Tectonic Upheavals Await Ruling LDP

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles, Asia

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has ruled Japan for all but one of the last 53 years. But the LDP’s unpopularity, the rise of a strong second party with a charismatic leader and a limp economy may combine to upend Japanese politics in 2008.

At its party congress on Jan. 17, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, leader of the LDP, confessed that his party faces the biggest crisis in its history.

Up close, Japanese politics is not quite as monolithic as the LDP’s half-century dominance might suggest. Strong second parties have played a role for the last two decades. Within the LDP itself, a host of factions compete for influence. But observers are divided on whether these underlying currents in Japanese politics are shaped more by personality or by policy. In other words, has the ruling party seen its fortunes plummet because of the departure of the flamboyant and popular Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister from 2001 to 2006, or because of its positions on key policies?

“Many observers point out the importance of personality in Japanese politics, especially the personal bonding among politicians. This theory is consistent with the conventional wisdom that policy and policy differences have little impact,” explains Junko Kato, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo and the keynote presenter at a forum sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Washington, DC on Jan. 17. “Personal chemistry seems to explain the frequent break-up, merger, formation, and extinction of different parties.”

But Kato believes that policy does, in fact, matter in Japanese politics: it’s not just a matter of personality. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by former LDP politician Ichiro Ozawa, surprised many observers when it won control of Japan’s upper house in elections last summer. “The DPJ’s advantage is its policy positions,” Kato argues. “It has boasted a centrist position against the equally conservative policies of the LDP and the New Frontier Party.”

“Pound for pound, the DPJ policy people were extraordinarily good,” reports Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, on his visits with DPJ officials. “They have a small and under-resourced department, but there was a seriousness inside the policy apparatus. The LDP was well-resourced, but the policy staff was flabby and lazy in comparison.”

The DPJ’s policy positions seemed to play a role in its victory at the polls. By opposing Japan’s contribution to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, for instance, the DPJ was able to distance itself from the ruling party in the minds of voters.


Ellis Kraus believes in the importance of looking beneath policies and personalities at the underlying institutional change. A professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at the University of California, San Diego, Kraus has analyzed structural shifts in the Japanese political landscape. “Journalists love to say that nothing has changed in Japanese politics, that the LDP is just collection of factions. But the truth is, the electoral reform of 1993 has changed a tremendous amount in Japanese politics. This is not your father’s or your grandfather’s politics in Japan.”

The electoral reforms have, for instance, increased the importance of the cabinet, Krauss argues. Appointments, which increasingly go to women and to policy experts, are more likely to be made on the basis of popularity with voters. And the cabinet minister has more power now in comparison to interest groups within the party or higher level civil servants. “Until the mid-1980s,” Kraus argues, “support for the prime minister and the cabinet was almost coterminous.” But that has changed, and the Japanese public now differentiates between the party and the prime minister.

Koizumi’s popularity at a time when voters held his party in rather low regard is a case in point. Junko Kato points out that Koizumi’s popularity with the voters was at odds with his unpopularity within his own party. She attributes this contradiction to the prime minister’s independent policy positions -– such as his support for the privatisation of the postal banking system – and his frequent appeals directly to public opinion.

“I find Koizumi’s popularity amazing and staggering because he did quite the opposite of what most people think he did,” Clemons argues. “In the long run, he turned out to be not the populist or the hard or soft nationalist. By supporting the Iraq actions of the United States and stepping away from the UN process, Koizumi moved Japan toward being a ‘normal nation,’ and away from a country that saw sovereignty as derived from multilateralism. Koizumi moved Japan toward a bland nation playing realpolitik.’’

Clemons believes that Koizumi moved to the right in order to co-opt influential figures like Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist author of ‘The Japan That Can Say No’ who went on to become governor of Tokyo in 1999. Kraus takes a slightly different view of Koizumi’s strategy, viewing him as “more of a maverick” than a right-wing nationalist and “a political reformer not an economic reformer” for his attempts to align Japan’s political system with the British model.

Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, was widely touted as more nationalist and conservative, in part because of his association with hard-line positions toward North Korea. Abe saw his own popularity and that of his party fall as a result of corruption scandals, including mismanagement of the pension system.

Japan’s current prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, now presides over a fragile party facing a direct challenge from the opposition DPJ. Although he isn’t required to hold general elections until September 2009, Fukuda will likely face increasing pressure from the opposition to call for elections this year.

Personality-wise, Fukuda is more on the “cold pizza” side of the spectrum, as the press once dubbed the similarly unprepossessing former prime minister Keizo Obuchi. On policies, Fukuda continues to push for Japan to restart a naval mission that supports U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan and wants to retain a fuel tax over the objections of the opposition. But Steven Clemons cautions that Fukuda is not simply a status quo leader. “What he articulated in his New Year’s greeting was as anti-Abe and anti-Koizumi as you could get. It reflected Japan’s reverence for multilateralism and international mechanisms. He has moved the LDP closer to the center.”

“It is difficult for the LDP to shift to the centre,” Junko Kato disagrees. “Some LDP members are really committed to conservative ideology. If the LDP tries strategically to shift to the centre, it will face another internal crisis.”

Inter Press Service, January 20, 2008

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