First published in The Japan Foundation Newsletter, Vol. XIX, No. 2, October 1991
IN JUNE 1991 a public opinion poll revealed that the popularity rating of the Social Democratic Party of Japan (formerly, Japan Socialist Party) 1 was at a level so low that few could remember it having been so low before. A mere 17 percent of the sample said that they supported the SDPJ. 2 What a contrast with the situation a little less than two years previously, when with the ruling Liberal Democrats in acute disarray, more electors had voted for the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) than for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the House of Councillors elections, and had deprived the LDP Government of its majority in the Upper House. 3 A sudden rise had been followed by a precipitate fall, or perhaps, following the concepts of ancient Greek tragedy, hubris had been followed by nemesis.
A comfortable and widespread explanation of the rise and fall of the SDPJ (JSP) between 1989 and 1991 is that the rise was brought about by unique, extraordinary and never-to-be-repeated factors, and so the fall was merely a return to the status quo ante in which the party could be regarded as a narrowly based ideological rump, with neither the capacity nor even the will to contend seriously for power at the national level. It is the contention of this article that this is altogether too complacent a view, which neglects the changes taking place over several years in the Japanese political system as a whole. Japanese politics has indeed revealed an extraordinary degree of basic stability in recent decades, but in the late 1980s the public reacted sharply against pervasive corruption by politicians in office, as well as against decisions to increase indirect taxes and lift protection on certain agricultural products. This in our view was a sign of deeper uncertainties which are only capable of being solved by fundamental reform and realignment of the political system as a whole. Despite the ubiquitous signs of systemic conservatism, the chances of fundamental change taking place over the next few years are more substantial than many commentators are currently prepared to admit.
When we speak of fundamental change, however, we envisage something more complex than the kind of reversal of roles between government and