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Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008

All you need to know about Japan's politics


GOVERNING JAPAN: Divided Politics in a Resurgent Economy, by J.A.A. Stockwin. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, 298 pp., £19.99 (paper)

Arthur Stockwin, who was until recently Nissan Professor of Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Oxford, is the leading British expert on Japanese politics. His aim in the book reviewed here has been "to make at least partly comprehensible what to the outside observer (and indeed to many Japanese) often appears to be the great muddle of Japanese politics." His analysis is succinct and he has managed to unravel most of the complexities of Japanese politics.

This is the fourth edition of a work first produced in 1975. Many important changes have taken place in the way Japan is governed since the last edition in 1999. Much of the book attempts to assess these changes. This entailed rewriting a large part of the book, which now covers the political scene up to the appointment of Yasuo Fukuda as Japan's prime minister in 2007.

Stockwin identifies six broad areas of crisis. These are the crises of political power and accountability, political participation and noninvolvement in politics, the Constitution and political fundamentals, liberal versus illiberal ideas, the aging society and diverging "life-chances," and "national status and role." He considers all these crises as "relatively serious, actually or potentially," but Japan is "a major and dynamic economic power" with a basically democratic structure in which "the political system has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to overcome crises and achieve reasonably satisfactory solutions to problems."

His analysis, which takes due account of economic and social as well as political factors, is based on careful research and observation and his judgments are fair and objective. He occasionally allows himself to make some shrewd and pointed comments, for instance that "prime ministers in Japan may be categorized as ranging from weak to moderately effective." At the presentation of his book at Daiwa House in London recently he gave the palm to Shigeru Yoshida, also praising Hayato Ikeda and Junichiro Koizumi.

After an introduction headed "Why Japan and its Politics Matter," Stockwin gives useful summaries of the historical, social and economic background. He discusses the attempts at political reform in the 1990s and writes about "the Koizumi Effect" in the 21st century.

This section is followed by a chapter that tries to answer the question "Who Runs Japan." In this he discusses the theories of writers such as Chalmers Johnson and Karel van Wolferen, noting that while Japan has unique features it is not "uniquely unique."

In commenting on the changing character of elections, he explains the differences in the makeup of constituencies following the replacement of multimember constituencies with a mixture of single-member constituencies and proportional representation. Groups supporting individual candidates are not the equivalent of the local branches of political parties found in Britain.

He notes that Japan is "at once dynamic and conservative" and that traditional styles of personal, pork-barrel politics remain embedded in the appeal and modus operandi of the Liberal Democratic Party. He regards the Democratic Party of Japan as essentially another conservative party; although critical and fractious, it does not present a real alternative government of a different complexion. Ideology now plays a limited role in Japanese politics as personality still counts more than party. There is little sign that Japan is moving toward a two-party system.

In discussing domestic political issues, he underlines the problems facing Japan with its declining and aging population. He is concerned by the "clear trend since the 1990s toward illiberal policies in certain areas" and views central government power as subject to insufficient restraint, whether from opposition parties, Parliament, the judiciary, the media or the voluntary sector. He adds that "recent governments have shown worrying signs of riding roughshod over opposition including the media."

The chapter on the Constitution provides valuable background to the problems involved in amending the Constitution and includes the text of the changes proposed by the LDP.

In his chapter on the political implications of foreign and defense issues he reminds readers that Japan's GDP is still more than double that of China and that China is now Japan's second-largest trading partner. He believes that the era of "Japan-Passing" in the '90s is over and that "an innovative Japan brand" has been developing. "If politicians could be persuaded to understand and develop the comparative advantages that Japan now has, as a sophisticated post-industrial society in a globalizing world, the future for the country could be bright indeed." He is thus cautiously optimistic about the future.

There is much food for thought in this stimulating and informative book. It contains, with numerous tables, all the essential facts for understanding the Japanese political scene. It should be read and kept for reference by all foreign diplomats and journalists who must try to interpret Japanese politics.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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