Asia Program

Events

Undercurrents in Japanese Politics

November 12, 2001 // 11:00pm

By Amy McCreedy
Asia Program Associate

Ofer Feldman (Ofueru Hatani), Naruto University of Education, Japan
Ellis Krauss, UC San Diego
Patricia Maclachlan, University of Texas
Steven Reed, Chuo University, Japan
Aiji Tanaka, Waseda University, Japan
Ikuko Toyonaga, Kyushu University, Japan
Commentators: Tsuneo Watanabe, CSIS, Chris Nelson, The Nelson Report

Much discussion of Japanese politics centers on the personality of the charismatic prime minister or the inner workings of the Nagata-cho power game. On November 13, the Asia Program invited some of the finest scholars in the field to take a broader, more long-term view. Instead of analyzing Japanese government as a top-down phenomenon, these speakers looked at "leaders as followers," at how politicians are responding to gradual, ongoing changes within the Japanese electorate. The future of Japanese governance---whether "political will" will be sufficient to implement painful reforms, for example---can be understood only within the wider context of Japanese society. The increasing restiveness of voters (especially women), bolder involvement of the media, new political ideas, and shifting ideals of "leadership" all have a role to play in determining what Japan will become.

One example of how the electorate is changing (considered important by all the panelists) is a steady increase in the number of independent voters. This development was highlighted by Aiji Tanaka of Waseda University. The percentage of such voters began growing noticeably in the 1970s, reaching nearly 50 percent by 1995. How has this trend influenced governance? First, independent voters (as opposed to traditional Japanese voters) tend to support candidates who address issues, such as international affairs, recycling, and community planning, rather than political insiders who are good at maneuvering in Nagata-cho. Second, these voters turn out in great numbers for only two reasons: 1) to punish the incumbent party for mismanagement, or 2) to lend allegiance to a fresh candidate who proposes new policies. According to this perspective, Koizumi Junichiro's unexpected rise to popularity is not so surprising. In fact, said Tanaka, "Predictions by older politicians or LDP leaders are betrayed every time the new independent voters go out to vote." Tanaka suggested that Koizumi and the LDP, flying high at the moment, are due for a nasty fall if the independent voters do not see the change that they expect.

Another way the electorate is changing is a rise in consumer advocacy. According to Patricia MacLachlan of the University of Texas in Austin, the "consumer as citizen" is beginning to have an impact not only on policy but on governance more generally. Progress is still modest, but consumer-related groups have pressured the Diet for access to information and to the courts, and have scrutinized bureaucratic deliberations as never before. Experience in exercising these new rights will further strengthen the citizen (shimin) identities of Japanese people. MacLachlan explained that today's activists are quite different from their predecessors who (strange though it may seem to Western economists) were often allied with producers and retailers. The new consumer groups are interested in deregulation, low prices, product choice and increasing their leverage over the "paternalistic and arbitrary state."

Ikuko Toyonaga of Kyushu University also spoke of profound societal change, maintaining that a gulf has opened between elites and ordinary voters in Japanese politics. In describing this gulf, she focused on the female independent voter. According to Toyonaga, women are increasingly cynical: "disappointed by their bread-earning males . . . marginalized and exploited in the labor market, they are now watching the Japanese society and economy gradually disintegrate." Such voters are attracted by mavericks like Koizumi and Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko. Toyonaga compared Tanaka Makiko to Margaret Thatcher, who was despised by the intellectual elite but who managed to seize the populist banner from the Labour Party and succeed for more than 11 years as a "natural outsider to the men's club." Any would-be leader who ignores the growing gulf between elites and the masses does so at great peril, Toyonaga maintained.

A changing Japanese electorate wants a new type of media, as put forward by Ellis Krauss of the University of California of San Diego: "The Koizumi 'boom' is not so much a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon as the culmination of a trend that has been occurring under the surface of Japanese politics for 15 years"---that is, the increasing impact of television. Television coverage began to influence elections in the mid-1980s, when new shows like Kume Hiroshi's "News Station" came on the air. These shows portrayed politicians as individual competitors, and were peppered with cynical opinions and frank commentary. For many viewers, such fare offered a refreshing change from the scrupulously neutral coverage of Japan's staid public broadcaster, NHK, which even avoided showing candidates' faces, and which preferred to feature "impersonal bureaucrats working collectively on the public's behalf." According to Krauss, the shift in the media encouraged (and was reinforced by) electoral and administrative reform and the ensuing "presidentialization" of the prime minister.

Steven Reed of Chuo University touched on many of the above themes, but he focused more on structural change. Reed's controversial thesis was that Japan is shifting to a two-party system, in which the LDP (the "natural party of government") and the Democratic Party (the "alternative") will rotate in and out of power. Such a bipolar pattern is already visible at the district level, Reed maintained. The electoral reforms causing this shift are part of a decades-old "reform project," of which Koizumi is only the most recent representative. While the other panelists tended to discern, in one way or another, a "new type" of electorate, Reed emphasized continuity in this respect. Voters are voters, and voters want change. The Koizumi boom is nothing special: it is a "bounce of approximately the same magnitude as the New Liberal Club received in 1976, as Doi's Socialist Party received in 1989, and as the three new parties received in 1993." Thus, Reed did not see any crucial generation gap among voters. The frequently cited urban-rural cleavage is a myth, he declared.

Ofer Feldman, an expert in political psychology from the Naruto University of Education, emphasized Koizumi's individuality more than the rest of the panel. According to Feldman, the prime minister is no mere "flavor of the month," but a politician of extraordinary skill. Not that skill was enough to achieve the Koizumi "miracle"----timing was important as well. Based on data gathered during the past decade, Feldman maintained that the Japanese---including voters, the media and even Diet members themselves---changed their idea of what a leader should be. The country shifted from a traditional leadership image, involving peaceful conflict resolution and encouragement of minority views, to a "performance" model, emphasizing the overcoming of obstacles and achievement of goals. Thus, Feldman maintained, "As the level of disapproval of the administration and of politicians reached its peak by late 2000, there was probably only one politician---Junichiro Koizumi---who could combine traits such as integrity, decisiveness, and competence at this time in history."

The many issues mentioned above were addressed by two commentators. Tsuneo Watanabe of CSIS described his experiences as a member of a Japanese political campaign, and agreed that independent voters have influenced politicians since 1993 (before that, they were largely invisible). The consumer movement, however, even now has little influence on party platforms, he asserted. Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report discussed Washington-Tokyo relations. He commented on the irony of the United States' position: the U.S. government applauds an assertive Japanese leader but still wants to control Japan's actions. Might not the "presidentialization" of the prime minister lead eventually to an anti-U.S. Japanese administration? "Be careful what you wish for," Nelson warned.

In general, the panelists were guardedly optimistic about the future of Japanese politics. While Koizumi himself may not last---after all, he has accomplished little as yet---certain trends seem irreversible, such as electoral reform, increasingly open debate, and the demise of the faction system. Many in Japan vote blindly for "change" of any kind, but others are developing a healthy skepticism about paternalistic government and are educating themselves on issues that matter to them. When surveyed, Japanese people say they are losing faith in their democratic institutions. However, they also seem to be realizing that if the days of backroom deals, machine politics and bureaucratic supremacy are over, the public can have a bigger say in government than ever before.

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