First published in Australian Outlook, Vol. 35, No. 1, April 1981
BETWEEN 16th May and 22nd June 1980 readers of the Australian and world press were treated to the unusual spectacle of an apparently serious political crisis in Japan. The long-standing assumption of most Western foreign policymakers that stable conservative government was safely assured in the world's third largest economy was suddenly placed in question. Although the crisis ended with a spectacular renewal of the conservative mandate in general elections, it brought to the surface for all to see some of the underlying tensions which are more usually masked by the outward appearance of consensus in Japanese political decision-making.
The purpose of this article is to assess the nature and significance of the crisis in the broader context of Japan's domestic and international situation as she enters the nineteen eighties. Our focus will be on the capacity of the Japanese polity to respond effectively and responsibly to the inevitable pressures and dilemmas facing a resource-poor, militarily second-ranking but economically advanced and dynamic nation through the new decade.
Japan is not a newcomer to competitive party politics. 1980 marks the ninetieth anniversary of the establishment of constitutional government including a parliament and regular elections. Although until the new Constitution of 1947 Parliament was severely limited in its role, it has never been suspended, and elections have always been regularly held, even in war time. It is also thirty-five years since Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers and the beginning of wholesale reforms under largely American tutelage. Ever since the late nineteenth century, and particularly since the late nineteen forties, Japan has been accumulating experience in parliamentary politics. Indeed, so far as parties are concerned, the Japanese experience is extraordinarily rich: the writer recently counted no less than 166 political parties between 1874 and 1980.
Seen in such a longer perspective, the political history of Japan since 1955 exhibits some unique features. It was in that year that for the first time previously fragmented conservative groups united into a single unit, the Liberal