First published in Armand Clesse, et al, (eds), The Vitality of Japan, Basingstoke: Macmillan, in association with Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies, 1997
AT ONE TIME it was widely believed by Western observers of Japan that since Japanese culture was situationally relativist rather than individualistic and principled, the Japanese found little difficulty in changing direction fundamentally should the situation demand it. 2 It seemed to follow from this that Japan was prone to sudden changes of policy direction, and indeed that the most fundamental structures of politics, such as the current constitution or the political system itself, might be expected to change suddenly in response to new circumstances and pressures. Examples usually cited to support this case were the conversion of dissident samurai during the 1860s from rejection to emulation of advanced Western countries; the shift from semi-parliamentary politics in the 1920s to ultranationalism in the 1930s; and the rapid conversion from Emperor-centred military rule to a broadly liberal and democratic order after 1945.
Perhaps this attitude of Western observers is best summed up in General MacArthur's derogatory (and, as we would now say, racist) remark that the Japanese: 'are like all orientals; they have a tendency to adulate a winner'. 3 In other words, they were prone to 'get with the strength' and jump on to the latest bandwagon that seemed to promise success, being also in tune with their current interests, rather than stick with precepts of policy and organization derived from universal principles, sincerely and consistently held.
Any comparison with the politics of major Western nations would show, of course, that consistency based on 'universal principles, sincerely and consistently held' was an ideal only patchily and imperfectly fulfilled in the politics of those nations. There is a whole history of venality, unprincipled adaptation to circumstances and free-for-all struggle between competing ideologies and interests for historians to document in virtually all of these countries.
More to the point, however, the political history of Japan since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War presents almost precisely the oppo-