Japan far from a typical democratic country

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.

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.

Just Posted

Red Deerian spreads kindness with one card at a time

One Red Deerian wants to combat bullying by spreading kindness in the… Continue reading

Bowden baby in need of surgery

“Help for Alexis” Go Fund Me account

PHOTO: First Rider bus safety in Red Deer

Central Alberta students learned bus safety in the Notre Dame High School… Continue reading

Red Deer dancer attends national summer school

Dancers with others from across Canada and beyond

WATCH: Annual Family Picnic at Central Spray and Play

Blue Grass Sod Farms Ltd. held the Annual Family Picnic at the… Continue reading

Woman has finger ripped off at West Edmonton Mall waterslide

SASKATOON — A Saskatchewan woman says she lost a finger after her… Continue reading

Uncertainty looms over Canada’s cannabis tourism, but ambitions are high

TORONTO — Longtime marijuana advocate Neev Tapiero is ready for the cannabis-driven… Continue reading

Feds mulling safeguards to prevent ‘surge’ of cheap steel imports into Canada

OTTAWA — The federal government extended an olive branch of sorts to… Continue reading

Ontario govt caps off summer session by passing bill to cut Toronto council size

TORONTO — The Ontario government passed a controversial bill to slash the… Continue reading

Updated:Italian bridge collapse sends cars plunging, killing 26

MILAN — A 51-year-old highway bridge in the Italian port city of… Continue reading

Saudi Arabia spat affecting Canadians embarking on hajj, community members say

TORONTO — Members of Canada’s Muslim community say recent tensions between Ottawa… Continue reading

Tug carrying up to 22,000 litres of fuel capsizes in Fraser River off Vancouver

VANCOUVER — The smell of diesel filled the air as crews worked… Continue reading

Nebraska executes first inmate using fentanyl

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska carried out its first execution in more than… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month