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Looking Beyond the Numbers in Japan's Election : Vote: Experts can't agree on what is happening in Japan. But certain forces--the country's basic conservatism, for example--still prevail.

July 18, 1993|Norman D. Levin | Norman D. Levin , a senior analyst at RAND , served on the policy planning staff of the State Department from 1984-1987.

OK, take out your No. 2 pencil and circle your choice: The election in Japan today will mark:

a) the advent of a "reformist" era in Japanese politics, when leaders will throw open Japan's markets and adopt a more activist and cooperative international posture;

b) the resuscitation of Japanese "conservatism," involving a new push for constitutional revision, major Japanese rearmament and the end of Japan's long-standing "pro-American" political and security agenda;

c) the adoption of new tactics to avoid real change, elevating Japanese efforts to avoid both U.S. pressures for greater access to Japan's markets and domestic pressures for political reform to a new, more cynical level.

If you chose a), you're betting there are guys in white hats waiting to ride in and rescue Japanese citizens from decades of socioeconomic neglect, political corruption and international disrespect. If you chose b), you're buying off on the guys in black hats who have been lurking in the background, waiting for an opportunity to rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes and restore Japan's "independence" and historical greatness. If you chose c), you're voting for the guys in gray hats, the ones America's "revisionists" have been warning about, the masterminds behind Japan's global strategy to frustrate U.S. competition and ensure Japanese dominance of the world economy.

Don't feel bad if you're confused by the choices: Each of these scenarios has been put forward by serious observers as the likely result of, if not intent behind, the overthrow of the Miyazawa government.

Unfortunately, instant analyses of the election results are not likely to be helpful either. Most commentators judged the July, 1989, upper house election--in which Japan's Socialist Party, or JSP, captured more than one-third of the seats up for election and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, lost its majority in the upper house for the first time in its postwar history--as a rebirth of the leftist political opposition and advent of a new, "progressive-conservative coalition" era.

The next upper house elections, in 1992, were universally regarded as an "historic" victory for the LDP--with the ruling party capturing 69 of the 127 seats at stake. Yet the number of seats held by the LDP after its "historic" success (108) was two less than the number of seats (110) it held after its "defeat" in 1989. Meanwhile, the LDP has continued to decay from within, while the very existence of the JSP as a viable political entity has increasingly come into question.

Reading the election returns, therefore, we'd be wise to look both beneath and beyond the numbers, to some fundamental forces and trends likely to shape Japan's political future. These include:

Japan's conservatism. It is true that public disgust with recurrent government scandals is widespread in Japan today. At a minimum, this could well lead to a sizable protest vote--in fact or by abstention--in today's election. But it is also true that the Japanese remain a conservative people. Maintaining order and minimizing surprise are considered virtues, not vices.

The peculiar characteristics of Japan's electoral system, coupled with the organizational weaknesses of the opposition parties, reinforce this conservatism and heighten the difficulty of radical political transformation. Unless there is an almost complete collapse of the ruling LDP in the coming months--because of escalating corruption revelations--these realities are likely to ensure that the party will remain the dominant political force in Japan for some time. The ultimate winner will be the party that can best position itself as the guarantor of competence and stability.

Japan ' s growing pluralism and political complexity. While successive Japanese governments have focused on export-led growth and controlling key technologies, Japanese society itself has become more multifaceted. Negative population growth, a rapidly aging society and an increasing gap in personal assets have fragmented Japanese public interests and spawned new perceptions of social inequity. At the same time, Japan's objective economic accomplishments have bolstered national pride and self-confidence.

These trends create a policy environment far more demanding than the one Japanese leaders are accustomed to. Over time, a shrinking work force, declining savings rates and rising outlays for social welfare will hinder the government's growth objectives, while increasing the salience of "quality of life" issues. A more fluid, and possibly threatening, external environment will heighten public demands for a steady hand in guiding Japanese foreign affairs, at the same time that the public will seek more positive roles for Japan to play internationally. Addressing these multiple demands will preoccupy future Japanese leaders.

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