NEW YORK: Moods and fashions in Japan often arrive like tsunamis, typhoons, or landslides. After more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted power, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been buried in a general election. Once before, in 1993, change came when a coalition of opposition parties briefly took power, but the LDP still held on to a majority in the Diet’s powerful lower house. This time, even that last bastion has fallen. The center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took more than 300 of 480 seats in the lower house. The LDP rules no more.
The world, fixated on China’s rise, was slow to pay attention to this seismic shift in the politics of the globe’s second largest economy. Japanese politics has a dull image in the world’s press. Most editors, when they cover Japan at all, prefer stories about the zaniness of its popular youth culture, or the wilder shores of Japanese sex.
The main reason for this is, of course, that Japanese politics was dull, at least since the mid-1950s, when the LDP consolidated its monopoly on power. Only real aficionados of arcane moves inside the ruling party could be bothered to follow the ups and downs of factional bosses, many of whom were from established political families, and most of whom relied on shady financing. Corruption scandals erupted from time to time, but these, too, were usually part of intra-party maneuvers to rein in politicians who got too big for their britches, or who tried to grab power before their time.
The system worked in a fashion: LDP faction bosses took turns as prime minister, palms were greased by various business interests, more or less capable bureaucrats decided on domestic economic policies, and the United States took care of Japan’s security (and much of its foreign policy, too). Some thought this system would last forever.
Indeed, it has often been said, by Japanese as well as foreign commentators, that a de facto one-party state suits the Japanese. Stability, based on soft authoritarianism, is the Asian way, now followed by China. Asians don’t like the messy contentiousness of parliamentary democracy. Look what happens when Asians are foolish enough to import such a system, as in South Korea or Taiwan. Instead of civilized debate, they have filibusters and fisticuffs.
But, notwithstanding the occasional bust-ups, Korean and Taiwanese democracies seem remarkably robust. And the argument that Japanese, or other Asians, are culturally averse to political competition is not historically true.
In fact, Japanese history is full of strife and rebellion, and Japan was the first independent Asian country with a multi-party system. Its early postwar democracy was so unruly, with mass demonstrations, militant trade unions, and vigorous left-wing parties, that a deliberate attempt was made to squeeze politics out of the system and impose the boredom of a one-party state.
This happened in the mid-1950s, not for cultural, but for entirely political reasons. Like Italy (perhaps the closest European parallel to Japan), Japan was a front-line state in the Cold War. Domestic conservatives, as well as the US government, worried about the possibility of a left-wing, even Communist takeover.
So a large conservative coalition party (much like the Italian Christian Democrats), funded to some degree by the US, was put in place to marginalize all left-wing opposition. This involved some strong-arm tactics, especially against the unions, but it worked mostly because the middle class settled for an informal deal: increased material prosperity in exchange for political acquiescence. The “LDP state was based on the promise, given by Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato in 1960, that family incomes would soon be doubled.
Increasingly marginalized, the opposition dwindled into an impotent force, mere window-dressing to a one-party state. But one-party rule breeds complacency, corruption, and political sclerosis. In the last decade or so, the LDP – as well as the once-almighty bureaucracy that ran the system – began to look incompetent.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gave the LDP a last breath of life by promising to reform it in 2001. Whatever he did was not enough. The patience of Japan’s middle-class, rocked by economic crisis, finally cracked.
The victorious DPJ may not immediately set off any political fireworks. Its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, is an uncharismatic scion of yet another established dynasty – his grandfather, Hatoyama Ichiro, took over as prime minister in 1954 from Yoshida Shigeru, who was the grandfather of the last LDP Prime Minister Taro Aso.
The DPJ’s aims are excellent: more authority to elected politicians, less bureaucratic meddling, more independence from the US, better relations with Asian neighbors, more power to voters and less to big business, and so on. Whether Hatoyama and his colleagues have the wherewithal to achieve these aims remains an open question.
But it would be wrong to belittle the importance of what has happened. Even if the DPJ fails to implement most of its reforms in short order, the fact that Japanese voters opted for change will invigorate their country’s democracy. Even if the system were to become something like Japan’s democracy in the 1920s, with two more or less conservative parties competing for power, this would still be preferable to a one-party state. Any opposition is better than none. It keeps the government on its toes.
A firm rejection of the one-party state will also reverberate far beyond Japan’s borders. It shows clearly that the desire for political choice is not confined to a few fortunate countries, mostly in the Western world. This is a vital lesson, especially at a time when China’s economic success is convincing too many leaders that citizens, especially but not only in Asia, want to be treated like children.
Ian Burumais the author of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. He is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College. His latest book is the novel The China Lover. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).