The Economist Banyan column on the LDP’s terminal decline


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Hi Blog.  The election is approaching, and it looks as though we really will get a change in government, which may change everything.  I’m surprisingly hopeful at this juncture.  To open this discussion, here’s a column from last month’s Economist, a very thought-provoking one on what one-party politics (in that, Japan has effectively had one political party in power longer than some countries with only one political party!) has done to Japan as a society.

The most eyebrow-raising claim within is that Aso isn’t giving up his leadership to somebody else because of a “family honour” thing — between him and another political Brahmin, even if he is in the opposition party:  “The man who will bring the LDP’s rule to an end this summer is Hatoyama’s grandson, Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the DPJ. Family honour is demanding its due: for Shigeru Yoshida’s grandson, it is nobler to fall to Ichiro Hatoyama’s descendant than to succumb to mere LDP hoplites.” Do readers agree?

Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Banyan Column
End of the line for the LDP
Jul 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Japan has long been changing faster than its Liberal Democratic Party, which is now in terminal decline

HIS distraught colleagues cannot forgive Taro Aso for calling a general election on August 30th, following a dismal stint as prime minister. They accuse him of setting up the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) for a landslide victory, so bringing the long rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to an abrupt and ignominious end.

Yet the question is not why the LDP’s rule looks about to end soon. Rather it is how on earth the party managed to cling on to power for so long. A once-invincible party failed to adapt to wholesale changes in the social and economic model that it was set up to manage. If its 54-year rule really does come to a halt, that fact alone will confront both party and country with wrenching change and unprecedented uncertainty.

Few things more powerfully demonstrate the inbred character of LDP-dominated politics than its family background. Mr Aso’s grandfather, Shigeru Yoshida, was the great statesman of shattered Japan’s post-war reconstruction. Yoshida’s rule came to an end in 1954 when he was unseated as prime minister by his nemesis, Ichiro Hatoyama. The next year the two men joined forces and the Liberal Party merged with the Japan Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japan’s politics ever since. The man who will bring the LDP’s rule to an end this summer is Hatoyama’s grandson, Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the DPJ. Family honour is demanding its due: for Shigeru Yoshida’s grandson, it is nobler to fall to Ichiro Hatoyama’s descendant than to succumb to mere LDP hoplites. In any case, Mr Aso knows no one can save his party now.

That is because its history runs so deep. Old Hatoyama and Yoshida formed the LDP as a bulwark against resurgent socialist parties and the political system they devised seems expressly designed to resist change. The American occupiers had anyway pushed Japan in a conservative direction as early as 1948, when the risk of communist revolution in Japan and China—to say nothing of the Soviet threat—had come to be seen as a greater peril than militarism. The Korean war reinforced these priorities, while adding an economic dimension: the United States needed Japan’s economy to be humming again to help the war effort.

Thus developed Japan’s characteristic mix of anti-communist—even anti-civic—politics with state-directed development and policy set by bureaucrats. Yoshida founded the Ministry for International Trade and Industry, MITI, whose bureaucrats were famously powerful. Trust-busting efforts were quickly wound down after the second world war. Oligopolies—in the form of the former zaibatsu conglomerates—were supported, even if they had been implicated in Japanese aggression. A man accused of war crimes became a notable post-war prime minister and Yakuza gang bosses consorted with top politicians and helped put down left-wing protests. The political and bureaucratic system was solidly made and has lasted, like so many things in Japan. But its origins, and its effects on Japan, were ultimately rotten.

In some countries—Italy, say—incestuous politics is resented, mocked or circumvented by the rest of the country. During Japan’s boom years, it seemed to be delivering the goods. Outside the radical left, most Japanese were bought off by a social contract in which politicians, bureaucrats and big business arranged the country’s economic affairs. Businesses won preferential finance and in return offered “salarymen” job guarantees and the dream of a middle-class life. But the contract could be honoured only with high rates of growth, and the oil shocks of the early 1970s put paid to these.

Perhaps this might have been the end of the LDP, but political competition had been so stifled that there was nothing to take the party’s place. Instead, the crisis of the 1970s led to a steep rise in corruption. Factional competition within the party increased. Fund-raising skills came to the fore (in Japan, like America, politicians mostly finance their own campaigns). So did the ability to fund public works in rural areas that were still the LDP’s base. Corruption cemented local baronies and for a good while won votes. Even today the late Kakuei Tanaka, an astonishingly corrupt prime minister, is more often praised than cursed.

The beginning of the end

A 19th-century Russian said that Europe’s democracies were moderated by corruption. Japan had corruption moderated by democracy. During the 1980s, the LDP managed to adapt itself somewhat to new political concerns, such as pollution and the success of issue-driven opposition figures in cities and prefectures. The party even lost power briefly in 1993 and, in 2001-06, a razzle-dazzle prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, seemed to be giving it a new lease on life.

But by the time Mr Koizumi came along, the tension had become intolerable between the change-resisting features of politics on the one hand, and the reality of profound economic and social upheaval on the other. Companies could no longer keep lifetime promises to workers yet the government failed to take over social-welfare obligations. Women wanted better work prospects yet ministers would refer to them as “breeding machines”. The demands of civic groups for more consumer protection were met grudgingly and late.

Now, the LDP has abandoned nearly all pretence at reform. Though the party has plenty of modernisers, many—notably the so-called Koizumi’s children—will be the first to be swept out on August 30th while the old guard may survive better because they have their own sources of funding and support. That the LDP is still so mired in the past shows both why its fall would be such an historic moment and why it would also be only the start of real change. The party was the keystone of a political system that has long been crumbling. To effect change means not just replacing the keystone but painstakingly rebuilding the arch.


5 comments on “The Economist Banyan column on the LDP’s terminal decline

  • I’ve been watching the election/campaigning coverage leading up to the elections at the end of the month and what has struck me is how similar the LDP is to the Republican Party during the recent Presidential Elections in its rhetoric. Their main tactic is to spread fear and doubt about the other party, primarily the DPJ; how there are many scary things out there waiting to pounce on Japan and that they (the LDP) are the only ones who can protect the people. And like the Republican Party, while they were standing on the castle walls making sure the shores and horizon were clear of enemies, they have been completely ignoring the festering problems within those same walls.
    I am not so convinced as the writer of this article that the LDP will fall with this upcoming general election. I have many concerns that the Japanese populace will buy into the LDP’s sales pitch because it’s easier for them to be afraid than to be brave enough to take a chance on someone new (it’s culturally embedded). However, the recent Tokyo elections surprised me so maybe there will be another surprise come August 30.

  • Jean Patrick says:

    absolutely, why is it so hard to take a responsible stance as a nation and exercise the right to choose a better future for this country? Why keep in place the same dinosaurs who brought just disgrace and yet even fail to assume responsability for that? Come on Japan, is time to look ahead and bring new blood into the leadership of this country, no more selfish morons who don’t care to look farther than the tip of their own noses…

  • Not a bad article considering it is the Economist, but it still sticks well within the “gaijin reporting on Japan” paradigm.

    No mention, of course, of the electoral system that worked in favor of the LDP and acted to ensure that the Socialists found that holding their rather radical line on foreign policy kept them out of power, especially during the period after the oil shocks, when they potentially had a real shot at seizing power.

    In fact, the change of the electoral system, probably the most important factor in explaining the rise of the DPJ and movements within the LDP since the late 1990s, is not mentioned at all. It explains so much, and yet we are simply told that fatigue with corruption and party stasis is the only reason people are voting the LDP out. Well, that is because under the old system there was more room for factional infighting, which meant the LDP could eternally renew itself. Under the new system, it can’t really do this.

    The historical parallelism is also bullshit. I see no indication whatsoever that Aso is more comfortable losing this election to Hatoyama than he would be to anyone else. Aso does not want to lose, period. And that is why he is grasping at the fear straws. He knows the LDP has nothing left to offer in terms of policy or credibility.

  • Cap’n Aso there’s an iceberg ahead!
    What iceberg? I don’t see no iceberg!
    But sir, it’s huge!
    There ain’t no iceberg! Full speed ahead!
    Aye! Aye! Sir!

  • On the subject of the electoral system, I recall reading somewhere that not only do people in the countryside have about 2.5 times the representation of those in the city, but also that the Supreme Court doesn’t think this is anti-democratic!

    — We’ll need a source, sorry.


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