the LDP as the governing party.

After the end of the bubble economy, however, due to the shortage of government funding, pork-barrel politics no longer worked. The Political Party Subsidy Law of 1994 strengthened regulations governing corporate donations to political parties, and the electoral reform of 1994 created a [End Page 469] “side-by-side” electoral system in which voters cast one single nontransferable vote in their single-member district for a candidate. In addition, politics became more dramatized by the media, in soft news in particular. As a consequence, politicians had to become more adept at dealing with the media in order to survive. The authors say that “politicians are now expected to be in touch with average voters, and their actions can be more easily scrutinized—although the media are not always reliable watchdogs” (p. 151).

The populist Koizumi represented these changes. He wanted to destroy the old LDP, which was based on pork-barrel politics. He was a genius of media politics, and as a party leader with a strong personality and a simple policy agenda, he could mobilize many independent voters in the new electoral system. Thus, Koizumi could play the role of a reformer. Leadership enjoyed new priority in Japanese politics. But Koizumi’s successors could not dramatize politics as he had done, and they failed to play the role of reformer. Rather, in a move widely known as the U-turn in politics, they relied on the old party system. Furthermore, the LDP destroyed its own reputation by the successive resignations of prime ministers, repeated scandals, and the failure of its economic policies.

By 2007, many voters were more willing to try the less ideological opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), as an alternative to the LDP. Japan’s political system became more and more pluralistic, one in which power was less concentrated and different parties had the possibility of participating in government. In 2007, the DPJ...


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pp. 469-472
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