The Rising East


Sunday, April 22, 2001

Japan’s political
rise remains stymied by
mysterious paralysis

WHEN THE GOVERNMENT led by Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa fell in 1993, many Japan-watchers, including this one, thought that marked the end of postwar politics in Japan. He was the last prime minister to have been a protégé of the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the towering figure of the post-World War II era.

That old guard was to be replaced by leaders who were younger, more open to innovation and more internationally minded, people who would use Japan's economic strength to propel their nation into a prominent place in the Asian sun. American leaders looked forward to relying on an assertive and imaginative Japan as an ally.

It hasn't happened. As Japan prepares to choose, on Tuesday, its seventh prime minister in eight years, there are no signs on the horizon that it will happen anytime soon. Instead, Japan will most likely remain stuck in a political quagmire.

For the United States, and especially for President Bush's administration, this must surely be discouraging. Even before taking office, the president and his senior foreign policy advisers talked about reviving the alliance with Japan, in contrast to President Clinton's effort to curry favor with China. Under their breath, officials of the new administration suggested that Japan could help offset the rise of Chinese power. The paralysis in Tokyo, however, would appear to preclude that.

It's hard to figure out why the Japanese are politically stagnant despite their education, economic prowess and ability to pull together. In pulsing Japanese thinkers and Western "Japan hands," no one could come up with a neat, incisive explanation. But each pointed to revealing clues.

Shinichi Kitaoka, of the University of Tokyo, asserted: "Politics has become rigid with custom and force of habit." He told the Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper. "Culturally, Japanese tend to avoid having power and responsibility concentrated on any one person. That's why we avoid concentrating power on the prime minister."

The Japanese prime minister, unlike the American president, is the chairman, the first among equals, of a cabinet that supposedly exercises collective leadership. That cabinet, however, reflects a coalition of factions, which are feudal fiefdoms of personal loyalties and money garnered from special interests and parceled out by the leader.

Kitaoka said old-line Japanese politicians attach "greater importance to maintaining factions than to the question of who makes the best leader." In addition, he said, "we talk about political consensus but, in reality, those who make a point of speaking out are the ones with vested interests."

James Auer, of Vanderbilt University, suggested that a majority of Japanese are comfortable despite the doldrums in which their economy has been languishing for nearly a decade. "Very few Japanese are suffering and everyplace I go in Japan I still see construction and excess consumption."

Both Japanese and Americans see the nation's bureaucracy as a cause of lethargy. For a long time, said a Japanese who preferred not to be named, "Japan was ruled by the massive and quite competent bureaucracy. The quality of politicians was quite low."

In recent years, that bureaucracy has been tainted by scandal and allegations of corruption -- and some bureaucrats have been elected to the Diet, or parliament. Therefore, the Japanese observer said, "Japan's politics are now in the hands of totally incompetent elected officials in the Diet."

A retired American diplomat who also asked not to be named ticked off a list of cultural facets that hamper political leadership: "The risk aversion in the Japanese educational and nurturing system. The drive for conformity. The lack of challenge; the Japanese have had it pretty good for the past 30 years. The intense focus on internal minutiae. The struggle for power sucks energy away from fresh thought."

Then there are seats in the Diet handed down from father to son to grandson, allowing politicians to rise without the struggle that fosters leadership. "Defeated politicians feel they have been robbed of a right, not defeated in a contest," the diplomat said.

Finally, Kitaoka asserted that the media "are also to blame for slipshod politics." Press reporting, he contended, "gives the impression that we're being made to listen to whispered conversations." Reporters should seek policy statements from leaders: "Otherwise, we can't expect politicians to have a sense of responsibility for what they say."

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

E-mail to Editorial Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin