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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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A paralysed superpower

For domestic purposes, this System without a core works reasonably well, even though areas of social malfunction tend to go on malfunctioning for lack of decisive action. Japan trundles along while officials, politicians and businessmen tinker endlessly with minor policy adjustments.

Post-war industrial reconstruction was an obvious priority that did not need to be determined by a strong political centre. In the course of reconstruction, the political assumption naturally emerged that unlimited industrial expansion was the priority for the nation. The bureaucracy took it upon itself to administer this policy to the detriment of other potential areas of concern, and no politician offered any opposition to the designs of the economic administrators. The
de facto
one-party system of Japan guaranteed that there would be no interference from messy parliamentary democratic processes. But it also meant that the politicians abdicated responsibilities that in Western democracies are crucial for major policy adjustments. Basically Japan is still acting in line with policies dating from the 1950s. Strong rivals, each claiming to carry out the ‘imperial will’, are no longer pulling Japan in different directions as they did in the earlier decades of this century. The problem today is that Japan is dragged too forcefully in one direction, for lack of a mechanism to set new priorities.

The political give-and-take among the System’s components interferes with the nation’s need to deal with the rest of the world. To take only one example, many if not most Japanese politicians have an unacknowledged stake in what is euphemistically known as
boeki masatsu
, or trade friction. They want to keep it from doing too much damage, and they ask the bureaucrats to take limited ‘cosmetic’ action. But if the issue disappeared, so would a lucrative source of income, since the sectors of the business community that most fear foreign competition in the home market are also the most generous with ‘political donations’.

From an international perspective, the Japanese System in its present shape is an anachronism. It might have fitted a poor and isolated Japan, but it is unsuitable for Japan as an international partner. Its finely meshed all-Japanese components are glaringly deficient in providing the country with an effective means to establish a
modus vivendi
with a potentially very hostile world.

The System presents a variety of apparent paradoxes. It has no strong leadership, yet it creates the impression abroad of a purposeful giant bent on economic conquest of the world. It has no political centre, yet domestically it almost always succeeds in bringing antagonistic groups within its folds. The System is elusive. It eludes the grasp of Westerners who want to deal with it. The Japanese who participate in it cannot get a conceptual grip on it, much less change it. It exists without most of its participants being consciously aware of it; and it has no shape or form, let alone any justification, in law.

An Inescapable Embrace

The absence of anyone in charge amidst numerous political forces, each endowed with potentially state-undermining power and concerned with its own interests, does not result in social chaos. So marked, in fact, is the orderliness of life in Japan and the discipline of its people that one is led to suspect the existence of another very potent political force that fosters cohesion.

Japanese are brought up to accept that much of their lives will be managed for them. Their environment does not generally encourage them to ‘play things by ear’. Often, activities intended for relaxation and enjoyment are pursued with a display of great discipline. From school parties to cherry-blossom viewing, collective undertakings are almost always preceded by such painstaking preparations, and proceed so predictably, that outsiders have had occasion to remark that all the fun has been organised out of them.

What is true for individual Japanese – that they act as if constantly aware of precisely how much elbow-room they are allotted – is generally true for Japanese organisations too. Sustained opposition to existing sociopolitical arrangements is rare. To be sure, Japanese institutions strive to increase their prominence, if only as the best guarantee against losing their position in the hierarchy. But except for a small number of very tiny and (significantly) very radical fringe groups, none of them evinces the slightest interest in disturbing the established order.

The absence of political competition

Japan has none of the institutions, such as religions or clan organisations, that in other Asian countries and in the West have supplied an alternative power base from which to challenge the established élite. Thus there is no age-old example of sustained opposition to the political order such as could inspire a labour movement or even such a simple phenomenon as consumer activism. There are interest groups, farmers’ co-operatives and workers’ unions, but nearly all of them have been absorbed by the System and harnessed to its aims.

Defusing traditional challenges

Japan’s power-holders have had many centuries in which to refine their techniques for rendering harmless or absorbing potentially threatening organisations. Their experience here goes back at least to the time when Buddhism first became ‘a mere prop to the existing social order and to the traditional value system’.
In most other political systems, religions have usually produced the strongest institutions competing for power with temporal rulers. To some extent at least, they have tended to free the individual from the grip of the power-holders.

Thus the Hindu kings, themselves members of the warrior caste, were obliged to keep a wary eye on the priestly caste of Brahmins. The
(a kind of prime minister) represented this spiritually superior caste, and even when his duties were mainly ceremonial he was expected to have a decisive influence over the opinions of the monarch. In contemporary India religious considerations are still a factor of major and seemingly increasing importance in political life. In Thailand the Buddhist religion is mentioned in the same breath with the monarchy as a basic source of national values. In the Philippines the initiatives of the Catholic bishops, invoking universal principles, were crucial to the ousting of President Marcos in 1986.
The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia cannot afford to risk the grave displeasure of their Islamic leaders, because these are backed in turn by the power of Muslim fundamentalism. Organised opposition to the South Korean government is largely rooted in the expanding Catholic and Protestant churches of that country. And modern political systems in which sovereignty resides with the people – the model Japan formally subscribes to – derive, of course, from a fundamental European assumption of the separation of church and state, which for centuries has supplied a theme of political commentary.

In China, where religious competition with worldly authority was weak at best, the highly centralised administrative system faced another kind of challenge. The state consisted of a massive bureaucracy run by mandarins, with an emperor at its centre and radiating outward from the capital. But alongside that authority there existed an entirely different social organisation: the family clans and the local gentry who represented the apex of the regional family power structure. The tension between these two systems was always a potential source of conflict.

In Japan the social and political hierarchies were congruent, not separate. Whereas in China it was the blood-tie that determined membership in the family – filial piety, the supreme injunction of Confucianist morality, overriding even political loyalty to emperor or state – the Japanese household, or
, had a political significance. The underlying criterion for membership was a shared task; its members were not necessarily blood relations, and succession to the headship was often arranged through adoption. Significantly, the Tokugawa regime singled out the
as the basic building block of its political system. It became, in effect, a corporation whose members lacked the right to own property and were obliged to submit to the formally recognised power exercised over them by its head. In such ways the traditional household, which in China could exist in opposition to the state, was in Japan absorbed by the body politic. We will examine this crucial development more closely in Chapter 6.

Neutralising citizen movements

Would-be opponents to the Japanese political status quo face barriers that, being both flexible and intangible, are all but impregnable. Power in Japan is so diffuse that it eludes confrontation. The individual components of the System manage by peaceful means to bring within their fold all major and most minor social elements that they come up against. Any antagonist, real or potential, is either rapidly rendered harmless and forgotten or, if its size or capacity to make noise precludes ignoring it, assimilated quite naturally as a functioning part of the System.

Take, for instance, the consumer movement. Middle-class Japanese housewives are a potentially important political presence. Finding themselves with increasing leisure, they have developed an enthusiasm for neighbourhood causes, and hardly a neighbourhood today is without its
, or women’s group. The Japanese housewives’ association, Shufuren, was one of the earliest pressure groups, established in 1948 mainly to counter post-war black marketeering. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it joined Chifuren (an umbrella organisation of a multitude of
) in spearheading consumer campaigns that gave the impression of a new kind of political activism. But after some minor successes, such as a regulation making it mandatory for manufacturers of canned fruit-juice to indicate the percentage of genuine fruit juice, and a lowering of prices on colour TV sets, its activism was effectively blunted.

The System-ubiquitous, intangible, enveloping, absorptive – had seen a threat and neutralised it. In 1975 top representatives of the business world produced a 250-page report for the ministries and businessmen concerned, in which they concluded that ‘the citizens’ movements should be highly valued as new sources of energy in the operation of the economic community, and should be considered, if possible, in the planning and drafting of policies’, but ‘in case the voltage of energy unleashed by the movements rises high and begins to flow recklessly, it should be curbed. The government authorities need to display a firm attitude in the face of action that will disturb the legal order.’

The administrators have managed to reduce the ‘voltage of energy’ to a very low level indeed. Even though in the late 1980s the number of consumer groups is estimated at almost thirteen thousand, and though Chifuren claims a combined membership of more than six million housewives, their existence is hardly ever noticed. This is remarkable, given the wealth of justifications for agitation afforded by the excessive mark-ups on most items (particularly food) and the prevalence of racketeering. Especially remarkable is the silence surrounding the fact that the spectacular rise in value of the Japanese currency (roughly double against the dollar in the period 1985–7) is reflected in the price of very few important consumer goods and no domestic products, while some prices have actually been raised in view of the allegedly ‘uncertain situation’.

The officials who in the 1970s made a brief show of considering citizens’ opinions in their administrative decisions no longer feel any urgent need to placate consumer groups. Some municipalities have given these a token ‘voice in policy-making’, thus defusing their combative spirit. The Consumers’ Union of Japan, the umbrella organisation under the presidency of Takeuchi Naokazu, now fights
the removal of import restrictions on agricultural products, and
the adjustment of product standards to facilitate the import of foreign consumer goods. In other words, the most significant element in the consumer movement is zealously working to keep food prices high and to limit consumer choice to domestic produce.

No mysterious process of indirect promotion of consumer interests is at work here, but rather the power of the organisation’s president. Takeuchi is a former top-ranking official of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Although he left his ministry in a disagreement over the use of pesticides, and cannot thus be called a genuine
, it is inconceivable that he would work against the interests of his former colleagues in this most protectionist-minded segment of Japan’s officialdom.

Pressure groups

A popular theory about how government policies develop holds that ‘interest groups’ or ‘pressure groups’ manage to ‘capture’, as it were, the segment of the public service whose co-operation they need. One Japanese group that, quite exceptionally, has done exactly this is the Japan Medical Association (JMA), which since the 1950s has won great prominence among Japan’s pressure groups by functioning as such groups are expected to function outside Japan – only more so. Unlike most of its fellows, it has tended to confront the bureaucrats rather than accommodate them in exchange for favours.

Led until 1982 by a forceful personality, Takemi Taro, it created an obedient rank and file while using aggressive methods such as lambasting the government in full-page newspaper advertisements in order to dominate decision-making concerning medical matters. It has had a major voice in banning oral contraceptives, thus preventing any decline in the lucrative abortion industry.
It has run its own candidates in national elections, and bankrolls a number of regular LDP candidates.

The JMA can stop the import of particular medical equipment, if this threatens to eliminate the need for lucrative cures; it can, on arbitrary grounds, prevent the use of medicines and methods of treatment; and it protects the widespread racketeering made possible by the health insurance system. Not only is the income of Japanese doctors from the health insurance scheme calculated partly by the quantity of medicine they prescribe, but they themselves have the right to sell this medicine in their offices. This has led to corrupt relations with the pharmaceutical industry, to an alarming degree of over-medication and to some very rich doctors.

Since the departure of Takemi Taro, the power of the JMA has declined, but it is one of the minor components of the System. Health and Welfare Ministry officials have become so used to bowing to the wishes of the association that the laws they draft still seem to have been formulated by the doctors themselves.
It is significant that the one major exception among Japanese pressure groups, functioning the way Westerners expect pressure groups to function, should do this in an extreme fashion. The practitioners of medicine have taken over the very area of government that ought to be controlling them in order to safeguard medicine as a public service.

Post-war society saw a mushrooming of pressure groups: of housewives, families of the war dead, veterans, wounded veterans, former landlords (who lost their property in post-war land reform), returnees from former colonies and brothel owners – to mention only the best known. They became a familiar subject of newspaper comment in the mid-1950s, especially after brothel owners formed the All-Japan Association for Prevention of Venereal Diseases in an attempt to block passage of the Anti-Prostitution Law (they failed, so that roughly half a million ladies of the night had to find new descriptions for their profession). A very successful pressure group, drawing press attention, was Chuseiren, later to become the main federation of small and medium-sized companies.

These new actors on the political stage caused mixed feelings. In 1958 two veterans’ groups succeeded in having the budget for war pensions increased by 30 billion yen, while the JMA managed to reserve an extra 21 billion yen.
Japanese political commentators and editorial opinion interpreted such things as undermining the democratic political process; the pressure groups were accused of lack of concern for the general welfare, and of selfishly pushing measures from which only they would benefit.
Ironically enough, at the very time in the 1960s when Japanese were seeing the pressure groups as undemocratic, Western observers were citing them as the best proof that ‘democracy’ was finally gaining a foothold in Japan. Even in the 1980s they are still seen as a force for greater pluralism.

A closer look reveals that it is a rather odd kind of pluralism they serve. With the exception of the doctors, the ‘capturing’ in Japan takes place largely in the wrong direction, with officials and the LDP making use of the groups in exchange for certain subsidies and a minimal degree of accommodation. When all groups that have close organisational ties with the administrators are eliminated, the category of genuine pressure groups is very small. It diminishes still further if one excludes those with semiofficial ties to other major components of the System. Finally, one is left with a core of groups the majority of which have one leg in the camp of the openly anti-System activists and occasionally battle with riot police to demonstrate the fact that they will not be bought and cannot be incorporated in any way. The farmer-radical-activist coalition which continues to block expansion of the new Tokyo International Airport at Narita is a prime example.

Pollution activists

Among the post-war pressure groups that have stayed outside the System, the most successful – measured by the extent to which the System has had to accommodate them – are those that have fought on behalf of the victims of industrial poisoning. Even so, it took some ten years before pollution problems received serious consideration in Japan. Only when cats that had eaten mercury-laden fish began to have spasms and jump into the sea did the problems of Minamata (the municipality that was later to become a symbol of environmental pollution the world over) first attract some limited attention from the press. Several years more passed before the plight of the human victims became a national issue. They had been rapidly increasing in number, dying sometimes of sheer exhaustion as a result of the spasms caused by their injured nervous systems.

The corporation responsible for dumping mercury waste into the sea maintained that there was no connection, and hired gangsters to manhandle petitioning victims and their families.
The victims themselves, mainly from poor villages, were ostracised. The bringers of bad tidings – doctors who were studying the Minamata cases and similar mercury-poisoning cases in Niigata – were at first discredited. The Kumamoto University research team saw their findings suppressed and research money cut off. A campaign was waged against a certain Dr Hagino Noboru who was treating patients in Toyama prefecture for the so-called
(‘ouch, ouch’) disease, a mysterious affliction in which bones became so brittle, owing to cadmium that had been allowed to seep into rice paddies, that they fractured at many places. The suppression of evidence and the hiring of doctors to claim lack of scientific grounds for the complaints were repeated in other parts of Japan until riots, the storming of the factory responsible for the mercury waste in Minamata, a national press campaign and foreign publicity finally made such approaches untenable.

The first lawsuit on behalf of pollution victims, filed in 1967 by leftist lawyers, was quickly followed by three more. In the early 1970s, prodded by this legal action and popular discontent with the badly polluted air of the capital region, officialdom, together with some politicians and businessmen, concluded that some measures had become inevitable.

Strict industrial regulations were introduced; overnight, it became fashionable to decry industrial expansion achieved at the expense of the living environment. Courts of justice, too, though they took ten or more years to conclude trials, were beginning to award damages to victims. But experience in most cases showed the judiciary playing only a subsidiary role; the System had responded to pressure caused by an outcry greatly amplified by the press. Its response was evidence that it can be moved to right wrongs, provided the wrongs are sufficiently eye-catching and can awaken widespread public indignation.

In the late 1970s the anti-pollution campaign seemed to portend a new kind of opposition to the way Japan was being managed, and citizens’ movements were thought to have created permanent changes by stimulating political awareness on the regional level. Opposition mayors were elected. But in the meantime oppositionist policy programmes were adopted by LDP-run municipalities. In LDP eyes, the opposition had been absorbed.
By the mid-1980s the activist groups were comparing themselves to ‘wind-chimes in winter’ – an allusion to the small bells hung outside windows in summer, whose tinkling, thought refreshing at the time, becomes irritatingly irrelevant in winter. The number of cities with opposition mayors declined from 136 in 1974 to 60 in 1988.
Hasty antipollution measures, an adjustment of election rhetoric by local LDP candidates and a reconfirmation of the LDP as the sole fount of plenty with regard to costly projects had brought to an effective halt grass-roots opposition to the status quo.

BOOK: The Enigma of Japanese Power
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