First published in Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Conference, Japanese Studies Association of Australia, July 1991 (Australia-Japan Research Centre, Australian National University)
MOST TEXTBOOKS about the contemporary politics of Japan start from the perception that its salient feature is quasi-permanent single party dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Around this has formed a structure of bureaucratic and business-oriented power that is complex, replete with checks and balances and somewhat pluralistic. It exhibits some highly problematic features, notably slow response in situations of crisis, a tendency to corruption and a failure to present the electorate with real policy alternatives. Some, on the other hand, argue that although extremely conservative, the Japanese system of politics gives to the Japanese people continuity of administration, political stability, an atmosphere in which it is possible to plan for the long term, and a conspicuously professional, if bureaucratic, approach to many areas of policy making. Perhaps the biggest issue facing Japan in the 1990s is whether the political system can be made more accountable, less corrupt and more responsive in situations of need without destroying the stability, professionalism and predictability that have been its strong features.
This paper will not concern itself with these vital issues, but rather with a contingent feature of the political system which bears on the question of single-party dominance. For the most part, the fact that the LDP has been in power without interruption since it was formed in November 1955 is taken as a political 'given', and if the reasons for its continual occupancy of national office are analysed at all, they are attributed to its success in delivering economic growth and prosperity, the relative stability that has been a feature of its rule, the flexibility and 'creativity' of its conservatism, its use of the resources of power at its disposal to 'buy off' and politically neutralise a succession of interest groups which at various times have put in challenges, its proven ability to maintain a network of support at local level through access to superior financial resources, and skill in using the multi-member constituency system to its own advantage.
While agreeing that these explanations-or some combination of them-have substance, we wish to focus on an aspect of causality that is rather rarely