Throughout most of the postwar era it has been a model of political stability, an economic superpower and the envy of the industrialized world. For 38 years, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), supported by big business and sustained by a powerful bureaucracy, governed the country virtually unchallenged—until last summer, that is, when disillusioned voters, sick of government corruption and clamoring for economic and political reform, unceremoniously booted the ruling party from office. Little did voters know, at the time, that they were opening a Pandora’s box. But with no single party emerging from elections with a parliamentary majority, attempts at forging a stable coalition government have since failed. And many Japanese, who, in the past year, have seen four prime ministers come and go, now predict that the “transition period,” as they euphemistically call the current chaos, will last months, if not years. “We will have a general election in the near future, but one election might not be enough for a stable government,” Noboru Nakahira, Japan’s ambassador to Ottawa, told Maclean’s during a visit to Western Canada last week. ‘We may need another election after that”
Miyazawa. Hosokawa. Hata. And now, Murayama. Foreigners, and even some Japanese, might be forgiven for wondering who is in charge and exactly what is going on these days in the land of the rising sun. Politics, the old adage goes, makes strange bedfellows. And nowhere have they been stranger than in once-staid Japan, where revolving-door politics have become commonplace, viewed by weary voters with a uniquely Japanese combination of bemusement and disgust.
Few expect that the latest prime minister, Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Tomiichi Murayama, will survive long enough to overcome that cynicism. Murayama, who became the latest Japanese leader on June 29, made his international debut at the economic summit of the world’s leading industrialized democracies, the socalled Group of Seven, in Naples. He had gone to the annual meeting hoping to reassure the world that all was well in Japan despite months of political and economic uncertainty. But on the summit’s first day, the 70-year-old prime minister was rushed to hospital suffering from what aides described as “fatigue and diarrhea.” He remained in hospital Saturday, missing the entire portion of the agenda devoted to economic issues. It was an inauspicious introduction for the leader of a country that in recent months has appeared anything but stable.
The turmoil in Japan dates back to last July’s general elections, when Japanese voters, tired of pork-barrel politics and angry at then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s failure to enact long-promised reforms, turned their backs on the LDP. With no party commanding majority support, an unlikely and fractious seven-party alliance—including a large number of LDP defectors and members of the leftist SDP—emerged to form a government under former LDP politician Morihiro Hosokawa. Befitting his nickname, “Mr. Clean,” Hosokawa promised to curb the power of the unwieldy bureaucracy, deregulate the tightly controlled economy and wipe out rampant government corruption. Most Japanese had high hopes for the 55-year-old maverick, whose initial approval rating surpassed 70 per cent. But Hosokawa was forced to resign in April when opponents disclosed that, earlier in his career, he had accepted money from a company with possible links to organized crime.
After much bickering, the reformist coalition turned over the keys of the prime minister’s office to former foreign ministerTsutomo Hata of the right-wing Japan Renewal Party. Less than 24 hours later, however, the Socialists stormed out of the alliance, convinced that conservative coalition power brokers were trying to isolate—and split—their ranks.
The Socialists’ defection left Hata, apparently unaware of the backroom scheming, leading the first minority Japanese government since 1955. For two months, he tried to keep the alliance afloat. But on June 25, facing defeat in a nonconfidence vote, the lame-duck prime minister resigned—becoming the latest casualty of Japan’s political backbiting.
The next step was even more surprising. In a move that dramatically altered the face of Japanese politics, the lower house chose Socialist leader Murayama to head a new three-party parliamentary coalition that includes not only his left-leaning SDP and a small grouping of LDP defectors, but also the LDP itself, which the Socialists have bitterly opposed for nearly four decades. In the past, the differences between the two major parties seemed almost insurmountable. The LDP was pro-business, the Socialists pro-labor; the LDP supported the United States, the
Socialists sympathized with the Soviet Union and Communist North Korea. But those outward differences, say some observers, masked the symbiotic relationship between the two parties, both of which benefited from the status quo. “The Socialists and LDP politicians have always been on good terms,” says Satsuki Edi, former director of the science and technology agency in the Hosokowa cabinet. “It’s the way Japan works—division on the surface but compromise underneath.”
For his part, ambassador Nakahira says the instability stems not only from political corruption but also from the end of the Cold War. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Japanese politics was essentially divided into two ideological camps, one sympathetic to Washington and the other supporting good relations with | Moscow. “Since the advent of the new era we cannot have such a g clear-cut picture,” Nakahira says.
“Now, all the parties must adjust to the new circumstances.”
Many voters view the alliance as little more than a cynical power grab by Japan’s Old Guard. “I am amazed at how easily the LDP and SDP teamed up,” says Yukio Sasaki, a 35year-old Tokyo office worker. “It’s really quite disgusting, after all we went through trying to bring change in Japan.” Added Nori Saito, a 62-year-old bank employee, a traditional LDP supporter: “I want politicians to be strong leaders with a vision. Right now, I don’t see anyone like that.”
Murayama has gone out of his way to prove that he is indeed such a leader. “I know people are worried about my government, both in and out of Japan,” he said shortly after assuming office. “My job is to do my best to get rid of these worries. My responsibility is to prolong a stable government as much as possible.” But even Socialist party ally Koken Nosaka has acknowledged that Murayama “will be walking a very tortuous trail.” In his newly appointed
20-member cabinet, Murayama, while keeping five seats for the Socialists, gave two to the small conservative New Party Sakigake and handed 13 to the LDP, by far the biggest grouping in parliament. And commentators of all stripes immediately expressed doubts that the odd left-right alliance could survive. “I don’t think the new government is going to have a long life,” says Robert Orr, a Tokyo-based manager with Motorola Japan Ltd. “Until the next elections are held, we are going to see a lot of jockeying for power.” What concerns many Japanese is the prospect that, in the meantime, the new government will prove incapable of tackling the daunting array of problems confronting Japan. Among the most important is the three-year-old recession, which has thrown a wrench into the seemingly unstoppable
Japanese economic machine. On top of that, the recent fall in the value of the U.S. dollar—provoked in part by fears that Washington will be unable to resolve its long-standing trade dispute with Tokyo—has dealt a body blow to Japanese exporters. The dive could not have come at a worse time, as Japan attempts to claw its way out of recession and the U.S. economy shows significant signs of growth. A higher yen will make Japanese goods more expensive in North America and may force Washington to further increase interest rates to bolster the battered greenback—a move that could undermine the U.S. economic recovery. The results could easily spill over to other Western countries, including Canada.
Those concerns were high on the agenda in Naples. Murayama assured U.S. President Bill Clinton and the other leaders that his government does not plan any radical changes in foreign policy. Clinton, in turn,
urged the new government to take “constructive action” in reducing its $80-billion-ayear trade surplus with the United States. But there was no mention in the draft communiqué of the dollar’s recent fall against other major world currencies, and only a broadly worded commitment to reducing global trade barriers.
Back home, Japanese business leaders remain publicly committed to the cause of reform—if only because of their desire to avoid further trade friction. ‘To solve this problem, Japan must deregulate and open its market,” says a high-ranking official with electronics giant Sony Corp., who requested anonymity. “That is the only way to shrink our trade surplus with the United States. But it is important that the Americans also take some responsibility.” Added Nobukatsu Nishimura, director
of Wood Gundy Inc. in Tokyo: “Everybody realizes that deregulation has to be carried out. But the going is slow because it is difficult to throw away a system that has been the backbone of Japan’s success all these years.”
In the end, however, most Japanese appear confident that the country will muddle through the current period of political upheaval. ‘The change in the government is not a dramatic one,” says Mitsuru Shinozaki, an executive at Keidanren, the country’s most powerful business association. “Only the framework has changed. The daily lives of the people have not been affected. Businesses have not been affected.” He added: “The stone-heads in government have proved to the people that they are useless.” Soon, Japan’s voters may have a chance to pass their own judgment.
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