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The Real Japan

The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation

by Karel van Wolferen
Knopf, 496 pp., $24.95

Trading Places: How We Allowed Japan to Take the Lead

by Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr.
Basic Books, 365 pp., $19.95

Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power is the subject of much controversy and has been generally vilified in Japan, even though it has not been officially published there, is written in a language most Japanese cannot read, and does much to explain the roots of the political crisis that has preoccupied Japan for most of the last year. The book would be important for non-Japanese readers even if it had evoked no reaction whatever from the Japanese. The Enigma of Japanese Power will, I think, stand with other classic attempts by foreigners to interpret Japanese society and institutions, including Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword and Chalmers Johnson’s MITI and the Japanese Miracle. Like those books, this one will change the course of subsequent debate about Japan; it will be very hard for anyone to discuss the Japanese political system without responding to Van Wolferen’s argument. The intensity of the Japanese reaction against the book underscores the significance of the messages Van Wolferen is trying to convey.

The furor began three years ago, when “The Japan Problem,” a précis of some of the arguments Van Wolferen has developed in his book, was published in Foreign Affairs. The article advanced a view that the subsequent twists of Japanese politics would seem to have borne out: that there is not a clear center of power in the Japanese government, but that the “buck” is circulating constantly and does not stop on anyone’s desk. The Japanese government is extremely influential, Van Wolferen said, if one considers the cumulative effects of its various parts, but it is not centrally directed or controlled. A variety of Balkanized ministries exercise very strong supervision of trade policy, the schools, public works, prisons, banks, the medical and legal systems, et cetera, but no one stands above the separate organizations, with the authority or power to steer the entire system in a new direction. The best parallel in the American government would be the Pentagon, with its strong but very independent bureaucracies (the ship-building faction of the navy, the long-range bombing faction of the air force, the research-and-development faction, and so on) that fiercely resist the attempts of any president or defense secretary to coordinate them.

Van Wolferen was saying, in short, that Japan may seem structurally and legally a typical liberal democracy, but in practice its politics work differently from those of most other democratic states. One basic difference is that Japan’s is effectively a one-party system. Since 1955, when the ruling LDP was formed, the party has constantly dominated the Diet and therefore the prime minister’s office and the bureaucracy. (In English it is more appropriate to use the neutral acronym LDP than the full name “Liberal Democratic Party,” which is the direct translation of the Japanese name, Jiyuminshuto. The Jiminto, as it is colloquially known, was created from the merger of Japan’s main conservative parties, and the role it plays is exactly the opposite of what Americans think when they hear the words “Liberal Democratic.”)

The peculiarities of Japan’s electoral system strengthen the LDP’s hold and illustrate Van Wolferen’s point about the differences between Japan’s political behavior and that of other advanced democracies. Japan’s version of “one man, one vote” is “one man, three votes”—Supreme Court decisions permit a three-to-one disparity between the most and least populated Diet districts and in reality the disparity is now almost five to one. This gives farmers a hugely disproportionate role in Japanese politics and is much of the reason why Japan’s urban consumers and industrial workers have had so little voice in the nation’s policy.

The farmers and the LDP are locked together in a kind of “agricultural-electoral complex” that is at least as strong as the “military-industrial complex” is in the United States and is probably more destructive to the nation’s overall welfare. For example, the Diet, under the control of the LDP, refuses to let imported rice into the country, even though Japanese rice, grown on tiny plots, costs 600 to 800 percent as much as rice from the vast flatlands of Thailand, Australia, California, or Arkansas. The rice-import ban and other farm quotas force Japanese consumers to pay 30 percent of their income for food, while Americans pay about 15 percent, and the policy indirectly compels them to live in tiny, expensive quarters, since about half of Japan’s scarce nonmountainous land is used for these grossly inefficient farms. The farmers, nonetheless, are pleased and grateful, and they recirculate some of their profits into substantial contributions to the LDP.

According to an opinion poll conducted last December by the prime minister’s office, only one quarter of the Japanese public feels that government policy reflects the best interests of the public; two thirds feel that, on the contrary, the Japanese government acts against the “popular will.” Since “government policy” really means LDP policy, this would seem to be a devastating indictment of the ruling party, and because of year-long bribery scandals, the LDP will probably suffer significant losses in the elections from the Upper House of the Diet in July. But almost no one expects the LDP to lose its control of the government.

A further peculiarity, amplifying Van Wolferen’s themes, is that even though the LDP dominates Japanese policy, policy and issues play almost no part in the workings of the LDP. Under the Japanese “multimember district” system, individual LDP members have to run against each other in the same district, a problem that US congressmen face only when redistricting pits two incumbents against each other. Most election campaigns turn into sheer name-recognition contests—more than half the members of the Diet are the sons of former Diet members, riding in on their fathers’ established names. Within the Diet, LDP politicians ally themselves with habatsu, or “factions” that compete for power the way Republicans and Democrats do in the United States. But while the difference between Democratic and Republican policies sometimes seems slim, there are no differences over policy whatever between the LDP factions. The factions are known by the name of the strong-man who leads them (the Take-shita faction, the Nakasone faction, and so on) and they compete only for political “market share,” much as Toshiba does against the electronics conglomerate NEC. In fact, the real opposition party in Japanese politics is the United States. The LDP prides itself on maintaining a smooth relationship with the Americans, but constant pressure from American politicians and trade negotiators serves the function that an opposition party does in other countries, that of pushing policy in a different direction. There is very little push from within.

At about the time Van Wolferen’s Foreign Affairs article was published, Yasuhiro Nakasone was going into eclipse, in a way that conformed to Van Wolferen’s thesis. Nakasone seemed the exception to the general rule of Japanese politics that no one leader becomes dominant: he was a prime minister who tried to behave like a president rather than a committee chairman, and to impose his views on the government. One of Nakasone’s goals was to increase Japan’s military spending and generally have Japan viewed as a mature world power. Another was to reduce the trade surplus that is America’s chronic grievance against Japan. His military plan succeeded: he pushed military spending above the informal limit of 1 percent of Japan’s GNP without making China, Korea, and the Philippines worry about being invaded again. But he failed in his attempt to redefine the prime minister’s job. Nakasone’s attempts to change Japan’s policy seemed too pushy to the Japanese bureaucracy—and too feeble to other world leaders, who doubted Japan’s ability to carry out commitments Nakasone had made.

The most powerful illustration was the Maekawa Commission Report, a major study by a panel appointed by Nakasone. This report, which was issued just before the Tokyo Economic Summit meeting in 1986, said that the time had come to transform Japan from an export machine, with long working hours and high prices, into a more relaxed, balanced state with more emphasis on imports. Nakasone put his authority behind the report and offered it to other leaders at the summit as an indication that Japan’s trade policy was about to change. But all the entrenched power of the Japanese bureaucracy was against him, and by the time he left office the Maekawa recommendations were moribund. The episode fit the pattern Van Wolferen described:

If Japan seems to be in the world but not of it, this is because its prime minister and other power-holders are incapable of delivering on political promises they may make concerning commercial or other matters requiring important adjustments [in domestic power arrangements]. The field of domestic power normally leaves no room for an accommodation to foreign wishes or demands.

What has happened since Nakasone left office even more vividly illustrates Van Wolferen’s themes: Nakasone’s successor, the luckless Noboru Takeshita, came to office through a whimsical, non-democratic process whose closest US counterpart is the way an American presidential candidate chooses his vice-presidential running mate. Through the summer of 1987, Nakasone showily deliberated about the personal merits of the “new leaders,” three veteran politicians in their sixties who had waited for their turn in line. He settled on Takeshita as the country’s next prime minister, largely because of Takeshita’s reputation as a backstage deal-maker and a proven money-raiser.

In office, Takeshita used his skills to push through two highly unpopular measures, a new consumption tax and an increase in beef and citrus imports from the United States. But he spent the last year watching his cabinet fall apart because of the complex “Recruit Cosmos” scandal. One ambitious parvenu businessman, Hiromasa Ezoe, was shown to have illegally given money and shares in his Recruit company to virtually every prominent figure in the LDP, and leaders of most of the non-Communist opposition parties as well. In some cases the donations were bribes for specific favors from the government; in other cases, Ezoe seemed mainly to be investing in future good will. Ezoe was arrested early this year, and by this spring forty-two politicians or bureaucrats had resigned, fourteen had been arrested, and Takeshita himself had had to admit that Recruit had secretly contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his political campaigns.

Early in April, opinion polls showed that approval of Takeshita’s government had sunk to a ludicrously low 3.9 percent, or one eighth as much support as Richard Nixon had on the day that he resigned. A week after this poll was published, Takeshita announced that he too would resign—but two months later, he was still in office, mainly because the LDP could not find any plausible replacement who was not also tainted by Recruit. The most prominent politician of the LDP who was not implicated in the scandal, the seventy-five-year-old Masayoshi Itoh, refused to take the job unless there were also sweeping reforms in the political fund-raising system typified by the secret payoffs of the Recruit company. “He didn’t hear a word I said,” Itoh was quoted as saying after a meeting with Takeshita in which he discussed political reforms. “I could just as well have been a clown.”

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