Some years ago, a political science professor at a Japanese university told me that he reckoned you could fit everybody who counted in Japan into one room.
There are about 400 of them, so it would have to be a ballroom. All but a couple would be men, of course, and at least half of them would be there because their fathers and grandfathers were in the same ballroom 25 and 50 years ago.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is headed for a landslide victory in the election on Aug. 30, sweeping the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) out after an almost unbroken 54 years in power, but that is the system it must break if it is really going to change Japan.
It won’t be easy.
Since the last elected LDP prime minister resigned three years ago, three other members have filled the job: Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a former prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, the son of a former prime minister, and now Taro Aso, also the grandson of a former prime minister. And what about Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ leader who will soon be prime minister and promises to break the system? He is the grandson of the prime minister who defeated Aso’s grandfather.
Recent polls by Japan’s biggest papers predict that the DPJ should end up with between 300 and 320 members in the 480-seat House of Representatives. That should be a majority big enough to crush all opposition, but it’s a bit more complicated than that in Japan. Not everybody in that small ballroom filled with the 400 people who matter is a politician.
Most of them are the businessmen who run the giant corporations that used to be called zaibatsu (the pre-Second World War industrial conglomerates) and the top layer of senior civil servants — all of whom have been in bed with the LDP all of their working lives.
In Japan they call it the iron triangle: LDP faction leaders, senior civil servants and industrial bosses, all working together to stifle change and keep themselves in power. It’s a hard combination to beat.
The one previous time in living memory when the LDP lost power, to a fragile coalition of opposition parties in 1993, the iron triangle immediately set to work to undermine and discredit the new government, and the LDP was back in power in eleven months. That isn’t going to happen this time, for three reasons.
The LDP has presided over another 15 years of economic stagnation, and people no longer link it with the boom years. This time it is a single opposition party, ready to take over the government. And the recession is ending in Japan, although unemployment remains high. Nevertheless, it will be a miracle if the Democratic Party of Japan can really change the country even with four undisturbed years in power.
About 15 years ago, when I was young and foolish, I spent a couple of months in Japan pursuing a single question: why was Japan the only developed country outside the Communist world that didn’t have a Sixties? (I had just finished a television series, which is the moral equivalent of living in a cave for two years, so I needed to get out a bit.)
Was there something unique in Japanese culture that insulated it from social and political trends elsewhere in the industrialized world? Why were Japanese people still so deferential, so hierarchical, so docile in the face of arrogant power and insolent corruption?
Why was Japan essentially a one-party state?
That was the question I went with, in my ignorance. But everybody in Japan knows the answer. Japan’s equivalent of the Sixties actually began in the 1950s, but it was ruthlessly crushed.
By the 1950s the Cold War was going full blast in Asia, and the United States was afraid that the youth revolution getting underway in Japan was the prelude to a Communist take-over. It probably wasn’t anything of the sort, but the U.S. was occupying Japan and so took action to stop it.
The old zaibatsu were allowed to rebuild, because that was the quickest way to get Japan back on its feet economically.
Conservative politicians (including some war criminals) were encouraged to form a political party that received full American support, the LDP. And the government that emerged from this, with considerable help from its yakuza (gangster) allies, beat the kids’ revolt into the ground.
By the time the rest of the developed world had its Sixties, the battle had been fought and lost in Japan.
During the half-century that followed, most people just kept their heads down and stayed out of trouble. It is still rare for ordinary people to discuss politics in Japan, even though the active repression ended a generation ago.
That is the system and the mind-set that the DPJ must start to dismantle if Japan is to become a normal democratic country.
The iron triangle will fight until the very last ditch to preserve the present system, however badly it has served the country. So the key question becomes: can the DPJ reach and take the last ditch in only four years?
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.