Conclusion: Political Challenges and Evolving Government Structures

Much change has occurred in Japan’s political system since roughly the mid-1980s. However, further progress needs to be made. Like any large nation in an increasingly interconnected and fast-changing world, Japan’s problems are complex. The economy is always a paramount issue, and Japan has made substantial progress in rebounding from the serious malaise that lasted more than a decade. However, as readers of the next chapter will discover, additional legal and policy reforms are needed to make portions of the Japanese economy more competitive and productive and thus the larger population more prosperous.

As is the case with many affluent countries, education and training are now even more critically important in Japan than in the past. Japan has enjoyed a rising tide since the 1950s that lifted up most people, but changing international and domestic circumstances have caused income gaps between the skilled and the relatively unskilled to noticeably grow. This is reflected in a growth in the percentage of Japanese children who now attend private high schools and the situation in which many adults without skills find themselves in the new economy.

At present, more than 30 percent of high school students attend private schools. Twenty percent of high school students attended private schools 15 years ago. Until the first years of the 21st century, approximately 98 percent of all Japanese elementary and junior high students attended public schools. Although less than 10 percent of younger students attend private schools, the percentages that do so have steadily climbed in the past five years. The primary reason for the defections from public schools is that increasingly, students admitted to the better Japanese universities first attended private schools. For most of the postwar period, Japan’s public schools were vehicles whereby children of modest circumstances could succeed and then become successful adults. For a group-oriented society, a public education system that does not help poor families advance constitutes a serious national political problem.

Also, Japanese politicians must continue to facilitate economic changes that prevent another ‘‘lost decade’’ like the 1990s with high unemployment and several recessions. However, low-skill workers who lose jobs in industries that no longer receive government subsidies must be retrained and not forgotten. Recently, Japanese political leaders are paying close attention to such Scandinavian countries as Norway and Sweden, that managed to both make their economies more flexible and retrain displaced workers.

As discussed elsewhere, the quality of life for Japan’s elderly and the problem of younger Japanese not having enough children to sustain population increases are interrelated problems that have major political and social implications for the future, as does the influx of people such as Japanese Brazilians who aren’t culturally Japanese and Southeast Asians who aren’t ethnically Japanese. How Japan addresses diversity, including the accommodation of well-educated women, is an important domestic political issue.

Foreign policy challenges, discussed at some length in the Contemporary Issues chapter, also loom importantly for the future. Japan has always been part of the greater Northeast Asia region, but China’s rise means new problems and opportunities for Japan’s leaders as they determine in what ways to accommodate the largest country in the world while retaining their own existing alliances, commitments, and sovereignty. U.S. relations and the American military presence on Japanese soil and what form it should take is another political issue with far-reaching implications, as are relations with a volatile Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and an ally, the Republic of Korea, that still have a collective memory of colonization by Japan.

Changes in Japan’s political structures have occurred but are still needed. In addition to procedural changes in the Diet that have become apparent with the growth of a second strong political party, there is somewhat of a DPJ/LDP bipartisan perspective about the continuing need to decrease national bureaucratic power. Although a strong national bureaucracy has been largely a political asset for Japan for hundreds of years, the country is becoming a mature democracy. This means the elected representatives of the people should have general authority over the officials who are hired to implement government policy.

In the 1990s and into this century, consistent problems in the bureaucracy occurred. They ranged from ineptness in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, to cover ups of AIDS-tainted blood supplies, to the recent sensational 2008 news of the misplacement of more than 50 million pension premium payments. The DPJ built its policy reputation in large part on increasing democratically elected officials’ power over bureaucrats. Since Koizumi left office, a Diet power vacuum has occurred and national ministries, often in collusion with such traditional LDP Diet members as the ‘‘road tribe’’ representatives who want to build often unnecessary roads through their districts, are attempting to reassert power. These LDP members are opposed by a reform wing within their own party. Furthermore, public opinion polls consistently indicate that majorities of Japanese citizens support the reduction of bureaucracies’ power. How this will occur and what party (or parties) will accomplish these changes remain to be seen.

The whole issue of constitutional revision and its consequences is a political challenge that has been discussed in various quarters since 1947, is deeply controversial, has both domestic and international ramifications, and is the most unpredictable. The LDP has long supported constitutional revision, although not very intensely, for much of Japan’s postwar history. While the July 2007 loss of the upper house elections was a major blow to LDP revision hopes, events a few months before that loss placed the possibility of constitutional reform on a national agenda.

In order to amend Japan’s current Constitution, two-thirds of both houses of the Diet must approve formal constitutional revision, and then a majority of Japanese voters must also vote affirmatively in a national referendum. For decades the possibility of getting the required two-thirds majorities in both houses was so remote that procedures for conducting a national referendum were not in existence. However, Abe Shintaro, the LDP prime minister who succeeded Koizumi, was an enthusiastic proponent of constitutional reform and immediately worked with his own party as well as the coalition New Komeito to get necessary approval through both houses of the Diet. The legislation was introduced just before Constitution Day and passed the House of Representatives on April 12, 2007, and the House of Councilors on May 14 of that year. Abe and his revision proponents did provide a concession for opponents of the legislation that any further revision would be delayed for three years, which meant that both houses of the Diet would have conducted scheduled elections before a national referendum will be conducted.

Why was Abe, an unpopular prime minister, able to find the Diet votes to advance the possibility of constitutional revision the furthest in Japan’s postwar history? Although there are groups and individuals who are interested in other issues related to constitutional revision, Article 9 dwarfs all other topics. This is the constitutional revision issue that will resurface as 2010 approaches. Postwar polls have always shown general support on the part of large numbers of Japanese for constitutional revision, but not for abolishment of Article 9.

However, recent national surveys of Japanese citizens, including a 2004 poll, indicated more than 90 percent of Japanese considered the world a more dangerous place than 25 years ago. Such East Asian countries as China and North and South Korea all pay close attention to SDF commitments, and discussion of constitutional revision receives international attention. U.S. policy, which is always subject to change through electoral politics, has for decades been largely in favor of a Japanese ally freed from the constitutional constraints of Article 9. Although the Cabinet Legislative Bureau has consistently given the majority party and prime minister freedom to reinterpret Article 9, two substantial constraints of the Constitution are limitations on offensive military force capability and limitations on collective selfdefense activities with militaries of other countries. Most constitutional experts believe these constraints will always exist without constitutional reform. The vision to negotiate the unprecedented event of constitutional reform will tax the skills of the most capable political leaders.

This much is certain about Japanese politics. The days of the old 1955 political system are gone. Ten years ago, noted Columbia political scientist Gerald Curtis observed, ‘‘Old verities—a prestigious and competent bureaucracy, a public consensus on national goals, one party dominance, an opposition that opposes for opposition’s sake and does not offer a creditable alternative to the party in power—are gone’’ (Curtis 1999, 241–242). As depicted in this chapter, in the subsequent decade that has passed, new political structures are now visible and operative but are not a new system as they are currently still evolving while emerging leaders deal with vestiges of the old order.

Still, in Japan, as reiterated in different ways throughout this chapter, political leadership has been sound for most of the years that have passed since 1600. In the years after 1945, Japan has become richer and freer and enjoys a stable democracy. This history, along with one of the hardest-working and better-educated populations on the planet, constitutes a good track record for meeting present and future political challenges.