Japan Table of Contents

The emphasis on consensus in Japanese politics is seen in the role of interest groups in policy making. These groups range from those with economic interests, such as occupational and professional associations, to those with strong ideological commitments, such as the right-wing Society to Protect Japan and the left-wing Japan Teachers Union (Nihon Kyoshokuin Kumiai-- Nikkyoso). There are groups representing minorities (the Burakumin Liberation League, the Central Association of Korean Residents in Japan [Chosoren], and Utari Kyokai in Hokkaido, representing the Ainu community); groups representing war veterans and postwar repatriates from Japan's overseas colonies (the Military Pensions Association and the Association of Repatriates); the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and women opposed to prostitution and the threat to public morals posed by businesses offering "adult" entertainment (the Japan Mothers League). Mayors' and prefectural governors' associations promote regional development. Residents' movements near United States military installations in Okinawa and elsewhere pressure local authorities to support reductions in base areas and to exert more control over United States military personnel off base. The great majority of Japanese are connected, either directly or indirectly, to one or more of these interest groups.

In the postwar period, extremely close ties emerged among major interest groups, political parties, and the bureaucracy. Many groups identified so closely with the ruling LDP that it was often difficult to discern the boundaries between the party and the various groups. Officers of agricultural, business, and professional groups were elected to the Diet as LDP legislators. Groups of LDP parliamentarians formed zoku (tribes), which represented the interests of occupational constituencies, such as farmers, small businesses, and the construction industry. The zoku, interest groups, and bureaucrats worked together closely in formulating policy in such areas as agriculture.

In the case of the Socialist Democratic Party of Japan (until 1991 known as the Japan Socialist Party), the Democratic Socialist Party, the Japan Communist Party (Nihon Kyosanto), and Komeito (Clean Government Party), the links with interest groups were even more intimate. Before the public-sector unions linked up with the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) in 1989, most leaders of the Japan Socialist Party and Democratic Socialist Party and many socialist Diet members had been officers of the confederation's predecessors, the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Nihon Rodo Kumiai Sohyogikai, or Sohyo for short), founded in 1950, and the Japan Confederation of Labor (Zen Nihon Rodo Sodomei, or Domei for short), established in 1964. Despite repeated disavowals, the Komeito remains related to its parent body, the Value Creation Society (Soka Gakkai), an organization of lay followers of the Buddhist sect Nichiren Shoshu, founded before World War II and one of Japan's most successful new religions. The communists had their own unions and small business groups, which competed with conservative small business associations. Japan's relatively few lawyers divided their allegiance among three professional groups separately affiliated with the LDP, the Japan Socialist Party, and the Japan Communist Party.

Both the LDP and the opposition parties, which had weak regional organizations, depended on the interest groups to win elections. The interest groups provided funding, blocks of loyal voters (although these could not be manipulated as easily as in the past), and local organizational networks.

One important question concerning interest groups in any country is how well they represent the diverse concerns of all the citizens. A second is whether government responds evenhandedly to their demands. Japan's postwar record on both counts was generally good. Both major and minor groups in society were well represented. And the government has implemented policies to spread the blessings of economic growth among the population at large. Such arrangements helped to ensure political stability and to explain why, in repeated public opinion polls, 90 percent of respondents viewed themselves as "middle class."

After the war, for example, there were major policy changes on agriculture. Despite prewar nationalistic idealization of the rural village, the government at that time squeezed the farmers for taxes and rice. Political scientist Kent E. Calder observed that "the prewar state took heavily from the countryside, without providing much in return." Historians describe how many farm families starved or were forced to sell their daughters into prostitution. Responding to the threat of vigorous leftist movements in the countryside, conservative governments after 1945 initiated price supports for rice and other measures that brought the farmers not just a decent standard of living but affluence. By the 1970s, it was not uncommon to encounter group tours of farmers who had never visited Tokyo taking holidays in Hawaii or New York City. In Calder's view, conservative governments were stoutly probusiness but were also willing to co-opt other interests such as agriculture at the expense of business to ensure social stability and prevent socialist electoral victories. Sometimes government adopted policies first espoused by the opposition (for example, medical insurance and other social welfare policies).

Business Interests

Links between the corporate world and government were maintained through three national organizations: the Federation of Economic Organizations (Keizai Dantai Rengokai--Keidanren), established in 1946; the Japan Committee for Economic Development (Keizai Doyu Kai), established in 1946; and the Japan Federation of Employers Association (Nihon Keieishadantai Renmei--Nikkeiren), established in 1948. Keidanren is considered the most important. Its membership includes 750 of the largest corporations and 110 manufacturers' associations. Its Tokyo headquarters serves as a kind of "nerve center" for the country's most important enterprises, and it works closely with the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). There is evidence, however, suggesting that the federation's power is not what it had been, partly because major corporations, which had amassed huge amounts of money by the late 1980s, are increasingly capable of operating without its assistance.

Nikkeiren was concerned largely with labor-management relations and with organizing a united business front to negotiate with labor unions on wage demands during the annual "Spring Struggle." The Keizai Doyu Kai, composed of younger and more liberal business leaders, assigned itself the role of promoting business's social responsibilities. Whereas Keidanren and Nikkeiren were "peak organizations," whose members themselves were associations, members of the Keizai Doyu Kai were individual business leaders.

Because of financial support from corporations, business interest groups were generally more independent of political parties than other groups. Both Keidanren and the Keizai Doyu Kai, for example, indicated a willingness to talk with the socialists in the wake of the political scandals of 1988-89 and also suggested that the LDP might form a coalition government with an opposition party. Yet through an organization called the People's Politics Association (Kokumin Seiji Kyokai), they and other top business groups provided the LDP with its largest source of party funding.

Small Business

Japan's streets are lined with small shops, grocery stores, restaurants, and coffeehouses. Although supermarkets and large discount department stores are more common than in the 1980s, the political muscle of small business associations was reflected in the success with which they blocked the rationalization of the country's distribution system. The Large-Scale Retail Store Law of 1973, amended in 1978, made it very difficult in the late 1980s for either Japanese or foreign retailers to establish large, economically efficient outlets in local communities.

Many light industrial goods, such as toys, footwear, pencils, and kitchen utensils, were still manufactured by small local companies rather than imported from the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Taiwan, or Hong Kong. Traditional handicrafts, such as pottery, silk weaving, and lacquerware, produced using centuriesold methods in small workshops, flourished in every part of the country. Apart from protectionism of the "nontariff barrier" variety, the government ensured the economic viability of small enterprises through lenient tax policies and access to credit on especially favorable terms.

Major associations representing small and medium-sized enterprises included the generally pro-LDP Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nihon Shoko Kaigisho, or Nissho for short), which was established in 1922 but whose origins are traced to the establishment of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1878, the National Central Association of Medium and Small Enterprise Associations, the Japan League of Medium and Small Enterprise Organizations, and the Japan Communist Party-sponsored Democratic Merchants and Manufacturers Association.

Although small enterprises in services and manufacturing preserved cultural traditions and enlivened urban areas, a major motivation for government nurturing of small business was social welfare. In Calder's words, "Much of small business, particularly in the distribution sector, serves as a labor reservoir. Its inefficiencies help absorb surplus workers who would be unemployed if distribution, services, and traditional manufacturing were uniformly as efficient as the highly competitive and modernized export sectors."

Agricultural Cooperatives

Observers have suggested that the great influence of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (Nokyo) in policy making partly resulted from a widespread feeling of gratitude to the dwindling agricultural sector, which in the past supported the country's industrial modernization. Nokyo spokespersons were vociferous in their claims that agriculture is somehow intimately connected with the spirit of the nation. They argued that selfsufficiency , or near self-sufficiency, in food production, resulting from government support of the nation's farmers, was central to Japan's security. The public in general was receptive to their arguments: an opinion poll in 1988, for example, revealed that 70 percent of respondents preferred paying a higher price for rice to importing it.

Nokyo, organized in 1947 at the time of the land reform, had local branches in every rural village in the late 1980s. Its constituent local agricultural cooperatives included practically all of the population for which farming was the principal occupation. Since its founding, Nokyo had been preoccupied with maintaining and increasing government price supports on rice and other crops and with holding back the import of cheaper agricultural products from abroad. Self-sufficient in rice, Japan in the early 1990s imported only a tiny quantity. A special variety of Thai rice, for example, is used specifically to make the traditional Okinawan liquor, awamori. Nokyo's determination to preserve "Fortress Japan" in the agricultural realm had brought it into conflict with business groups such as Keidanren, which advocated market liberalization and cheaper food prices.

Although closely allied to the LDP in the past, Nokyo and other agricultural groups were outraged by the government's concessions to the United States on imports of oranges and beef in 1988. Local cooperatives threatened to defect to the Japan Socialist Party if government continued to give in to United States demands. The Japan Socialist Party chairwoman at the time, Doi Takako, made agricultural protectionism a major component of her party's platform.

Labor Organizations

Postwar labor unions were established with the blessings of the occupation authorities. The mechanism for collective bargaining is set up, and unions are organized by enterprise: membership was determined by company affiliation rather than by skill or industry type. In general, membership is also limited to permanent, nonsupervisory personnel. Observers in the late 1980s viewed labor unions' role in the policy-making process as less powerful than that of business and agricultural organizations because the unions' enterprise-based structure made national federations weak and because unions were closely associated with parties that remained out of power.

The Japan Socialist Party largely depended on Sohyo for funding, organizational support, and membership during most of the postwar period. Domei performed similar functions for the Democratic Socialist Party. Sohyo was composed primarily of public sector unions such as those organized for national civil servants, municipal workers, and public school teachers. Domei's constituent unions were principally in the private sector. In the late 1980s, however, the labor movement saw significant change. In November 1987, the National Federation of Private Sector Trade Unions (Rengo), an amalgamation of Domei and smaller groups, was formed with a membership of 5.5 million workers and known as Shin Reng (New Rengo). After two years of intense negotiations, the 2.5 million members of public sector unions largely affiliated with Sohyo joined with Rengo. With 8 million members, Rengo (the Shin was dropped) included 65 percent of Japan's unionized workers and was, after the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the British Trades Union Congress, the world's third largest noncommunist union federation.

Rengo is a moderate, nonideological movement that shuns involvement with Marxist Japan Communist Party-affiliated unions. Two leftist union confederations emerged in the wake of the amalgamation of Sohyo and Rengo: the 1.2 million-member Japan Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren), and the 500,000-member National Trade Union Council (Zenrokyo). The powerful Nikkyoso, with 675,000 members in the country's public primary and secondary schools, was divided between adherents and opponents of Rengo.

In the early 1990s, the relationship of Rengo to the socialist political parties remained somewhat unclear. It was likely that many old support networks would remain in place. Some noted the new confederation's potential for promoting opposition party unity, because it encompassed supporters of the socialist parties and the small Social Democratic League. However, in the House of Councillors election on July 18, 1989, Rengo withheld its support from the Japan Socialist Party and the party lost sixty-four seats. In their traditional stronghold, Tokyo, the socialists retained only one of the eleven seats contested.

Professional Associations and Citizen and Consumer Movements

Physicians, dentists, lawyers, academics, and other professionals organized associations for the exchange of knowledge, supervision of professional activities, and influence government policy, like those found in other developed countries. The Japan Medical Association has used its influence to preserve a highly profitable system in which physicians, rather than pharmacists, sell prescription drugs.

Citizens and consumer movements, which became prominent during the 1960s and 1970s, were organized around issues relating to the quality of life, the protection of the environment from industrial pollution, and the safety (although not the cost) of consumer goods. In the late 1960s, industrial pollution, symbolized by the suffering of victims of mercury poisoning caused by the pollution of Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture by a chemical company, was viewed as a national crisis. The Sato government responded by establishing the Environmental Agency in the Office of the Prime Minister in 1970, instituting tough penalties for polluters, and extending compensation to the victims of pollution. Environmental issues continue to be the focus of intense local activity. In the early 1990s, communities on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture were divided over whether to construct a new airport to handle wide-bodied aircraft on land reclaimed from the sea. Supporters viewed the project as essential to the island's tourist development, while opponents claimed that construction would destroy offshore colonies of rare blue coral and would ruin the local fishing industry. Another environmental issue in many parts of Japan was the use of powerful chemicals on golf courses, which in some cases harmed nearby residents.

Women's groups are in the forefront of the consumer movement. They include the National Federation of Regional Women's Associations, the Housewives Association, and the National Association of Consumer Cooperatives. Their activities depend on the support of neighborhood women's associations, the women's sections of local agricultural and fishing cooperatives, and government-sponsored consumer education groups. Although boycotts have been organized against companies making products that the groups viewed as dangerous (for example, canned foods containing carcinogenic cyclamates), they do not, for the most part, demand lower prices for food or other goods. In tandem with agricultural interests, consumer groups oppose increased food imports on the grounds that the supply is unpredictable and likely laced with dangerous additives.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress