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New Hope for Japan: Why I Think It Could Finally Start Acting Like a Real Democracy

John B. Judis has brought in a very interesting piece on the Japanese elections by Karel van Wolferen. Here is John’s description of van Wolferen: He is the author of The Enigma of Japanese Power, considered a classic on the exercise of power in Japan, and its history. Van Wolferen was the first author to point out that Japan lacked a center of political accountability, and that many of its problems must be seen in that light. He was initially reviled when the book appeared in 1989, but his analysis is now widely accepted in Japan. This analysis, elaborated in a series of books published in Japanese, has been important to the Democratic Party’s platform. Van Wolferen divides his time between Tokyo and Amsterdam, where he is Emeritus University Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam. A longer version of this article, replete with historical references, will appear at Van Wolferen’s blog.

The significance of yesterday's Japanese election results goes beyond a relatively new and untried political party ending half a century of rule by a competing party; if the new leaders turn out to be true leaders and are allowed to carry out their declared intentions, they could fundamentally change the Japanese power system.

Japan's power system has in modern times always been averse to genuine political leadership. It has been relatively good at administrative governance, with career officials maintaining policy stability and initiating adjustments to stick to a course that others set either by accident or by imagined national expediency. This means that although elected officials--from the politicians in Japan's parliament to the Prime Minister--have reassured their own citizens and the outside world that Japan is a democracy, they have played a mostly marginal role in running Japan, serving at best as powerbrokers.

Yet Hatoyama Yukio and his fellow leaders of the Minshuto (The Democratic Party of Japan) have set themselves the daunting task of correcting the severe imbalance in the relationship between Japan's elected politicians and career bureaucrats.  One must be wary of using the label "revolutionary" but if they succeed in doing this, they would revolutionize Japan's controlling political institutions.

What they want is nothing out of the ordinary for most other countries:

  • They want to have cabinet meetings with well-informed ministers who may deliberate on policy and bring up new business, rather than putting their hanko (Japanese stamps that substitute for signatures) on documents prepared the previous day at the regular meetings of the administrative vice ministers.
  • They want to introduce a national budget that reflects final decisions by the premier and his council of ministers, which may entail overruling the priorities of the Budget Bureau of the Ministry of Finance.
  • They want to eliminate the enormous waste and misappropriations of the nicknamed "second budget," which in some years is almost as large as the national budget, but which is administered by the Trust Fund Bureau of the Ministry of Finance and is allocated at the discretion of the bureaucrats.

Having gained political leverage that would be considered normal for democracies, they want to rethink Japan’s national purpose, which has long been taken for granted, of promoting at all costs Japanese industrial production capacity regardless of profits or social welfare. That dates from the late 1950s and, while there have been many adjustments and new secondary priorities, bureaucratic routine and bureaucratic self-preservation has, essentially, kept Japan on that course for half a century.

This will also be the first time that Japan will be governed by a party that represents the urban middle class.  Japan’s LDP had catered mostly to the special interests of farmers, business leaders, and small shopkeepers. Earlier attempts to create sarariman (salaryman) parties have failed. Politically aware Japanese, especially in the cities, have long known that something is fundamentally wrong with the manner in which their country was governed. Until 1993, this was seen as regrettable but inevitable, as if it were a fact of nature. Then a political upheaval took place which brought to the fore a number of articulate reformist politicians, and energized the political community with a plethora of exposés in mainstream media about how Japanese bureaucratic power is exercised. Ever since then, the notion has lingered in the back of the public's mind that fundamental reform is not only desirable, but also possible. Still, after being overused in political speeches, this idea has lost its original force.

The early reformist politicians who tried their hands at actually governing discovered that they didn't know where to begin, and that they had to fall back entirely on the knowledge of the bureaucrats they were supposed to lead. Originally ensconced in splinter parties, they found each other and formed the Minshuto, which only in the past two or three years began to take on the shape of a credible and electable opposition party. The Socialist Party, which had claimed to play that role, had betrayed the Japanese electorate for four decades by never seriously trying to take over from the LDP.

Will Japan's new government be able to do what the reformists could not possibly accomplish in 1993? Skeptics point at the divisions within the Minshuto. And it is true that within a very short time a large number of politicians had to be found to fill the ranks of this increasingly successful opposition party. They do not share the experience and the original idealism of the central party figures. Many of them will be asked by the party to begin monitoring the conduct of the bureaucrats--a practice for which there are no precedents in Japanese politics, and for which they are obviously not properly prepared.

But my impression is that the individuals in the inner-core of the party are deadly serious about what must be done to turn their country into what one of them, the most senior and most experienced Ozawa Ichiro, has in his writing called a "normal country.”

I also think that they work well together, as they have taken turns at the presidency of the party. Ozawa is credited with having been the main strategist behind the recent election campaign, and he is likely to be Hatoyama's main advisor in mapping out an effective strategy for controlling the various ministries. Also crucially important is Kan Naoto, a very intelligent and steadfast politician who made history with his unprecedented demand that the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which he briefly headed, tell the truth about blood products tainted with the HIV virus that they had knowingly allowed to be marketed. He helped introduce the very notion of “accountability” in a domestic political discourse that had until then limited itself to the idea of “responsibility.”

A huge part of the exercise of Japanese power follows informal lines, and is kept hidden. The new ruling party will have to discover many things that the departing LDP was not terribly interested in, unless it directly affected the status and re-election chances of individual members. There will undoubtedly be repeated attempts to sabotage what the Minshuto intends to accomplish. The media has been unreliable in covering Japanese politicians who have had the temerity to stick out their necks. Important newspaper editors and commentators believe that Japanese politicians are simply not competent enough to run the show.

One may expect anonymous rumors to emerge from certain bureaucratic quarters, and they may well be amplified into a scandal to undermine the about to be formed government. In some parts of the bureaucracy, there is considerable ambivalence about the need for Japan to have a political steering wheel. Yet, as I discovered in numerous conversations over the years with Japanese officials, quite a few of them understand that the national interest is not well served by a rudderless political system that failed to provide guidance to ministries.

The Japanese who have been frustrated with unfulfilled expectations prompted by 16 years of promised fundamental change can only hope that their new government is given enough time (and peace from scandal-mongers) to work out an effective and productive collaboration between elected and career officials--simply the single greatest political problem of modern Japan.

Related: More on Japan and Democracy