JAPAN : Political Survival Is the Name of the New Game

Norman D. Levin, a senior analyst at RAND, was on the policy-planning staff at the State Department from 1984-87

Beneath the surprise resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and his replacement by Ryutaro Hashimoto, coupled with the election of Ichiro Ozawa as head of Japan’s main opposition party, is a country in the throes of a political transition. For those eager for rapid and radical change, this transition can be frustrating. So gradual are the changes that one may fairly conclude there really is no change. But the trends are unmistakable.

The sudden changes at the political top have spawned two contrasting interpretations. According to one, Hashimoto’s rise heralds the advent of a new era, with strong leadership in Tokyo and major policy changes ahead. Japan is portrayed as having reached a fork in the political road: A “titanic” battle between “reformers” and the “old guard” over Japan’s future course is coming.

The second interpretation stresses not change but continuity. Indeed, some observers worry that the changes in political leadership may even end the reforms begun by previous governments and reverse progress toward a more open and responsive nation.


After nearly four decades of one-party rule, two failed “reformist” governments and a year and a half of feeble Socialist Party leadership, Japan certainly appears ripe for new departures. Economic growth remains anemic. The banking system is in disarray. And other problems--such as a budget deficit that could reach nearly $240 billion this year and growing strains in Japan’s relationship with the United States--reinforce the impression that change is inevitable. “New vision” books by both Hashimoto and Ozawa have fed this premonition of impending change.

But in the short term, any expectations for dramatic change are likely to be disappointed. Whatever Japanese leaders may say about “new visions,” the name of the game in Japan is not policy but political survival. This preoccupation is spurred by Japan’s new electoral system, which replaces multiple-seat constituencies (three or four candidates could make it into the Diet on only a fraction of the vote) with single-seat districts (the victor will be the top vote-getter).

In addition to these structural changes, the unity required to institute major new departures is present in neither of the dominant political groupings. This is certainly true in the coalition led by Hashimoto: Fundamental philosophical differences among the ruling parties preclude agreement on any but the lowest common denominator. But the main opposition grouping is similarly constrained. Here, political rivalries and intramural differences raise broader questions about how long Ozawa will be able to hold his followers together. Indeed, the substantive policy differences within each of the coalitions make those between Hashimoto and Ozawa pale by comparison.

Finally, no consensus--or, by all appearances, desire--exists for radical policy change among the Japanese public. There are, to be sure, many signs of public dissatisfaction with, and even cynicism about, Japanese politics. These include sharply declining voting rates, rising numbers of people identifying themselves as supporters of no political party and a new willingness to elect non-traditional candidates to prominent political offices. Many Japanese would welcome stronger leadership. But the general mood is more one of apathy than agitation, which does not readily translate into demands for new policies.

Predictors of a continuation of the status quo find support in these same developments. If nothing else, the “sudden” resignation of a Japanese prime minister (which virtually everyone in Japan believed was long overdue), prompting the back-room selection of another prime minister from a different party (which most Japanese commentators deplored), based on a “policy platform” cobbled together almost overnight (which not even coalition leaders themselves disguised as anything but a hodgepodge of past compromises) hardly augurs a “new” Japan.

But worries about a reversion to past practices are also exaggerated. Leaving aside the fact that “reform” did not make much headway even under “reformist” governments, the underlying political transition continues. This evolution is now being driven as much by the new electoral system as by any individual Japanese leader. At least one or two elections under the new system will probably be necessary before the future can be discerned. But three trends suggest its general direction:

* An evolutionary move to a new party system. The era of one-party dominance is over. Of course, a future “conservative-conservative” merger or coalition is not inconceivable, particularly if the contentious Ozawa exits the political stage. But for now, the trend is toward some form of two-party structure. This is reflected in the results of last July’s upper-house election, which decimated the Socialists, nearly obliterated the Sakigake Party and other minor parties and left the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Frontier Party as the two overwhelmingly dominant forces.

Weaker candidates in need of improving their chances at the polls will gravitate toward one or the other of the major parties. As a result, the momentum for change will likely accelerate once elections for the more powerful lower house are held under the new electoral system. Such a development, were it to occur, would create a responsible alternative to LDP rule. It also would be an important step in the development of a more “mature” democracy.

* A gradual weakening of the importance of traditional power brokers and the rise of new, younger leaders. This trend dates to the LDP’s breakup and fall from power in 1993, when factional bosses lost both their ability to guarantee cabinet and high party posts for their members and their role as principal provider of funds for their members’ political activities. While the factions continue to exist informally, their importance is waning. Skillful and ambitious younger leaders are gradually filling the vacuum. This is likely to continue under the new electoral system as each party searches for “fresh” faces to strengthen its popularity.

This search appears to have already begun: As of last November, more than one-fourth of the single-seat candidates designated by the LDP for the next election were non-incumbents; the ratio was greater than one-third for the New Frontier Party, one-fifth for the Socialists and almost one half for the Sakigake. Each of the major political parties has a long way to go in opening up its recruitment and decision-making practices. But this trend has the potential to infuse new blood into tired political organizations, while encouraging increased participation in politics.

* An increasing voice for Japanese voters. It is sobering but worth recalling that, until 1993, the Liberal Democratic Party was essentially the only game in town. No other party was perceived as capable of governing. With the split of the LDP and the adoption of the new electoral system, however, politicians have begun dispersing to the two major parties, which are both regarded as capable of running things. Even if the two parties pursue relatively similar policies, Japanese voters will have the power to punish the incumbent party for not living up to its promises. Indeed, the incentive to do so will be great because there would be no negative consequences. This will not only magnify the importance of responsive leadership, but the public will also have a louder say in national policies.

For Japan, the strengthening of these trends means life as a more “normal” country. At home, both domestic and foreign-policy issues are more likely to be buffeted by internal politics. Abroad, Japan is more likely to speak with a clearer, more focused voice. Changes are likely to remain evolutionary in nature and be carried out incrementally. Absent an external crisis, it’s the way things generally happen in Japan.