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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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