No. 7 — February 23, 1996

Feature Article


Barbara Wanner

Issue Index aaaa 1996 Archive Indexaaaa Search aaaa Subscriber Area aaaa Home



The roller coaster ride of Japanese politics swerved again in early January when Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama abruptly resigned, ending his troubled 18-month tenure as head of a shaky tripartite ruling coalition comprised of his Social Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Sakigake Party. Few political experts were surprised that the leadership baton passed to LDP president Ryutaro Hashimoto, who had served as minister of international trade and industry and is regarded as a far stronger, more well-rounded leader. With elections for the powerful Diet lower house looming on the horizon, the shrewd — albeit brusque — LDP chief was viewed by his ruling coalition colleagues as the most capable to square off with Ichiro Ozawa, the equally astute head of Shinshinto, the largest opposition party.

The Western media typically has portrayed the "Hashimoto vs. Ozawa match" as a product of the move toward a yet-to-be-implemented electoral system for the House of Representatives, which features a combination of single-seat districts and seats awarded to parties based on a proportion of the votes cast. The principal goal of the new setup is to focus political contests on policy issues rather than the personality of the candidate. The latter was characteristic of the old multiseat system, which forced contenders to mount often wildly expensive campaigns to differentiate themselves from the pack and win one of several seats representing a district. The supposition is that now Messrs. Hashimoto and Ozawa will compete for the hearts and the minds of Japanese voters in substantive terms. The latter most likely will preach the need for sweeping economic, political and administrative changes, while the prime minister will offer incremental, less progressive policy prescriptions. Presumably these themes would be echoed by party candidates in stump speeches.

Not a few political analysts are skeptical that the script will play out along these lines. Despite the change in the lower house electoral system, the old political dynamics still are at work, they point out. The electorate still tends to regard Diet representatives as "favor givers" and advocates for local interests — not as policymakers. In addition, substantive differences remain fuzzy between the LDP and Shinshinto, which both occupy the conservative end of the political spectrum. It also is unclear whether the SDPJ, which subordinated its staunch pacifist precepts when it joined the ruling coalition, can offer a credible, alternative liberal message or even mount enough candidates in the single-seat contests to challenge the two conservative parties. And even the new electoral system's goal of putting an end to money-centered politics is likely to fall victim to the fact that candidates in the single-seat districts now will need twice as many votes to win as under the multiseat system. Under these circumstances, ironically, candidates very well might resort to the same money-driven, personality-centered survival tactics they employed before the electoral reforms were enacted.

In the run-up to the lower house polls —which may take place as early as the fall — incumbents no doubt will be scrambling to shore up their local support groups. At the same time intraparty and interparty maneuvering will intensify as politicians attempt to gain political advantage. The proliferation of intraparty "study groups," experts say, is not indicative of the importance attached to policy development so much as it reflects an age-old attempt to organize supporters and, thus, hold onto or seize political power. The LDP and Shinshinto may try to impact voter behavior by attacking each other on specific issues — such as the Hashimoto government's handling of the housing loan company crisis or the largest opposition party's ties to a religious group — but at the end of the day, insiders contend, candidates will shove policy platforms onto the back burner and do what is necessary to build personal appeal at home.


Murayama Resignation Ushers In New Phase

As 1996 began so did a new, albeit transitional, phase in Japanese politics. Assessing the political forces arrayed against him in early January, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apparently decided that enough was enough and tendered his resignation. His decision to step down cleared the way for Ryutaro Hashimoto, who is president of the Liberal Democratic Party and served as Mr. Murayama's minister of international trade and industry, to become prime minister. In late December, moreover, a strong opposition leader, Ichiro Ozawa, took office as Shinshinto chief. These leadership changes set the stage for intense maneuvering, both within and between the major political parties. All will attempt to maximize their advantages within a highly fluid political environment in the months leading up to lower house elections — which must be held before August 1997.

Extensive turmoil has characterized Japanese politics for the past two-and-a-half years, ever since the LDP lost its 38-year control of the prime minister's post. What is most striking about the latest change is the contrast between the strong LDP and Shinshinto leaders and the man who gave up the prime minister's job in January. Even though Mr. Murayama benefited from the political volatility, he also was a casualty. Catapulted to the top leadership position in June 1994 as part of a politically opportune union linking his left-leaning Social Democratic Party of Japan, the conservative LDP and the New Sakigake Party, the 71-year-old premier had a shaky grasp on the reins of government from the beginning. During his 18-month tenure reports of Mr. Murayama's imminent political demise were frequent. The SDPJ chief's supporters note that the "rookie" prime minister, who never before had held a government leadership position, had an unusually full roster of contentious issues during his time "at bat." These included commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the U.S.-Japan fight over an agreement covering trade in automotive products, the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake, a surging yen, the controversy over the concentration of U.S. military personnel on Okinawa and the crisis in the housing loan industry — all occurring against the uncertain backdrop of a still sluggish economy.

That this agenda amounted to a baptism by fire for the SDPJ chief is beside the point, critics within the ruling coalition have argued. What was more disturbing from the standpoint of national welfare, they stress, was that Mr. Murayama often appeared at a loss to grasp these issues in a timely manner; he also lacked the necessary leadership finesse, they say, to forge a consensus within the ideologically diverse ruling coalition as to what the government should do. LDP members, in particular, blamed the poor performances of all three ruling parties in the July 1995 upper house elections on the prime minister's lackluster leadership performance (see JEI Report No. 28B, July 28, 1995). Declining public approval ratings in late 1995 further confirmed, critics maintain, that the Japanese people not only had lost faith in Mr. Murayama's governing abilities but had grown frustrated with the recurrent paralysis that beset the ruling parties, particularly in considering how best to jump-start the stubbornly sluggish Japanese economy.


Hashimoto's Election To Premier Prompts Calls For Lower House Polls

The 60 percent public approval ratings accorded Mr. Hashimoto immediately following his January 11 election contrasted with the 20 to 30 percent favorable support that Mr. Murayama had in late December polls. Political commentators have interpreted the public's unusually strong endorsement of Mr. Hashimoto as being a sign of voters' desire for change and their expectation that the new premier would not allow the government to wallow in indecision and inaction.1 The only higher approval rating in recent years — the 70 percent-plus extended to Morihiro Hosokawa when he assumed the prime minister's office in August 1993 — also had a strong tie to Mr. Hosokawa's pledge to work for reform.

Mr. Hashimoto for many years was regarded as a LDP rising star endowed with political savvy and an assertive leadership style. Some commentators suggest that his hard-line stance in last year's automotive trade talks with the United States (see JEI Report No. 24B, June 30, 1995) enhanced the perception at the grass roots as well as in the corridors of power in Tokyo that he would lead the multiparty government with a much firmer hand than did his predecessor.

Liberal Democrats understandably applauded the elevation in status of their party leader. Mr. Hashimoto, who has cabinet-level expertise on a wide range of domestic and international matters, is well-qualified to handle the complex and troublesome economic and political issues that he inherited from Mr. Murayama, his supporters point out. Moreover, LDP members, anxious to avoid a repeat of the July 1995 upper house electoral experience, wanted a strong and politically astute leader in the driver's seat when the time came to campaign for the lower house polls.

Despite the leadership criticisms heaped on Mr. Murayama, the SDPJ leader shrewdly managed to attach political strings before relinquishing the seat of power and securing his party's backing for Mr. Hashimoto. Without SDPJ help, Mr. Hashimoto's election would have been in some difficulty. Although the LDP is the largest party in the Diet, no majority is possible without some type of coalition (see Table). As part of his arrangement with Mr. Hashimoto, the SDPJ chief worked out a continued role for the Socialist party in the ruling coalition's leadership structure and a promise from Mr. Hashimoto to wait at least until the fall before dissolving the lower house for elections. Mr. Murayama needed that time in order to tend to problems in his own party, which appeared on the verge of breaking up.2

Shinshinto lambasted the cozy deal between the two ruling coalition party heads and termed the intracoalition "rotation of power" a violation of the spirit of representational government. Although Japan's parliamentary government system allows for a change in leadership without the Diet being dissolved for national elections, the largest opposition party — bolstered by the major Japanese dailies — argued that the Japanese people had been denied for too long an opportunity to express their views on the tripartite government's handling of a number of economic and political issues. The last time that voters had selected their lower house representatives was in July 1993, Shinshinto members and others pointed out. The LDP incurred such steep losses in those contests that it was forced to relinquish the power that it had held for 38 years to a group of reformist parties led by Mr. Hosokawa (see JEI Report No. 33A, September 3, 1993). Given the extraordinary degree of upheaval in Japanese politics in the past two and a half years, opposition party leaders and editorial writers charged, ruling coalition members were arrogant to assume that the new LDP-led arrangement reflected fairly voters' sentiments as to who should be in charge.

Despite these attacks by the leading opposition party and political pundits, at this stage it appears that the Hashimoto government remains committed to keeping the coalition intact at least until October or November. This time frame not only honors the prime minister's promise to Mr. Murayama but buys him some much needed time to resolve problems that he inherited from his predecessor.3


Hurdles On The Road To New Elections

Heading the list of difficulties facing the Hashimoto government is a controversial plan to use government money to help bail out troubled housing loan companies (jusen). The plan, endorsed by Mr. Murayama's cabinet in mid-December (see JEI Report No. 47B, December 22, 1995) and reconfirmed by the Hashimoto cabinet in January, calls for using some ¥685 billion ($6.9 billion at ¥100=$1.00) in public funds during FY 1996 to help resolve the jusen bad-loan problem. In addition, the new government must contend with growing domestic opposition to the U.S. military presence in Japan, particularly on Okinawa, where three U.S. servicemen are on trial for the abduction and rape of a Japanese schoolgirl last fall. More broadly, Mr. Hashimoto must ensure that FY 1995's two supplementary budgets have the desired effect of stimulating more sustained economic activity (see JEI Report No. 25B, July 7, 1995, and No. 36B, September 29, 1995). He also must shepherd through the Diet before April 1 the FY 1996 budget, which includes additional provisions aimed at sparking an economic upturn as well as funding for the jusen rescue plan (see JEI Report No. 1B, January 12, 1996).

Given the severity of the problems confronting Japan's financial system and the public outcry at using taxpayers' money to bail out financially plagued jusen, Mr. Hashimoto will have his hands full without beating the bushes for candidates and votes for new elections. Shinshinto has given every indication that it will pull out the stops in using the jusen controversy to force the prime minister out of office. The current problems faced by the seven essentially insolvent mortgage providers stem in large part from actions at the start of the 1990s, a time when Mr. Hashimoto was serving as the head of the Ministry of Finance in the government of then Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. By virtue of his cabinet portfolio the current premier presumably had a role in, or at least was aware of, his ministry's April 1990 decision to exempt jusen from restrictions on real estate-related loans. This decision ultimately allowed the jusen to engage in reckless lending and rack up trillions of yen in bad debts.

The largest opposition party has suggested that it will try to hang the blame for this imbroglio on the irresponsible leadership of Mr. Hashimoto and the LDP. A prelude of the tactics aimed at discrediting Mr. Hashimoto interrupted Diet proceedings in late January when Shinshinto members stormed out of a lower house Budget Committee session to protest the government's unwillingness to provide "sufficient information" as to how the ¥685 billion ($6.9 billion) bailout figure was derived. At this stage it remains unclear how aggressively the main opposition party will go after the LDP on the jusen problem. As the facts of the cases continue to emerge, it appears that key Shinshinto members also could be implicated in the jusen mess. Former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, for one, took over as finance minister in November 1991 and apparently did nothing to halt the beginning of the jusen's free-fall. Therefore, political strategists speculate that, regardless of how vociferiously Shinshinto goes after Mr. Hashimoto on the housing loan company bailout, the prime minister still probably will be able to hang on at least until autumn. He and other LDP members no doubt hope that by then the fight over the jusen bailout will not be in the forefront of voters' minds.

By that time, too, the prime minister presumably will have begun to settle the controversy, primarily involving Okinawa, concerning the reallocation of U.S. military bases in Japan. Last fall's rape tragedy brought to a boil the Okinawa prefectural government's long-simmering disagreement with the central government concerning the former's nearly 50-year burden of hosting three-fourths of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. With the backing of Okinawa Governor Masahide Ota, many residents of the southernmost prefecture have refused to renew leases that allow the U.S. military to use their property (see JEI Report No. 42B, November 10, 1995). Meeting with Mr. Hashimoto in late January, Mr. Ota underscored his constituents' resolve to be relieved of this burden by submitting a comprehensive plan that called for the eventual transfer of all American forces from Okinawa within 20 years (see JEI Report No. 4B, February 2, 1996).

The challenge for Mr. Hashimoto in dealing with this issue has been to appear even-handed. Conservative elements in the coalition government — the prime minister among them — favor close U.S.-Japan defense cooperation and concur with the Pentagon's assessment that American and Japanese security interests are served best by maintaining the current number and allocation of troops on Japanese soil. The pacifist SDPJ and the NSP have rallied behind Okinawan residents, however, as have many other "mainland" Japanese. Although public attitudes toward the military have changed dramatically in the 50 years since World War II, pacifist sentiments still run deep and, apparently, can be aroused easily by reports of abusive behavior by American service personnel. (Shinshinto, which also supports strong bilateral security ties, has been conspicuously quiet on the basing issue, apparently recognizing that it would risk causing itself more harm than good by going out front on this hot-button issue.)

Washington and Tokyo have pledged to reach an agreement on the basing question in time for President Clinton's mid-April visit to Japan. What has been billed as the centerpiece of the meeting is the two leaders' plan to offer a joint statement reaffirming the importance to regional stability of U.S.-Japan security relations. Although Mr. Hashimoto since entering office has reiterated his belief that strong bilateral defense ties are in both countries' interests, the prime minister may find that for domestic political reasons he must drive a harder bargain with Washington on base reallocation than he would have preferred. Some experts have proposed that the prime minister, in reality, may be the most credible advocate for Okinawan interests. In view of Mr. Hashimoto's unabashedly nationalistic sentiments his demand for a reallocation of American troops may be viewed by the United States simply as an attempt to balance domestic concerns and alliance interests. A push by Mr. Murayama for base reductions, in contrast, no doubt would have been construed in many U.S. quarters as isolationist regression.4

In any event, political experts suggest that, even if the base reduction issue is not resolved entirely to Okinawan residents' liking, Mr. Hashimoto should not experience serious political fallout from this issue. As mentioned, Shinshinto basically is in the LDP camp on this matter, while the SDPJ and the NSP are so wrapped up in trying to reinvent themselves that they lack the necessary energy, resources and political clout to create problems for the prime minister. Moreover, at the end of the day Japanese residents of Honshu probably would not be averse to keeping most of the American bases on Okinawa and out of their own backyards. Some commentators have proposed, in fact, that Mr. Hashimoto actually may reap political gains from his handling of this sensitive diplomatic matter. These analysts say that a Japanese leader's domestic standing often receives a boost following one-on-one consultations with an American president; engaging in summitry apparently enhances a prime minister's stature as a global leader in the eyes of the public.

In this regard other high-profile international gatherings planned for later in the year also will provide Mr. Hashimoto with opportunities to demonstrate that he can hold his own with other world leaders. These include the July summit of the Group of Seven major industrial countries in France as well as the November summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippines. Barring an explosion of the jusen brouhaha, the political boost that Mr. Hashimoto is likely to receive from these events gives him further incentive not to move precipitously in calling for elections.5


New Electoral System Raises the Political Stakes

The maneuvering and the politicking that led to Mr. Murayama's departure and propelled Messrs. Hashimoto and Ozawa to their respective leadership positions are related directly to changes in the lower house electoral system. The new plan, which combines 300 first-past-the-post, single-seat districts with 200 seats awarded according to a party's proportional share of the vote totals, could transform Japan's political landscape in a major way, experts say. As a result, some parties could fade into oblivion while others amass startling power. All parties, therefore, are scrambling to maximize their chances for political gain through a variety of tactics ranging from political skulduggery — such as fingerpointing on the jusen problem— to traditional fund-raising and party-building initiatives. Perhaps more significant, these systemic changes also have had the ironic effect of encouraging the same type of intraparty maneuvering and local support group activities that the political reform initiative aimed to banish.

Developed in response to a series of scandals that toppled several leading LDP members from the pinnacle of power, the electoral overhaul enacted by the Diet in January 1994 (see JEI Report No. 5B, February 4, 1994) was designed to eliminate personality-centered politics and the recurrent, associated graft. Another intent was to create a more responsive government in which politicians rather than bureaucrats determine policy. These goals could be realized best, political reform proponents maintained, by eliminating the then current multiseat system for the lower house. Under this plan, in which anywhere from one to six seats were at stake in a single district, candidates were forced to spend inordinate sums of money to differentiate themselves from their rivals, some of whom often were from the same party. These races, for all intents and purposes, amounted to "personality contests." The need for huge sums of money, in turn, compelled highly creative — and often illegal — financing practices.

Single-seat races, it was argued, would discourage a party from running more than one candidate in a district. This type of electoral system also would eliminate "marginal" candidates, who, under the old voting method, could squeak by to gain a seat with only 10 or 15 percent of the vote. Under the new single-seat plan a candidate must win a plurality of the vote, which, with a likely average of about three candidates per district, will require that a candidate secure 40 percent of the vote — basically more than double the percentage he or she needed under the multiseat arrangement. Since personalities would be much less of a factor under the new system, single-seat candidates would differentiate themselves based on what their parties stood for rather than on their appeal as individual favor givers, the conceptualizers of the plan argued. Recognizing that larger parties probably would have the advantage in single-seat races because they can run candidates in most of the districts, political reform proponents developed the proportional representation balancing mechanism to enable smaller parties to continue to have a Diet presence. In practical terms this means that when voters go the polls they will cast two ballots: one for an individual running in the single-seat race and one for a party (see JEI Report No. 8A, February 25, 1994).

The new system's potential to make or break parties depending on their ability to draft successful candidates — or be associated with the most popular policies — also has a structural component related to swings in single-seat contests. Leonard Schoppa of the University of Virginia explains that a swing in votes in a proportional representation system affects the change in Diet seats commensurately but a swing in a party's percentage of votes in single-seat races produces a much greater shift in that party's seat totals. For example, if 100 seats are at stake in a proportional representation system and a party's share of the votes falls from 50 percent to 40 percent (a swing of 10 percentage points), its number of Diet seats would fall from 50 to 40 (a drop of 10 seats). The same dynamic will be at work for the lower house's 200 proportional seats, Mr. Schoppa maintains. For the 300 single-seat districts, however, vote swings will be magnified, producing much greater shifts in seat totals.6

The 1989 upper house elections, in which some prefectural constituencies were single-member districts, provide evidence of this phenomenon. In single-seat races the LDP vote declined from 53.8 percent in the 1986 polls to 41.4 percent in the 1989 elections, but the Liberal Democrats' share of these seats dropped from 92 percent to 12 percent. Although the LDP's vote total declined only 12.4 percentage points, this was magnified into an 80-point change in seats.7 Mr. Schoppa contends that the Social Democratic Party of Japan, whose impressive wins in the 1989 upper house contests enabled the political opposition to seize control of the House of Councillors from the then-dominant LDP (see JEI Report No. 32A, August 18, 1989), was able to reap its gains primarily because of the way the vote swing was magnified in the single-seat districts. Parties fielding candidates in the new single-seat lower house districts are similarly vulnerable to incurring steep losses — or windfall gains, he proposes.8


Single-Seat System Elevates Importance Of Local Support Groups

As politicians have begun to decipher the implications for enormous changes from the single-seat electoral structure, incumbents across party lines have responded in a number of ways aimed at ensuring their political survival. Some apparently are trying to hedge their bets by running simultaneously in the single-seat races as well as under the proportional representation plan, which the electoral reform law permits. Under the latter formula the country is divided into 11 regions and voters select the party of their choice. Based on the percentage of votes that parties win in each region, they will distribute the seats to candidates on lists that have been drawn up ahead of time. Thus, a candidate who elects to run under both plans may be uncertain about his or her chances of clinching victory in the single-seat district but feels that he or she can bank on a strong party showing to ensure a place in the Diet.

Since victory in a single-seat race requires a candidate to secure more than double the share of votes needed under the old plan, politicians have found it necessary to cultivate a much broader base of support back home. They have attempted to do this both by reviving and expanding local political machines as well as by establishing ties with special interest groups. Under the old multiseat plan the local support groups, called koenkai, formed the core of a candidate's financial and voter backing; these groups often were responsible for enabling "marginal" candidates to win a seat with a comparatively small share of the total vote.

With the stakes being much higher under the new single-seat plan, political reform proponents have suggested that koenkai and the money-centered, personality-focused brand of politics that they reinforced would become obsolete. Ironically, just the opposite has occurred in the run-up to the lower house polls. In order to secure the estimated 30 percent to 40 percent plurality of the vote politicians are finding it necessary to spend even more money than they did under the multiseat arrangement to overhaul and expand their koenkai. These expanded costs are due in part to the manner in which the lines were drawn for the single-seat districts. Some politicians found that their support organizations had been dismembered by the redistricting. This, in turn, gave impetus to horse-trading among various koenkai, as candidates in neighboring districts began seeking to swap votes to amass the higher level of support that they will need to win.9 Accordingly, a candidate's personal appeal has become even more important; that has meant spending more money and effort to become acquainted with individual voters.10 A first-term NSP candidate, Koichiro Genba, recently summed up his frustrations in preparing for the upcoming lower house polls: "Contrary to the original intention, the introduction of the single-seat system will enhance voters' inclination to select a candidate based on personal appeal rather than the policy goals of the party.11

Some experts, in fact, attribute Mr. Hashimoto's desire to delay a call for lower house elections to the difficulties that LDP members are experiencing in building support at the local level. For the same reasons Mr. Murayama, cognizant that his party is disadvantaged in the single-seat races, prevailed on Mr. Hashimoto to wait for at least six months to call elections to allow the SDPJ more time to shore up its image. Mr. Murayama's apparent hope is that the Socialists will be able to hang onto at least some of their Diet seats by virtue of the proportional representation mechanism. And, despite Mr. Ozawa's bluster and outrage concerning the ruling coalition's allegedly undemocratic transfer of power, insiders contend that Shinshinto members, too, are not yet adequately prepared at the grass roots to square off with the LDP in the single-seat races. Although the political opposition will continue to ride the LDP-led government on the jusen issue and the Okinawa controversy may stir pacifist sentiments, experts insist that the adage "all politics are local" still applies strongly in Japan. The rhetorical battle between Messrs. Hashimoto and Ozawa at the top of the political pyramid may have little or no bearing on what happens at the grass-roots base, these analysts maintain.12

The LDP's concern about Shinshinto's local vote-gathering capabilities, in fact, is related to the ruling coalition's efforts in late 1995 to revise the Religious Corporation Law, which it succeeded in doing, as well as its continuing efforts to pass legislative guidelines clarifying a "proper" relationship between politicians and religious groups. Last year's initiative to revise the Religious Corporation Law ostensibly was aimed at easing public concerns about the activities of "extremist" religious cults by giving the Ministry of Education more authority to monitor these groups, among other provisions. In the aftermath of the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which allegedly was orchestrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, more and more Japanese people became worried that such religious groups, if not properly "watched," could cause widespread public harm (see JEI Report No. 12B, March 31, 1995).

The not-so-hidden agenda of the Liberal Democrats in pushing for these reforms has been to intimidate Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist lay group, as well as to draw attention to this group's ties to Shinshinto. Soka Gakkai members account for roughly 8 percent to 10 percent of the voting public. Shinshinto successfully demonstrated last year in an upper house by-election in Saga prefecture that the Buddhist lay group could be instrumental in delivering a sizable portion of votes. Cognizant of the exponential impact of vote swings in the single-seat races — and the fact that Soka Gakkai effectively could tip the balance in races throughout the country — the ruling coalition has tried to play on people's horrors concerning the charges against Aum Shinrikyo. In the process the government hopes to create associated concerns about the Shinshinto-Soka Gakkai tie and, in turn, raise questions among voters about the leading opposition party's fitness for leadership.


New System But Old Dynamics

The Western media commonly depicts the rivalry between Messrs. Hashimoto and Ozawa as evidence of the emergence of a U.S.-style two-party system. For the first time in recent history Japanese voters will be presented with the choice of two strong leaders articulating different visions for Japan.13 Mr. Ozawa has spoken and written extensively on the need to reform Japan's political system, deregulate the economy and elevate Japan's diplomatic profile. Mr. Hashimoto has stressed the importance of approaching these policy changes more cautiously. To outside observers the strength and the substantive differences of the two party leaders contrast with the LDP-dominant, pre-1993 era when the battle at the top in effect pitted "apples versus apples," or personality-driven LDP factions against one another. As the above analysis suggests, however, this reasoning ignores what is happening at the local level.

The new electoral plan has yet to succeed in altering engrained political habits, experts propose, because the underlying Japanese political culture remains the same. Despite the media attention given the political reform legislation when it was debated in the Diet, Japanese voters, as noted earlier, still tend to regard their representatives as favor givers and protectors of local interests rather than as policymakers. The average Japanese, therefore, is more inclined to support a politician because of his or her efforts to make a personal connection.14 With the exception of hot-button, pocketbook issues, such as the jusen mess, a candidate's discourse on deregulation or Japan's diplomatic goals tends not to resonate in the local audience. In addition, as declining voter turnouts in recent elections attest, the average Japanese is becoming more fed up and disinterested in politics and politicians because, in his or her view, the process has yet to provide meaningful change (see JEI Report No. 18A, May 12, 1995).

Some commentators also attribute voter apathy to the public's considerable confusion about what policies the various parties support. The demise of the Cold War order has eliminated an ideological cleavage that made differences between the conservative LDP and the left-leaning SDPJ and the Japan Communist Party quite obvious to voters. With the exception of the JCP, most political parties now lean toward the right of the political spectrum. Thus, even when candidates attempt to serve up policy-oriented stump speeches, the average Japanese often is left wondering, for example, what an LDP-led government would do differently than a Shinshinto-headed regime in the area of foreign policy, since both parties basically support the U.S.-Japan alliance and favor a greater role for Japan in world affairs.15 The lack of clarity on party ideology reinforces voters' tendencies to regard more highly the "man" or "the woman" at the expense of "the message."


Intraparty Maneuvering Intensifies

Despite Shinshinto's reformist message, the recent emergence of several "policy study groups" (benkyo kai) within the largest opposition party — which to seasoned political observers closely resemble LDP-type factions — further indicates that Japanese politicians have reverted to tried-and-true means to ensure their political survival. The pre-1993 LDP factions served as power centers of sorts, dominated by one individual who bestowed political favors and brokered deals aimed at accumulating power and influence for members of that group. Although the LDP theoretically abolished factions in 1994, political experts contend that these groups still exist informally; to many observers this reality suggests that, political reforms notwithstanding, old political habits die hard in Japan. In one analyst's words the emerging Shinshinto groups likewise are not so much about developing policy as "find[ing] strength in numbers and gain[ing] political advantage within the party."16 Other commentators suggest that the rise of the largest opposition party's benkyo kai as well as similar internal jockeying within other parties provide clues as to party realignments following the first lower house elections under the new system.

Further underscoring the continued importance of personalities over policy in Japanese politics, the development of Shinshinto benkyo kai appears to be a function of members' respect or antipathy for Mr. Ozawa. The 50 Shinshinto upper and lower house members who started the benkyo kai-cum-faction trend in late January supported former Prime Minister Hata in the Shinshinto leadership race in December. These supporters, who include Mr. Hosokawa, strongly dislike Mr. Ozawa's heavy-handed approach to party management. Insiders contend that, while policy discussions are the pretext for this group, in reality Mr. Hata created a "tent" to give him greater leverage in his dealings with the Shinshinto chief. It has become an open secret that the former prime minister plans to leave Shinshinto one day, possibly to tie up with a left-leaning group comprised of the SDPJ and the NSP or even to rejoin the LDP.17 Although experts say that it is highly unlikely that Mr. Hata and his supporters would break away from Shinshinto before the lower house polls, the fact that the ex-premier has a unified bloc of supporters who would be willing to walk out in short order makes Mr. Ozawa's position more precarious.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Shinshinto chief's supporters responded quickly to the Hata benkyo kai initiative by announcing plans to form their own group sometime in February. Observers in Japan also note, however, that another group of Shinshinto members from the former Komeito appears poised to form its own study group later this spring. Shinshinto derives its Soka Gakkai backing through members of the former Komeito, which for years has enjoyed close ties with this religious group. In view of Soka Gakkai's potent vote-getting power the expected Komeito study group may prove to be a boon — or a bane — to Mr. Ozawa, depending on whether the Shinshinto chief can patch relations with ex-Komeito secretary general Yuichi Ichikawa. The former Komeito official, who is regarded as a savvy political operator in his own right, apparently is angry with Mr. Ozawa for pushing him out of the senior leadership loop last fall. Insiders speculate that the Shinshinto chief could find himself on shakier ground if Mr. Ichikawa is tapped to lead the anticipated Komeito study group.18

A developing generational rift in the LDP also may have important implications for postelectoral party alignments, particularly in light of maneuvering within the leading opposition party. On the one side are younger LDP members, led by party secretary general Koichi Kato; they believe that the Liberal Democrats should strengthen their ties with the SDPJ and the NSP. This 70-odd member group of junior politicians, called Group New Century, are not optimistic that the LDP will be able to win a majority of the lower house seats in the next elections. If that happens, the LDP will continue to need its current coalition partners to maintain the upper hand in the House of Representatives and hang onto the premiership. Additionally, this group, frustrated by the staid, seniority-bound LDP leadership structure, advocates a merit-based approach to awarding party posts. Members contend that by allowing talented, young politicians to rise more quickly through the party's ranks the LDP would be better able to project a more vigorous, innovative image.

On the other side are older LDP members, led by LDP Secretary General Seiroku Kajiyama; they want to get rid of the SDPJ/NSP pacifist baggage and join forces with disaffected Shinshinto elements. This camp, which includes such LDP doyens as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, has been courting actively the Hata benkyo kai to form a new conservative bloc, referred to as ho-ho rengo. Pundits construe this proposed union as the LDP old guard's attempt to reclaim government control as "in the old days." For this reason Mr. Kato wants to block the union; a ho-ho rengo would resurrect the autocratic leadership structure that prevailed in the pre-1993 period, he apparently fears.19

Mr. Hashimoto shrewdly is straddling both camps at the moment in order to keep the LDP behind him, particularly as he grapples with the jusen crisis. But following the lower house polls — if not before — he will be forced to choose sides. Experts suggest that the prime minister's decision concerning future coalition partners ironically will hinge on his Shinshinto rival's behavior. If Mr. Ozawa fails to mend fences with Mr. Hata, the LDP chief may find that he is welcoming former colleagues back into the fold.

Mr. Kajiyama — who is said to possess an intimate knowledge of Mr. Ozawa's tactics, having learned the political ropes from the same LDP mentors — no doubt anticipates that the savvy Shinshinto leader may surprise everyone and find a way to keep his party together. For this reason the SDPJ and the NSP by default may be asked to team up again with the Liberal Democrats, particularly if these two parties can provide the margin needed to clinch control of the lower house.

The Socialist party might shun such an offer, however, particularly if Mr. Murayama makes progress in the coming months in bringing the NSP under the SDPJ's wing and guiding the creation of a new, liberal identity for the party. Moreover, other important Socialist party members, such as Finance Minister Wataru Kubo and former SDPJ chairman Sadao Yamahana, believe that the SDPJ can play an important and useful role in Japan's political scheme by serving as a "third pole" that provides voters with an alternative to the conservative LDP and Shinshinto. In view of Mr. Murayama's tentative leadership style as well as his status quo-oriented sensibilities, however, most observers are only cautiously optimistic that the SDPJ chief can revamp his party in a way that satisfies Mr. Kubo and other advocates of a more dramatic reworking.



Japanese politics will remain extremely volatile in the months leading up to the lower house polls, which most experts agree probably will not occur at least until the fall. Because of the pressures on candidates to build grass-roots support, all parties stand to benefit if the elections are scheduled later rather than sooner. Mr. Hashimoto, too, needs time to resolve potentially damaging issues, such as the jusen crisis. At this stage, experts suggest, one of the few things that might push up the elections timetable is if Shinshinto were to expose truly egregious behavior by ruling coalition members in dealing with the jusen (for example, accepting kickbacks for introducing clients to the housing loan companies); a revelation of this nature might leave the prime minister with no choice but to step down.20 For that matter, all the major political parties can be expected to use hot-button issues to hammer away at each other's credibility or to enhance their image as the party (or parties) most capable of governing Japan. But, as the intraparty maneuvering and various grass-roots initiatives suggest, ideology and policy will not be driving developments.

The scramble by candidates to broaden their support bases at the local level as well as the emergence of pseudo-factions no doubt are causing some crafters of the electoral reform plan to shake their heads in amazement at the resistance of Japan's political culture to change. Some commentators propose that Japanese politicians are unlikely to alter their behavior until first-hand experience demonstrates in a way that really counts that the old way of doing things either does not work or is not cost-effective.21 Other analysts point out that it also will take time to reshape voters' perceptions of their representatives as policymakers, not merely purveyors of pork. Conventional wisdom holds that it will take at least two, if not three, elections for both politicians and voters to become accustomed to the new system. Until then politicians will rely on precisely those engrained political habits that many of them lambasted during the political reform debate.

Mr. Kato of the LDP said in a recent newspaper interview that it probably will take 30 to 40 years before Japan has a mechanism, similar to the U.S. two-party system, that allows for more frequent alternation of the parties in power.22 This statement suggests that evolution is possible. Politics, politicians and voters will continue to change — but in a far more incremental manner than perhaps reform proponents anticipated.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

Top aaaa Issue Index aaaa 1996 Archive Indexaaaa Search aaaa Subscriber Area aaaa Home


1aa Communication via electronic mail with Robert C. Angel, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, January 31, 1996. Return to Text

2aa Mr. Murayama has led his party to the brink of meaninglessness and now is struggling to give it new meaning. In order to gain access to government power through a coalition with the LDP the SDPJ chief reversed heretofore key pacifist tenets of the Socialist party platform, such as those that renounced the U.S.-Japan security treaty and the legality of the Self-Defense Forces. He took this action, moreover, without undergoing the requisite grass roots-and-beyond consensus-building process. This blatant political opportunism angered die-hard pacifists within the party and led to charges that Mr. Murayama had sacrificed the SDPJ's identity. For the past year the SDPJ chief has been challenged by the attempts of senior party officials to dissolve the Socialist party and reinvent it in a European-style liberal mold. The goal of such a transformation, proponents say, is to offer voters a political alternative to the LDP, Shinshinto and other smaller parties on the right of the political spectrum. Thus, Mr. Murayama wanted, and needed, to be relieved of the premiership so that he could devote his time and energy to quashing the revolt and regrouping the party. This consolidation is necessary, experts say, because the Socialist party could incur steep losses under the new electoral system for the Diet's lower house, particularly if it approaches the polls in a disorganized manner. Return to Text

3aa John F. Neuffer, Behind the Screen: Roundup of Japanese Politics (Tokyo: Mitsui Marine Research Institute, January 29, 1996), p. 4. Return to Text

4aa Interview with Mike Mochizuki, The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., February 9, 1996. Return to Text

5aa Neuffer, op. cit., p. 4. Return to Text

6aa Communication via electronic mail with Leonard Schoppa, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, February 10, 1996. Return to Text

7aa Steven R. Reed, "Thinking About The Heiritsu-sei: A Structural Learning Approach," in Gendaikeizai Kenkyu Center, Public Choice Studies (24th Issue) (Tokyo: 1994), p. 52. Return to Text

8aa Schoppa, op. cit. Return to Text

9aa Telephone interview with Nathaniel Thayer, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C., February 1, 1996. Return to Text

10aa Communication via electronic mail with Stephen J. Anderson, International University of Japan, Tokyo, January 31, 1996. Return to Text

11aa Toshio Shimura and Yuzo Saeki, "Old Pols Warm Up For New Election Game," The Nikkei Weekly, November 20, 1995, p. 1. Return to Text

12aa Thayer, op. cit. Return to Text

13aa See, for example, David P. Hamilton and Michael Williams, "Hashimoto Faces Immediate Concerns In His New Post Over Economy, Politics," The Asian Wall Street Journal, January 15, 1996, p. 3. Return to Text

14aa Thayer, op. cit. Return to Text

15aa Mochizuki, op. cit. Return to Text

16aa Neuffer, op. cit., p. 3. Return to Text

17aa Neuffer, op. cit., p. 3. Return to Text

18aa Neuffer, op. cit., p. 3. Return to Text

19aa Neuffer, op. cit., p. 3. Return to Text

20aa Neuffer, op. cit., p. 1. Return to Text

21aa Schoppa, op. cit. Return to Text

22aa Toshio Shinmura and Yuzo Saeki, "Winning Majority Will Be Tough For LDP," The Nikkei Weekly, January 29, 1996, p. 4. Return to Text

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

Top aaaa Issue Index aaaa 1996 Archive Indexaaaa Search aaaa Subscriber Area aaaa Home