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Tuesday, Feb. 29, 2000

Japanese politics are gray, not green

Staff writer
GREEN POLITICS IN JAPAN, by Lam Peng Er. Routledge, March 1999, 232 pp., $90.

The next 100 years have been dubbed the century of the environment. While this pronouncement may be a bit premature, even inflated, it reflects the swelling interest in environmental issues. From global warming and dioxins, recycling and waste disposal, environmental problems are making more headlines.

If ever a country were ripe to turn green -- politically speaking, at least -- it would be Japan. Social values are shifting from material considerations to quality of life concerns, say scholars. Surveys show a majority of citizens are concerned about the environment. Corporations strive to meet international environmental standards to add to their public-relations efforts to spin greener images. Even the government is on the move: It is preparing to turn the Environment Agency into a ministry early next year.

But what about politics? Do changing values and growing environmental interest portend the arrival of Green parties?

To answer these questions, turn to "Green Politics in Japan," where author Lam Peng Er explores this largely uncharted terrain.

His short answer: Don't hold your breath.

He argues that domestic institutions and culture are likely to restrict any Green political movement. And even if ecologically oriented parties aren't pre-empted by the traditional powers that be, their narrow platforms will probably limit the number of voters they might attract.

Still, there are signs that parties and politicians are getting greener in a piecemeal way.

An associate professor of politics at the National University of Singapore and a veteran Japan-watcher, Lam focuses on one incipient alternative political party, the Network Movement, or NET. He revisits and discusses its origins and its prospects as a Green Party.

NET, the political arm of Seikatsu Club, a Tokyo-based cooperative, has made a dent in local politics in some of Japan's major cities, and is quietly knocking on the door of the Diet. But it has yet to ascend the national stage.

The Seikatsu Club is the nation's most politically active cooperative. It was formed in 1965 as a milk-delivery service, but has since ballooned to a nearly quarter-of-a-million-member organization with a presence in 13 prefectures. Disillusioned with existing political parties, SC leaders gradually launched NET as a women-driven ecology party and built up a small urban following. In the 1980s, it was able to install candidates in half of the largest cities of Japan.

But despite certain "New Politics-like" features -- a platform that focuses on ecology, alternative economy and pacifism, a woman-centered party that calls for term limits for elected candidates -- Lam concludes that NET falls short of its alternative billing on some points. The party leadership is male-dominated, despite its core of housewife support, and this, he argues, produces a propensity to oligarchic tendencies.

"The SC downplays its male origins in order to project the image that it (NET) is a women-conceived and -led organization,"' writes Lam, suggesting that an inability to incorporate women into leadership roles may prove the party's Achilles' heel. The SC's top-down, oligarchic management approach clashes with the image of a mass-based, all-inclusive alternative party. Ostensibly NET has had to water down some of its ideals in an attempt to become a viable political party.

"The Greens are caught in an electoral dilemma. In order to promote change, they must join the electoral process. To win elections, they cannot dispense with leadership, organization and attractive candidates; organizations and hierarchy are as necessary in a postindustrial society as in an industrial one."

Though ecological values are on the rise, the traditional emphasis on human ties still binds, as shown by NET's use of "koenkai," or personal support organizations. NET has ironically embraced these age-old political machines, writes Lam, further proof of the way it has diluted its claim to represent new values.

"Instead of relying solely on a policy-oriented party organization, NET has adopted koenkai . . . to maximize its votes. This approach conforms to social norms that stress interpersonal relations and small-group loyalties even in urban Japan. Rather than the Green ideal of an egalitarian, policy-oriented organization as a tool to change society, NET, instead, has been changed by the electoral imperative to have personality-oriented organization to win elections."

The strength of koenkai and the weight given to social bonds in Japan, even in a postindustrial society, will likely crimp the ability of Greens to win purely on policy appeals, predicts Law.

Aside from these internal factors, NET faces major external obstacles.

Foremost among them are entrenched political parties.

Clearly not keen to cede political ground, traditional parties can pre-empt Green movements by tacking ecological issues onto their platforms as well as relying on their established vote-gathering networks.

Lam puts it simply in a chapter on the Liberal Democratic Party's urban political machine: "The relative weakness of the Greens in metropolitan Japan is due in part to the ability of the Old Politics parties to attract substantial voter support."

Another obstacle is NET's narrow platform and limited organizational base. On election day, NET can count on co-op members, but "NET's appeal is limited by the difficulty in attracting urban residents who are not beneficiaries of the co-op's goods and services," notes Lam. This problem is symptomatic of such parties around the world. "The inability to cast their social nets wider and further to pull in more diverse supporters contributes to the marginal position of the Greens in Western Europe and especially Japan."

Times change. Values evolve. With materialism out and environmentalism in, the political environment could be ready for Green parties to grow and bloom -- if traditional parties and politicking don't nip them in the bud first.

The fact that NET has made inroads shows that there is a reservoir of disaffected voters. But whether they are numerous and vocal enough to usher in an era of Green parties seems doubtful at present. Readers looking for an expose and a more nuanced understanding of the state of and prospects for Green politics in this country will want to pick up this book.

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