Era of Transition: The Changing Face of Japanese Politics

By Sawano, Nanaho | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Era of Transition: The Changing Face of Japanese Politics


Sawano, Nanaho, Harvard International Review


MORIHIRO HOSOKAWA'S JULY 1993 lower house election was a benchmark in Japan's political history, signaling the interruption of 38 years of single party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Hosokawa headed seven parties and a parliamentary group, creating a non-LDP coalition, in a drastic move for political realignment. The creation of this coalition was the result of several factions of the LDP breaking away from the main party to establish their own parties--Hosokawa's Japan New Party (JNP), the Japan Renewal Party (JRP), and the Harbinger Party (also called New Party Sakigake)--in addition to the Japan Social Democratic Party (JSP).

While the LDP has returned to power this year, the Japanese voters' cold-shouldering of the LDP in 1993 was an unprecedented expression of dissatisfaction with the party. Several explanations have been offered for the breakup of the LDP power base, including internal factional struggles and the lackluster leadership of Kiichi Miyazawa, the LDP Prime Minister who preceded Hosokawa. In addition, public mistrust of politicians in the wake of corruption and numerous political scandals has deepened, while political and financial system fatigue accumulated through a long period of unbroken single party rule has set in.

Although the extent of the LDP's influence has waxed and waned since World War II, the party's power has been gradually diminishing. Hosokawa's election is an implication that while the LDP will remain a force to be reckoned with in the future, the LDP will never exert complete single-party rule again. The reasons for the end of the LDP's unquestioned domination lie in part in the end of the Cold War, since the Cold War had allowed the LDP to maintain power while opposition parties did ideological battle among themselves. In addition, Japanese society itself has undergone changes with the advent of economic prosperity and has outgrown unquestioned LDP dominance.

Foundations of LDP Rule

The recent low voter turnout and the unprecedented support by the Japanese of opposition parties is a clear sign of the Japanese frustration with the traditional LDP system. However, the face of traditional LDP politics has been shaped by many years of history which have contributed to its staying power. Liberal Democratic Party rule began in 1955, when the conservative Liberal and Democratic parties merged to form the LDP. The LDP began its reign with an almost two to one majority in both houses of the Diet. The government and the LDP took the Western democracies as their model and, with efficient decision-making in the Diet made possible by the LDP's wide majority, fostered the rapid modernization of the entire Japanese society. The LDP has since articulated the interests of business, particularly big business, and the higher bureaucracy. The party is also especially mindful of farm interests, the electoral support of which is essential.

Although they were not part of the formal structure of the LDP, factions were one of the most salient features of its organization. For all practical purposes, the LDP was, and still is, a coalition of factions. These factions were formed by groups of Diet members, led by a senior politician who would allocate resources to his members' constituencies in exchange for support in a future bid for prime minister. These factions, often referred to by the name of the faction leader (such as the ex-Takeshita faction), wielded great power in the election of Diet members, and in the election of the party president, who in the time of LDP dominance automatically became prime minister.

In pre-Hosokawa elections, the LDP emphasized individual candidates as much as the party, and each faction found it necessary to have its own candidates running in every district, complicating candidate selection by the party. As a result, the LDP often did not make a decisive selection but gave its official endorsement to all in order to avoid more controversy. …

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