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An illegitimate superpower

Daniel Nassim explains why Japan is no longer a one-party state

The results of the recent election in Japan show that even the most dynamic of capitalist powers is finding it difficult to cope with a changing world. Japan has been run as a virtual one-party state since the foundation of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955. But the general election on 18 July 1993 marked the end of that era. A coalition of several parties, including three that are essentially recent splits from the LDP, have formed a new government. The LDP has suffered the ignominy of joining its arch-enemy, the Japanese Communist Party, in opposition.

This step alone is a dramatic move for Japan. In no Western country has the influence of a single political party been so pervasive during the postwar period. In many countries conservative and leftist parties have each spent some time in office (Britain, France, Germany). The choice in the USA has been between two brands of conservative politics. Not even the Christian Democrats in Italy can approach the LDP's record of permanent rule.

The LDP has been the party of Japanese capitalism throughout the years of the 'economic miracle'. Now, however, Japan's business class is clearly reconsidering its relationship with the party. Although the LDP continues to receive donations from business, the new conservative parties have also managed to secure funds. The Nikkei Weekly, a top Japanese business paper, expresses a common view among businessmen that a shake-up of Japan's political system is necessary:

'Temporary confusion and instabilities are the prices we must pay for democracy. In the long run, we believe, the competition for power among the political parties will improve the quality of Japanese politics and eventually benefit the public.' (21 June 1993).

The emergence of a coalition government in Japan is, as the Nikkei Weekly suggests, likely to be just an interim step on the path to transforming the political system. It is clear to all informed observers that the old system is out of line with the demands of the 1990s. But the reasons for the current sense of malaise are less apparent.

The change is often explained in terms of the manifest corruption of the Japanese political system, which rivals even that of Italy. Three former prime ministers (Yasuhiro Nakasone, Noboru Takeshita and Sosuke Uno) were implicated in the recent Sagawa Kyubin scandal, which involved massive illegal contributions to the LDP by Japan's second largest truck-delivery service. There is also evidence of links between the LDP and organised crime.

Yet many of the most ardent reformers in Japanese politics are also implicated in the old corrupt system. Ichiro Ozawa, widely acknowledged as the real driving force behind the Japan Renewal Party (JRP), is a former LDP secretary general. One reason he keeps a low profile is that he is closely linked to the Sagawa Kyubin affair.

Family matters

Even the new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, is an integral part of the old system. Although he is head of the Japan New Party, he is a member of one of Japan's most established political families. Often dubbed 'Lord Hosokawa', he was an LDP governor of Kumamoto prefecture and a member of the upper house. His grandfather, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, was a prime minister of Japan during the militarist years of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Nor is corruption a new factor in Japanese politics. For example, back in 1976 a former prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, was arrested on charges of taking ¥500m of bribes from the Lockheed Corporation. After 17 years of deliberation in lower courts the case has finally reached the supreme court.

It is clear then that corruption cannot be the real reason for the LDP's sudden fragmentation. The reform movement comes from the very heart of the tarnished Japanese establishment. A genuine conversion to clean politics on its part is about as likely as John Major deciding to sell Living Marxism.

The real reason for the current political tumult is that the end of the Cold War has exposed the lack of legitimacy of the Japanese system of government. As has previously been noted in Living Marxism, the anti-communist culture of the Cold War gave a sense of purpose and coherence to capitalist politics. The collapse of the Soviet bloc has removed that cement from the Western systems, catalysing the sort of political crises that are now visible everywhere from Europe to America. In this respect Japan has been no different from the rest of the major powers. But there are specific features to Japanese politics which mean that the crisis takes a different form.

Chain of history

In some ways the crisis of legitimacy is particularly acute for the Japanese authorities. Compare Japan's situation to Britain's. It is clear that contemporary Japan is a far more substantial economic power than Britain. Yet the British establishment does have the political advantage of being able to present its rule as part of an unbroken chain of history, stretching back hundreds of years. The British state can more easily be presented as part of the natural order of things.

By contrast, it is clear to all who care to look that the modern Japanese state was entirely built by the USA during the years of occupation following the Second World War. Soon afterwards the LDP was installed as an unrepresentative all-powerful party. It is more difficult to present the Japanese state as a legitimate entity with a tradition stretching back to the distant past.

For over 40 years the Cold War helped Japan's rulers mask this problem. They were able to present Japan as part of a positive crusade being fought against international communism. The regeneration of the Japanese economy also gave an important boost to the self-image of Japan. But the end of the Cold War and the onset of world economic slump has brought Japan's underlying problems to the surface.

Junior partner

The Cold War was important to Japan in both its external relations and domestic politics. On the international front, the post-1945 relationship with the USA was legitimised through anti-communism. In return for Japan accepting a junior role, the USA agreed to provide a security framework in east Asia and beyond. Japan benefited enormously from this relationship throughout the years of economic boom. Accepting a junior partnership was seen as a small price to pay for an environment conducive to economic prosperity.

The Cold War relationship with the United States was codified in the US-Japan Security Treaty, and in Article Nine of the American-written 1947 constitution, which defined Japan as a pacifist nation. By curtailing its legal right to bear arms, the Japanese state effectively accepted a limit on its own sovereignty and acknowledged its junior relationship with the USA.

Just as important as the external dimension was the role of the Cold War in cohering domestic politics. The LDP defined its duty as preventing the alien scourge of communism from infecting the Japanese way of life. Anti-communism became an important part of Japan's national identity during this period. In uniting Japan against the supposed communist threat, the LDP gained a temporary measure of public legitimacy.

The demise of the Soviet Union has meant that anti-communism can no longer have the same sort of credibility. The Japanese ruling elite has consequently had to reorganise both its external relations and its domestic political framework. The problem is that there is no clear path to follow.

Political spectators

The collapse of the seemingly omnipotent LDP demonstrates how profound are the problems facing the Japanese authorities at home. Without the cloak of anti-communism, it will not be easy for them to promote a positive sense of what it means to be Japanese. The economy, although still dynamic compared to other major powers, is only spluttering along. And there is little in the political system to foster a positive sense of loyalty or legitimacy. As Ichiro Ozawa notes, 'the people of today's Japan have virtually no sense that the government is theirs. They see themselves as mere spectators in the political arena' ('My commitment to political reform', Bungei Shunju, December 1992, translated in Japan Echo, XX(1) Spring 1993).

This lack of legitimacy is behind the criticisms that conservatives frequently make of Japanese youth. The argument is that the younger generation - often taken to mean anyone under 50--is too individualistic and distant from Japanese society. In other words, they have no attachment to the old institutions. It is a problem that Japan's rulers will not find easy to solve.

Contrary to the wishes of Japan's rulers, the confusion and instability in Japanese politics is unlikely to be temporary. It seems certain that they will be unable to win any new popularity through campaigns for electoral reform, at a time when even the most dynamic capitalist economy on earth is incapable of benefiting the majority of its people.

Options open

The trump card which the Japanese authorities have is in the international arena. Although Japan has a particularly acute legitimacy crisis, it also has more potential options than many of its rivals. In recent years Japan has started to develop a political punch in line with its substantial economic muscle. The end of the Cold War has accelerated the process of redefining Japan's relations with the USA and the rest of the world. The aim now is to try to recreate a positive national identity by projecting a sense of Japan's international mission.

This is the issue of substance behind the debate about reform in Japan. Both the reformers and many LDP members want to widen Japan's global role to help bolster the state's legitimacy at home. The debate is only about whether this aim can be achieved within the old framework around the LDP. Many on both sides would agree with Ozawa's contention that 'Japan's body has grown to gigantic proportions, but its brain and nervous system have failed to develop accordingly':

'Our country lacks the maturity to get along in the international community. This is why reform is such an urgent issue. We must develop a political system capable of thinking for itself, one that can get down to work, move into action, and deal with the chores before it.'(Bungei Shunju, December 1992)

The attempt to develop a more 'mature' role for Japan in the world is probably best illustrated by its actions in Cambodia.

In September 1992 the Japanese government, after a long and harrowing debate, agreed to send ground troops to join the UN 'peacekeeping' forces in Cambodia - the first time Japanese troops had been sent abroad since the war. The UN agency which has been effectively running Cambodia has been headed by Yasushi Akashi, a Japanese. Cambodia has become a litmus test of Japan's ability to take on the broader responsibilities expected of a great power.

Benign conqueror

Japan has also started to project itself as a spokesman for Asia. In the run-up to the G7 summit in Tokyo in July, the deputy foreign minister for international economic affairs told Japan's leading business paper that 'Japan wants to emphasise two points of view: one as an economic superpower and the other as a member of the Asia Pacific region' (Nikkei Weekly, 28 June 1993). In the event, Japan formally conveyed the concerns of the non-aligned movement, representing third world nations, to the summit.

The last time Japan emerged on to the world stage it was as conqueror of Asia. This time it is seeking to do so in the guise of a benign capitalist superpower speaking on Asia's behalf. But the world already has too many great powers trying to resolve their domestic crises by jostling for the role of global missionary.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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