The Government and Politics

Japan Table of Contents

AS THE 1990S BEGAN, Japan's oldest living person was Fujisawa Mitsu, 113 years old. In the year of her birth, 1876 (the ninth year of the 1868-1912 Meiji era), the government ended the special status of the samurai, taking away their stipends and prohibiting them from wearing swords. Members of the new ruling elite traveled to Europe and the United States to study Western political ideas and institutions. Mitsu was thirteen when the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, a document combining traditional nationalistic thought with German legal and political concepts. The most influential Meiji-era advocate of Anglo-American liberalism, Fukuzawa Yukichi, died in 1901 when Mitsu was twenty-five. She was middle-aged when political parties controlled the government during the "Taisho democracy" era of the early to mid-1920s and revolutionary Marxism was popular among university students and intellectuals. The "Showa fascism" of the 1930s and 1940s was in large measure a reaction against these Westernizing trends. When General Douglas MacArthur landed in Japan and began the United States occupation in 1945, Mitsu was sixty-nine years old. Her robust old age witnessed the reintroduction of Western-style liberalism, the emergence of a stable parliamentary system under the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP--Jiyu-Minshuto), the rise of the new left, and postwar Japan's most dramatic episode of romantic rightist theater, writer Mishima Yukio's selfimmolation during his effort to initiate a rebellion among SelfDefense Forces units in 1970.

That the lifespan of a single person could encompass such dramatic and abrupt changes suggests the heterogeneity of contemporary Japanese political values. The country has been host to a wide range of often conflicting foreign influences: Prussian statism, French radicalism, Anglo-American liberalism, Marxism and Marxism-Leninism, and European fascism. Mitsu lived to see the kokutai (national polity) ideology enshrined in the Meiji Constitution and then overthrown in the postwar constitution. The fact that a person living in 1989 had been born in the twilight of Japan's feudal regime suggests that some of the older values remained viable. Certainly Japan's economic dynamism is often explained in terms of the coupling of feudal values with the efficiency of modern organization. Political scientists seeking to describe the distinctive features of Japanese politics also point to the feudal legacy behind them. These features include the nature of decision making, the generally pragmatic spirit of Japanese politics, and, especially, the post-1955 successes of the conservative LDP, which has epitomized feudal personalism.

Maintaining power uninterruptedly for nearly four decades, the LDP was able to promote a highly stable policy-making process. Its leaders functioned as brokers, joining the expertise of the elite civil service with the demands of important interest groups. The role of these leaders, however, was not passive. Since the 1960s, the party's policy-making power has increased, while that of the bureaucracy has declined. Although political scandals were frequent, tarnishing the general image of politicians, the system succeeded in providing most groups in society with adequate representation and a share of prosperity. The Japanese middle class is large and stable.

The scandal-shaken LDP was able to obtain a stable House of Representatives majority in the February 18, 1990, general election. However, the failure of the LDP government of Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi to get political reform legislation passed disappointed the electorate and many members of his own party, leading to a June 18, 1993, no-confidence vote in the lower house, bringing an end to thirty-eight years of LDP majority rule. The government formed after the July 18, 1993 lower house election was led by Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro's Japan New Party. This party, which had broken off from the LDP in the spring of 1992 formed a coalition with the Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party) and Sakigake (Harbinger) parties, which had separated from the LDP just prior to the election, as well as with the Komeito and three socialist parties. The primary goal of the coalition was to pass effective political reform legislation, but the members of the coalition also promised to maintain LDP national security and foreign policies.


For more information about the government, see Facts about Japan.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress