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Authors: Karel van Wolferen

Tags: #Japan - Economic Policy - 1945-1989, #Japan - Politics and Government - 1945, #Japan, #Political Culture - Japan, #Political Culture, #Business & Economics, #International, #General, #Political Science, #International Relations, #Public Policy, #Economic Policy, #Social Science, #Anthropology, #Cultural, #Political culture—Japan, #Japan—Politics and government—1945–, #Japan—Economic policy—1945–

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BOOK: The Enigma of Japanese Power
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Exposing political motives

By recognising Japanese power where we should, we see things we would otherwise not be aware of. One is that the System as such is in better shape than at any other time in this century. We can see that the defeat in the Second World War and the occupation represent less of a watershed in Japanese political life than has generally been thought. The pre-war and wartime bureaucratic power system, minus its military components, has consolidated its power after the war, and is in the process of consolidating it even further.

The political perspective I propose also affords a fresh view of Japanese international business dealings. It has long been agreed that the priority of the large Japanese corporations is the expansion of market shares rather than medium-term profits. And it has often been noticed that, in order to achieve their strategic aims, they will forgo healthy profits for much longer periods than Western firms could possibly afford. Enlarging one’s market share, like enlarging the territory one controls, depends on the desire for greater power, a political motive. Making maximum profits depends on a desire for money, an economic motive. The two approaches are of course related and mixed in both Western and Japanese corporations; but the results of the difference in emphasis are momentous. The bureaucratisation of Japanese business in the post-war period via increased bureaucratic controls and protection, as well as the replacement of entrepreneurs by ministry-friendly administrators, is directly related to the politically motivated drive for ever greater international market shares.

The history of Japan’s drive in the 1970s to carve out niches of power in foreign markets without reciprocity is repeating itself in the late 1980s in the financial world. Japanese firms are buying many Western financial institutions. They are investing their massive profits (made by consolidating the conquest of international market shares for finished goods) not at home, where it would solve quite a few domestic and international problems, but abroad, where there are still opportunities to carve up market shares. The effect of the much publicised ‘liberalisation’ of financial and capital markets by the Ministry of Finance has been to foster the international emancipation of the Japanese banks, security houses and insurance firms, enabling them to compete better in the money markets of the world, and to give the trading companies a large new field for foreign investment.

These developments could be of considerable political significance, since the possibility of counteracting Japan’s unilateral economic conquests will be greatly limited if Tokyo gains the kind of leverage over the world’s financial markets that its current drive to expand market share appears to be heading for. There has been a consistent failure on the part of the West to foresee effects of this kind – a result of its apparent inability to envision the possibilities as the Japanese do.

The Japan Problem for the Japanese

As a nation, Japan is a problem for itself because the way Japanese power is exercised results in conflicts with, and isolation from, other countries. But Japan is also a problem for Japanese individuals. Discussions with many of them over the past quarter-century have convinced me that they are adversely affected by the way that power is exercised in their country. They are less free than they should be. Japanese are treated by their school system and their superiors in the way a landscape gardener treats a hedge; protruding bits of the personality are regularly snipped off. It is simply not possible for a political system to be unkind to the individual without this having grave consequences for the psychological development of its citizenry.

I believe that the Japanese are individuals, all 120 million of them. Not all may want to assert their individuality; most, having been so conditioned, do not. But I have met quite a few who want to be taken for distinct persons, rather than as indistinct members of a group. These independent thinkers are disturbed. In many cases they have withdrawn into the private world of their own mind. Japanese culture harbours a vast, unconnected and uncharted archipelago of such private worlds. Individualistic Japanese are generally non-political because they would constantly bum their fingers if they were to challenge the existing power arrangements. But they are Japanese despite their refusal to be conformist.

In recent decades it has become common, in referring to Japan, to dismiss the ideal of personal growth as a manifestation of Western ethnocentrism, and to surmise that Japanese have their own specifically Japanese way of individual differentiation. Yet there are criteria for personal growth that are not culture-bound. Just as it is in the bud to become a rose, and in the cub to become a tiger, the growing human being has the built-in purpose of becoming a mature, well-integrated individual.
My experience in other Asian countries and my acquaintance with well-integrated Japanese individuals have strengthened this belief.

Many serious commentators on Japan have studiously avoided statements that could be labelled as value judgements. However, my position is that it is an illusion to think that meaningful discourse on political matters can be kept free of judgements that are not ultimately connected with beliefs of some kind. Striving for objectivity goes hand in glove with a constant alertness to possible prejudices, but the very selection of subject-matter already betrays personal concerns, and these are not necessarily prejudices. Many things may be relative, but standards for a desirable way of organising life do exist, and choices should be made. The place of human beings in their society should not be left to chance.

Plato, who made the great discovery that self-knowledge depends on an understanding of the character and scope of political life, was fully aware of the corrupting potential of power. His magnificently rational and poetic mind first saw the need for liberation from myths, from tradition and from brute power as the fundamental justification for political action. I see no reason why this should apply only to Western societies.

The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, born in Poland and forced to come to intellectual terms with communist society, has thought about this more than most of his colleagues born in the West, and is most to the point:

the freedom of individuals has – we may presume – an anthropological foundation. This is admittedly a doctrine which cannot be proved or disproved in the normal sense of the word ‘prove’. And yet our hope that freedom is not going to be ultimately destroyed by the joint pressure of totalitarianism and of general bureaucratisation of the world and indeed our very readiness to defend it depend crucially on our belief that the desire for freedom, for sovereign individual self-assertion in free choice, is not an accidental fancy of history, not a result of peculiar social conditions or a temporary by-product of specific economic life forms, of market mechanisms, but that it is rooted in the very quality of being human.

Kolakowski knows that this is a philosophical issue which can never be conclusively settled by empirical investigation. But he is right in considering it an issue which ‘we simply may not disregard or reject on the ground that [it is] insoluble according to the rules that govern scientific inquiry’. Once one has taken the philosophical position that freedom is desirable for the individual, one is entitled to employ the critical approach when scrutinising any political arrangements that severely hamper this freedom beyond the reasonable requirements for maintaining social order.

The Elusive State

Japanese life often seems like a play that has suffered a bad mix-up in its staging. The lines the actors speak do not fit the characters their costumes indicate they portray. Institutions, processes and behaviour related to the exercise of power suggest one thing at first sight but something quite different on closer acquaintance.

At the most basic level of political life Japan is of course no different from anywhere else. Some Japanese love power, and some achieve it. The vast majority, as everywhere, submit willingly to the exercise of power for fear of personal punishment or social chaos. The Japanese have laws, legislators, a parliament, political parties, labour unions, a prime minister, interest groups and stockholders. But one should not be misled by these familiar labels into hasty conclusions as to how power is exercised in Japan.

The Japanese prime minister is not expected to show much leadership; labour unions organise strikes to be held during lunch breaks; the legislature does not in fact legislate; stockholders never demand dividends; consumer interest groups advocate protectionism; laws are enforced only if they don’t conflict too much with the interests of the powerful; and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is, if anything, conservative and authoritarian, is not really a party and does not in fact rule.

Why not, one might ask, simply rename things? But that would be too simple. With Japanese socio-political institutions the familiar labels sometimes indicate familiar functions. At other times they stand in varying degrees, for something different. A major source of confusion is that Japanese journalists and most Japanese scholars have not cultivated the habit, common among their Western counterparts, of pointing out discrepancies. They tend to treat the institutions the way their labels dictate.

This does not mean that Japan, as many Japanese like to think, cannot be ‘understood’ by outsiders. It does mean, though, that patient effort is necessary in unravelling a peculiar kind of complexity, with little help and much hindrance from accepted Western political terminology. The reality of the Japanese political world has a way of slipping through one’s fingers. In covering Japan for my newspaper, I feel the need at every turn to redefine the familiar terms, since they evoke images partially if not totally inappropriate to the Japanese reality. Indeed, a serious observer of the Japanese power structure will sometimes feel the urge to rewrite the whole political lexicon.

Power out of focus

Let us begin by examining the concept of the state. It is fashionable nowadays not to recognise the state as something different from government or nation. Yet the distinction, as will gradually become clear, is a necessary one, and is particularly illuminating in the Japanese context.

A nation is defined by a shared language and a sense of cultural separateness. Japan is clearly a nation. The state is not as easily described or measured, but its various definitions agree that it is the ultimate repository and arbiter of power within a country. Where in Japan, then, must one look to find the state? Formally, and in accordance with Japan’s official status as a parliamentary democracy, sovereignty resides with the people and legislative power with the elected bodies of the two houses of the Diet. But this congregation of freely chosen representatives of the people, which the constitution calls the highest organ of state power, cannot truly be considered the final arbiter of what is permitted to go on in Japan. This should not in itself be startling; there are quite a few other countries where power does not reside in the institutions in which it is supposed to reside. In such cases, however, one expects to be able to point to an alternative institution, or a person or set of people, in
de facto
charge. In Japan there is no such clearly demarcated group of power-holders.

The only other institutions apart from the formal legislature that present themselves as plausible centres around which the state is organised are the bureaucracy and big business; but ultimate power rests in neither of these. One will find many obvious bosses, but no one boss among bosses, nor one single controlling group of them. Japan is highly centralised in the sense that its capital is the economic and cultural hub of the country. Tokyo, no less than Paris or London, is the city where ‘everything happens’. Large companies must maintain important (if not main) offices there, if only to be close to ministry officials. The most important educational institutions are concentrated there. Local governments must wait on the central bureaucrats in order to plead for essential budget funds. Outside Tokyo there are hardly any important publishing or entertainment industries. Yet there is no political core to this geographical centre.

To grasp the reality of the state is not easy in any country, but in Japan it is like groping in the proverbial bucket of eels. The lines of command, the focus of responsibility, the ins and outs of decision-making, all remain maddeningly elusive.

Kings without power

Foreign observers must always remind themselves that, with Japanese political life, things are rarely what they seem.
This rule of thumb has been reiterated many times over the centuries by foreigners who visited Japan. Indeed, the very first non-legendary accounts of Japan already suggest that the real aim of Japan’s supreme political institution had little connection with its ostensible function. Chinese chroniclers of the Kingdom of Wei, in the third century, noted with some amazement that, although the land of
(as they called Japan) was formally governed by a queen named Himiko, she was hidden in a well-guarded palace and communicated with the outside world via one man, leaving the business of ruling the country to her younger brother.

World history abounds in priest-kings, god-kings and sorcerers or shamans with secular power, and Himiko, whose business was ‘to know the will of the gods’, might seem to be one of their number.
But the nominal chief of the Kingdom of
had no real clout. And the subsequent history of the emperors epitomises the Japanese proclivity to separate formal from factual power.

Once Japan’s empresses and emperors were less vigorously appeasing the multitude of their ancestral gods, the minutiae of a mind-boggling ritual would still have allowed them no time for governing, even had they been permitted to do so. A few early emperors did, apparently, have political control, but this control was soon delegated, first to the crown prince and later to imperial advisers.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries Japan had a well-defined group of power-holders in the form of the Fujiwara, a cunning family that usurped such control over the country as was possible, legitimising its position by marrying its daughters to successive emperors. For roughly a century following the decline of the Fujiwara, the real power behind the throne lay with retired emperors. Finally, after a transitional period during which most power was held by another family, the Heike,
de facto
rule passed to the warrior dynasties that were to control Japan until the industrial era. In 1185 the general Minamoto no Yoritomo gained formal permission from the court to police all sixty-six provinces of Japan. Then, seven years later, he was granted the title of
seii tai shogun
, ‘barbarian-subduing generalissimo’ – an office that, after further consolidation, would remain the official focus of Japanese power until 1867.

The court as a political entity fell into neglect in the meantime. Some emperors were destitute. Ogimachi (1557–86), for instance, had to peddle his calligraphy and the palace furniture to make ends meet. The single exception to the imperial enfeeblement, and this for only three years, was Emperor Go-Daigo, who succeeded in challenging the military dictators and restoring the court’s authority between 1333 and 1336. There were weak kings in the history of other countries too, before the emergence of constitutional monarchies changed the character of kingship. But in Japan it was the institution itself that was powerless.

The delegation of power in Japan did not stop at the office of shogun. A point was reached in the thirteenth century where there was, as the historian George Sansom remarks, ‘the astonishing spectacle of a state at the head of which stands a titular Emperor whose vestigial functions are usurped by an abdicated Emperor, and whose real power is nominally delegated to an hereditary military dictator but actually wielded by an hereditary adviser of that dictator’.
The last reference is to the Hojo family, which controlled the shoguns as earlier powerful families had once controlled the emperors.

Such arrangements clearly suited the powerful men who throughout the centuries controlled their fellow Japanese. Not one of them ever made a serious attempt to grab the throne for himself. This is even more remarkable if one thinks of the marvellous model for usurpation provided by China, where successful rebellious generals were forever starting new dynasties.

The advantages of delegated power, however, seem always to have made up for the lack of visible glory. The Fujiwara family that established the norm for this kind of rule felt no urge, it seems, to destroy a system that provided its heirs with all the privileges of a ruler except the title. The tradition has, indeed, an obvious advantage for the holders of real power. One is considerably less vulnerable if someone else bears the title that should go with the might one possesses. If the source of real power is unclear, it will also be unclear how to attack it.

The rigged one-party system

Japan’s Asian neighbours are completely familiar with this division between the form and substance of authority. Much of the formal power structure in Asia today is fictitious. The official trappings of the non-communist states were borrowed, introduced either by colonial administrations, as in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, or, as in Thailand and Japan, by local reformers who believed that Western forms would keep their countries free and give them respectability in the eyes of the West.

These Asian systems are partly, sometimes largely, a façade hiding an unseen power structure. Only by elucidating the older, indigenous forms of political behaviour can one make sense of the political processes. In the West, too, informal and extra-legal relationships may have considerable influence on the exercise of power. Yet in almost all Asian countries personal connections are vastly more important than the more recent, formally impartial institutions. The formal governmental processes in Asia should not, however, be dismissed as pointless pantomime. The official structures imported from the West have interacted with the older political habits and radically altered them. Japan is no exception here.

But since Japan has the most complete set of democratic trappings outside the West and is generally thought to belong in the same geopolitical category as the Western advanced industrial states, observers tend to be more easily misled about the political reality there than elsewhere in Asia. Japan is also less obviously ruled by an authoritarian hand than most of its neighbours. Its government does not lock up people in order to stay in power. For such reasons it has long been assumed that constitutionalism flourishes there.

Japan has all the institutions considered indispensable for a parliamentary democracy, and on the face of it there is nothing conspicuously out of the ordinary about them. In the heart of Tokyo stands a Diet building, site of meetings of a Lower House and an Upper House whose members would be incensed at any suggestion that they took their democratic tasks lightly. Every four years, or more frequently, the Japanese public has the opportunity to choose these representatives from a wide assortment of candidates.

The odd thing is that ever since 1955 this freedom has resulted in a one-party rule that has not been seriously challenged.
If one excludes the ten months in 1947–8 when conservatively inclined socialists participated in a confused coalition, one may say that ever since the end of the war the same relatively small group of politicians has played musical chairs with ministerial seats, making room only for its protégés, with no demonstrable public influence on important political decisions.

This group of politicians is now called the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – a total misnomer, as already seen, for a coalition of
, political cliques. It has no party organisation to speak of amongst the grass roots, and no generally agreed upon mechanism to regulate succession to its leadership, nor does it stand for any identifiable political principles. It may have a membership of less than one and a half million one year, more than three million a year later and less than one and a half again the year after that.
It is thus scarcely a political party at all in the accepted Western sense.

Japan is rarely described as having a one-party system. Instead it is argued that the populace has so much faith in the politicians who have brought the nation economic success that it cannot get enough of them. Until recently this was the view held by the most influential foreign scholars writing on Japan. And this, understandably, is how the LDP explains its unchallenged position to the outside world; when a US president speaks to a Japanese prime minister of their shared commitment to pluralistic democracy, the latter is not going to contradict him.

But the truth is that the LDP has maintained itself in power by gerrymandering; by using money to assure itself of the roughly 48 per cent of the popular vote it requires; and by hammering home the message that only by electing LDP candidates will rural districts get infrastructural improvements. Under the circumstances that it has itself helped create, this message is accurate enough: local governments are highly dependent on a system of financial supports allocated by the central bureaucracy, a system not regulated by impartial rules. Politicians are needed to mediate with government officials, and LDP politicians have the best, if not the only, access to them.
In election campaigns most LDP politicians endlessly stress their ties with precisely those officials who can allocate the funds for a project desired by the constituency. The rigging of the system is further abetted by the supposedly non-partisan agricultural co-operatives, and by the innumerable construction companies and their sub-contractors whose facilities serve in effect as election offices.

The LDP’s absolute majorities are further guaranteed by uneven representation whereby a single assiduously courted rural vote is worth three votes in the cities. Outside the big cities LDP candidates employ an exceedingly thorough style of pork-barrelling to get re-elected.

The LDP is thus first and foremost a vote-getting machine. Its electoral fortunes depend not on public identification with a political programme, but on arbitrary factors: on the turn-out at the polls (the higher in rural areas the better) and on care in the party’s endorsement of candidates so as to avoid too much division of its vote in the multiple-member constituencies. As one of Japan’s most prominent political scientists pointed out in 1960, when the LDP wins twice as many seats as the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) this does not mean that its ideas or welfare policies are valued twice as much, but that its money carries twice the weight of the mere opinions of the JSP.

Parliament’s Grecian chorus

The LDP can continue to rig the system because the ‘opposition’ is made up of parties that appear to believe that their proper permanent station in the scheme of things is outside the government. The second largest party, the JSP, makes it easy for the LDP to present itself as the only viable governing party. Its advocacy of unarmed neutrality and its long-standing anti-US stance seem almost designed to make the party unattractive to the general voter. The other ideological party, the Japan Communist Party (JCP), is in some ways slightly less unrealistically doctrinaire, and attracts a large number of sympathy votes from non-communists. None the less, its earlier history as an undisguised instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy, together with post-war fears of anything labelled ‘communist’, make it unacceptable even as a coalition partner to the other minority parties.

The small Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) and the Komeito Party sometimes behave as if they would like to participate in officially running the country, but even then only as coalition partners with the LDP. They have never seized opportunities to combine with the JSP that could conceivably have led to a non-LDP government.

The permanent political ‘opposition’ in Japan does not function in any fashion recognisable to voters in Western parliamentary democracies. It has been significant as a nuisance and as an obstacle to the kind of legislation that reminds liberal-minded Japanese of pre-war methods and controls. It can embarrass the LDP in one or more of the standing committees of the Diet by obstructionist activity drawing the attention of the newspapers. But it does not engage the LDP in significant debate on policies.

Inasmuch as the LDP would be castigated as dictatorial if it passed legislation in the absence of the ‘opposition’, boycotts of Dietary proceedings are an effective demonstration of symbolic anger. The minority parties resort to them in protest against the LDP’s ‘high-handedness’, or to call attention to ‘political ethics’ (a polite reference to corruption on the part of LDP members), and occasionally to show disagreement with the national budget. In 1983 the minority parties caused a Diet stalemate that lasted a record twenty-eight days, and many other times they have paralysed legislative proceedings for one or two weeks. In the spring of 1987 a minority-party boycott helped solidify opposition among LDP supporters to a proposed sales tax, forcing the withdrawal of a tax-law revision bill. More commonly the LDP, under boycott pressure, agrees to a compromise over a symbolic issue with only a very minor effect, if any, on practical policy. With few exceptions Diet debates are performances that are democratically reassuring but with not the slightest influence on developments in the country’s affairs.

The Japanese parliamentary opposition, in short, is like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Its monotonous comments on the state of the nation and lamentations over the sins of the LDP are ritualistic and harmless.

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