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[Viewpoint] A new era of independence for Japan

Historic changes in Japan are often driven by outside forces. But the rise of the DPJ came from within.

Sept 03,2009
Japan has entered a new chapter in its history. It was the first non-Western country to pioneer parliamentary democracy and party politics - yet it indulged a single party for more than half a century. The landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in the weekend elections finally put an end to the Liberal Democrats’ legacy, in the country’s biggest change since the birth of its constitutional government.

One Japanese political expert has called Japan unable to change on its own. In short, the country is change-resistant. The island nation, nevertheless, has undergone fundamental transformations in the past. It shifted into a modern society from a feudal one through the Meiji Restoration, and metamorphosed into a democratic state from a military expansionist power in the aftermath of World War II. The Meiji modernization was meant to counter inroads by Western powers, while American forces imposed democratization upon Japan. Both changes were prompted by outside forces.

In the 1980s, Washington demanded Tokyo to take steps to ease the United States’ growing deficit in trade with Japan. But the U.S. trade deficit continued to accumulate, leading to Congressional anger against Japan and eventual bilateral talks. The talks were aimed at making structural changes in the Japanese consumer environment so that American products could be sold more easily in Japan. Again outside forces intervened to change Japan’s trade structure, which had been aggressive on the foreign front but resistant to imports.

The grounds for the change in its politics were no different. The Liberal Democratic Party has tenaciously held onto power almost since its birth in 1955. The mighty bureaucrats that reigned over postwar politics and society played a part in keeping Japanese politics in the pocket of a single party under the pretext of stability. Japanese politics were chided for bureaucratic arrogance, and Japan was called a third-rate democracy that fed corruption. The LDP has failed to secure a majority since the 1990s, once momentarily losing power. The end of the Cold War, which accompanied pressure for change from outside, caused ripples in Japanese politics.

But the latest elections were a rarity in Japanese society, precipitating a change from within, caused by the Japanese people themselves. In July 1993, the LDP failed to secure control and had to relinquish the power it had held for 38 years to the opposition, due largely to factional disputes inside the party. The 11-month test with the opposition made little impression on the public. Regardless of the opposition it faces in the government, the LDP still accounted for the largest share of the Diet and the wobbly leftist coalition proved untenable. In less than a year, the LDP joined with the Socialists to regain power. The leaders of the new ruling party, the DPJ, are mostly LDP defectors from then. Unlike the last trial with the opposition, Japanese voters likely have greater faith in the DPJ’s ability to govern. This element makes the latest power change more definitive than in 1993. The DPJ became the dominant force in the chamber, while the LDP has been relegated to the minority. A comeback this time won’t be easy for the LDP.

Policy differences are insufficient to explain what brought about such an event. A historic and social sea change may have been in the making. The LDP operation, which ran on anti-Communism and export-oriented growth, finally stopped working following the end of the Cold War and the burst of the bubble economy. Exports and growth hit their limit with the ascent of Korea and China, and the environmentalist and energy-saving industrial climate.

Diplomacy was another failure. Japan let the United States guide it in international relations and security so it could concentrate primarily on manufacturing and selling products abroad to gain rapid growth. It believed following the U.S. in diplomacy and security would be a clever move. But such dependence only undermined the country’s sense of identity and placed it in a disadvantageous position economically against the U.S. as well.

DPJ leader and presumptive new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has accused U.S.-led globalism and market-dictated capitalism of wreaking havoc on the Japanese economy and society and has pledged to distance the country from the United States.

It’s only when the true implications of the Aug. 30 vote - that ruling parties can be replaced - take root that real change in Japanese society can take place. But to make this a reality, the Japanese people may have to show more patience than they did in 1993.


*The writer is a professor on Japanese affairs at Keimyung University.

by Lee Sung-hwan



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