Weak opposition is a cancer in Japan’s political system

Author: Gerald Curtis, Columbia University

For close to 40 years after 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dominated Japan’s competitive party system. Opposition parties were not able to mount a successful challenge to LDP rule at the national level, but they had an important impact on policy and the political process. Japan had one dominant party but not a one-party system.

Japan's newly elected leader of the opposition Democratic Party Renho delivers a speech (Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai).

The opposition was strong enough to prevent the adoption of many policies for which the LDP fought hard — constitutional revision, government financial support for the controversial Yasukuni shrine and the reintroduction of prewar morals education. Broad popular support for the Japan Socialist Party’s (JSP) positions on rearmament and on defending the liberties enshrined in the constitution made it impossible for the LDP to implement key policies it espoused in its initial party platform in 1955.

Half a century later, the LDP is again pushing these policies forward with renewed vigour.

Polarised party systems with deep ideological and policy divisions tend to undermine political stability. But in post-war Japan the tug and pull between a right-leaning LDP and a left-wing opposition dominated by the JSP created a dynamic tension that drew the system towards the centre. Over time the LDP — which started out determined to overturn many of the political reforms adopted during the American occupation and write a new Constitution — downplayed its revanchist goals and made retaining political power its overarching objective. Emphasising a pragmatic approach, the LDP became the pre-eminent party of the centre.

The socialists did not make a comparable adjustment in their political orientation and moved to the left. Doing so led elements on its right wing to break off to form the Democratic Socialist Party and also made room for Komeito, formed in 1964, to occupy space that had opened up to the left of the LDP and the right of the JSP.

In the 1990s the demise of the JSP seemed to be leading to a reordered political party system centred on competition between the LDP on the centre-right and the newly formed centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). It seemed possible that an alternation of power between two dominant parties might become the new normal. That view seemed to be confirmed when the DPJ enjoyed a landslide victory in the 2009 lower house election and took control of the government.

But it was not to be. The three years the DPJ held power proved to be a disaster for the party and a godsend for the LDP. Many factors contributed to the DPJ’s failure, among the most important being the ineptitude of prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, the effort by Ichiro Ozawa to control the party, the party’s bureaucrat-bashing approach, poor handling of the crises created by the Tohoku earthquake and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. It looked as though the party might be getting its bearings under prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, but by then it was too late.

Since losing power to the LDP in 2012 the Democrats have been at a loss as to how to recover public support. Under chairman Katsuya Okada the Democratic Party, as it is now known, opted to define its goals not in terms of what the party stands for but what it stands against. It is against collective self-defence, against the classified secrets act and against constitutional revision.

Now it has a new leader, Renho Murata, the first female to lead a major Japanese political party. The former model and TV presenter, whose father is Taiwanese and mother Japanese, brings a fresh face to a homogeneous Japanese political world dominated by older men. But she has an enormous task ahead in building party unity and formulating concrete alternative policies, especially on the economy, which is consistently the primary concern of voters. Renho — she goes by her first name alone — will need to convince the public that she has a realistic understanding of security issues and that if her party held government again, they would not make a mess of it. Escaping the image of a party that stands for nothing but opposing LDP policies will be no easy task.

Public opinion is critical of LDP policies but the kind of intensity that led people to demonstrate in large numbers against the LDP years ago is simply not there anymore. The Democratic Party’s effort to make opposition to constitutional revision the key issue in the 2016 upper house election campaign gained little traction. Prime Minister Abe downplayed the constitutional issue and emphasised the importance of sticking to his economic strategy. Democratic Party leaders never articulated an economic policy of their own.

Now that the LDP is no longer being pulled to the centre by parties on the left, the party’s more conservative members are demanding that the party return to its roots and fulfil the vision of its founders. The changing dynamics of party politics in Japan has set in motion the LDP’s rightward shift.

Those on the party right reject the pragmatic, economics-first strategy of the ‘conservative mainstream’ (hoshu honryū) as an unprincipled betrayal of the party’s ideals and goals. Prime Minister Abe, for example, has criticised his party for becoming a ‘party to maintain power’ rather than seeking to fulfil its original platform — the revision of the American-drafted constitution in particular. Abe believes he has a responsibility to give priority to the LDP’s goals as set out by his grandfather, prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, more than half a century ago.

As far as the LDP’s opposition is concerned, there is no future for the Democrats or any party that defines its raison d’etre in terms of what it opposes and that avoids taking clear positions on difficult issues of national security policy. The sad truth is that never in Japan’s post-war history has the political opposition been as enfeebled as it is now. Renho has her work cut out for her.

Japan’s political party system will be reinvented, one way or another. It is possible that reinvention will leave the LDP so strong and the opposition so impotent that Japan evolves into something similar to a one-party system in which the checks and balances essential to democratic governance are drastically weakened. Japan needs to find a new formula to sustain a system that cleaves toward the centre. The tug between revanchist conservatives and Marxist-dominated progressives that helped keep the centre on centre in the past is no longer relevant. Japan requires the presence of a catch-all centre-left party that offers the public a realistic alternative to the LDP.

Gerald Curtis is Burgess Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University. Professor Curtis will speak at the annual Japan Update at the Crawford School on Wednesday, 21 September 2016.

A version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Reinventing Japan’.

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Yoshimichi Moriyama
18 September 2016 11:10 pm

Perhaps revising the postwar constitution has been impossible not solely because of the weak opposition parties being strong enough, when it came to the constitutional revision, to prevent it but perhaps more because the LDP was the composite of various interests and concerns in Japanese society and some of in-groups of the party strongly opposed revising it.

I do not think Abe is as nationalistic as his grandfather.

The Democratic Party (DPJ), whose chairman/woman Renho has become, smacks of the JSP.
Renho does not seem at all to be capable of having a realistic understanding of security issues and parliamentary members of DPJ are generally as amatuerish as she is.

19 September 2016 1:39 am

I read the book Yakuza back in the 1980s and learnt how much the Japanese mob was involved in politics even to the point of committing murder of political opponents. I wonder if that is why there is weak opposition even today, because of the mob.

Richard Solomon
19 September 2016 8:06 pm

Abe and his cohorts are chasing a fool’s dream if they hope to build ‘a beautiful country’ based on a more robust national defense force/security system. Don’t they realize that with its very low birth rate and increasing number of senior citizens Japan will simply not have the manpower nor the economic resources to sustain a larger, more outward looking, and more active military posture in the world? Are Abe and his supporters going to reduce their people to a much lower lifestyle, if not outright poverty, in order to accomplish this goal?

Charles XIA
20 September 2016 11:23 pm

They can use robots. The first country in the world with robotic army