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JAPAN : Political Survival Is the Name of the New Game

January 14, 1996|Norman D. Levin | Norman D. Levin, a senior analyst at RAND, was on the policy-planning staff at the State Department from 1984-87

Beneath the surprise resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and his replacement by Ryutaro Hashimoto, coupled with the election of Ichiro Ozawa as head of Japan's main opposition party, is a country in the throes of a political transition. For those eager for rapid and radical change, this transition can be frustrating. So gradual are the changes that one may fairly conclude there really is no change. But the trends are unmistakable.

The sudden changes at the political top have spawned two contrasting interpretations. According to one, Hashimoto's rise heralds the advent of a new era, with strong leadership in Tokyo and major policy changes ahead. Japan is portrayed as having reached a fork in the political road: A "titanic" battle between "reformers" and the "old guard" over Japan's future course is coming.

The second interpretation stresses not change but continuity. Indeed, some observers worry that the changes in political leadership may even end the reforms begun by previous governments and reverse progress toward a more open and responsive nation.

After nearly four decades of one-party rule, two failed "reformist" governments and a year and a half of feeble Socialist Party leadership, Japan certainly appears ripe for new departures. Economic growth remains anemic. The banking system is in disarray. And other problems--such as a budget deficit that could reach nearly $240 billion this year and growing strains in Japan's relationship with the United States--reinforce the impression that change is inevitable. "New vision" books by both Hashimoto and Ozawa have fed this premonition of impending change.

But in the short term, any expectations for dramatic change are likely to be disappointed. Whatever Japanese leaders may say about "new visions," the name of the game in Japan is not policy but political survival. This preoccupation is spurred by Japan's new electoral system, which replaces multiple-seat constituencies (three or four candidates could make it into the Diet on only a fraction of the vote) with single-seat districts (the victor will be the top vote-getter).

In addition to these structural changes, the unity required to institute major new departures is present in neither of the dominant political groupings. This is certainly true in the coalition led by Hashimoto: Fundamental philosophical differences among the ruling parties preclude agreement on any but the lowest common denominator. But the main opposition grouping is similarly constrained. Here, political rivalries and intramural differences raise broader questions about how long Ozawa will be able to hold his followers together. Indeed, the substantive policy differences within each of the coalitions make those between Hashimoto and Ozawa pale by comparison.

Finally, no consensus--or, by all appearances, desire--exists for radical policy change among the Japanese public. There are, to be sure, many signs of public dissatisfaction with, and even cynicism about, Japanese politics. These include sharply declining voting rates, rising numbers of people identifying themselves as supporters of no political party and a new willingness to elect non-traditional candidates to prominent political offices. Many Japanese would welcome stronger leadership. But the general mood is more one of apathy than agitation, which does not readily translate into demands for new policies.

Predictors of a continuation of the status quo find support in these same developments. If nothing else, the "sudden" resignation of a Japanese prime minister (which virtually everyone in Japan believed was long overdue), prompting the back-room selection of another prime minister from a different party (which most Japanese commentators deplored), based on a "policy platform" cobbled together almost overnight (which not even coalition leaders themselves disguised as anything but a hodgepodge of past compromises) hardly augurs a "new" Japan.

But worries about a reversion to past practices are also exaggerated. Leaving aside the fact that "reform" did not make much headway even under "reformist" governments, the underlying political transition continues. This evolution is now being driven as much by the new electoral system as by any individual Japanese leader. At least one or two elections under the new system will probably be necessary before the future can be discerned. But three trends suggest its general direction:

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