Japan: A Quiet Revolution

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama; sketch by Larry Roibal (

Hatoyama Yukio, the new prime minister of Japan, is no great thrill. His wife, Miyuki, an ex music review actress, is more interesting: she claims to have met Tom Cruise in a former life. And yet Hatoyama, wealthy scion of a political dynasty that goes back to the 19th century (his grandfather was also prime minister), has presided over a victory that is, in its way, as revolutionary as Obama’s in the US.

For decades—in fact since the founding of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in 1955—Japan has been a de facto one-party state. This suited the Americans, for Cold War reasons (it marginalized the left); it suited Japanese conservatives; and it suited most Japanese, who benefitted materially from high speed economic growth, fuelled by some hot wars in Korea and Vietnam, and managed by talented bureaucrats.

Japan was a bureaucratic technocracy, with elected pork-barrelling politicians as a kind of democratic window-dressing. Many commentators and experts told us that this was the Asian way. Orientals don’t like divisive politics. They prefer rule by mandarins.

The victory of Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan has demolished this myth. Japanese no longer felt that their country’s destiny (and economic crisis) was best handled by bureaucrats and ineffectual politicians, who could think of little more than to pour more tainted money into useless bridges, unwanted dams, and roads going nowhere. They wanted more choices. They want to be properly represented. They wanted to feel that their votes actually counted.

The Democratic Party has promised to change the system, to put elected politicians in charge, instead of bureaucrats. This will not be easy. Vested interests in technocracy are strong. But even if the promised reforms don’t happen overnight, or under Hatoyama’s watch, things will not be the same again. Now that Japanese citizens have finally exercised their power to vote the rascals out, going back to the old ways is no longer an option even for conservatives.

This is good news for Japan. And it is good news for the rest of us, especially at a time of low confidence in democratic institutions. The temptation, in periods of crisis, to do away with messy politics and put the experts (or the great leaders) in charge, is getting stronger: look at Italy, or Thailand, or Russia, or Venezuela. The Japanese have chosen the more democratic route. Three cheers to them.

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