Introduction: The Roots of Japan’s Contemporary Government and Politics

Most readers of this book are Americans, and they have studied U.S. government. Imagine attempting to learn about how the American government works without some knowledge of the influence of Great Britain, the motives of the founders of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the formulation of the present U.S. Constitution. Without some understanding of these seminal American political developments, even rudimentary understanding of the present system would be difficult at best. Yet primarily because the Japanese suffered a catastrophic defeat in World War II and then experienced widespread change, many foreigners inaccurately assume that Japan’s contemporary government and attendant political processes are entirely new creations that are considerably less than 100 years old. Despite sweeping postwar changes, to understand modern Japanese politics and government, the best beginning point is 1600 and not 1945. Those readers who want an even more complete understanding of Japan’s government and politics should also consult the previous history chapter. The historical content in this chapter is limited to helping readers understand those parts of the political system and political goals that are still important in contemporary Japan.

Although a few institutions such as the imperial system go back much further in time, since 1600, stable and successful government in Japan has been dependent on particular leadership behaviors. Leaders must not only exert power over but also communicate and negotiate with the public and in particular the  middle classes.

Also since the early 1600s, the existence of a strong bureaucracy concerned with both social order and generating tax revenues through wide latitude for private economic productivity, as well as the formulation of successful state international relations policies, has been important in Japan. These vital political behaviors characteristic of Japan’s political history for more than 400 years constituted strategic tools for the achievement of larger societal short- and long-term objectives. The short-term objectives included public order, known routines, and harmony while national adaptability and flexibility in the face of changing events were long-term objectives.

With the exceptions of the periods between 1853–1868 and 1931–1945, Japan’s political system has succeeded much more than it has failed. As Japan undergoes rapid contemporary changes, even though new key factors for political success have emerged, the critical political tools mentioned above remain important. Even though the maintenance of democratic freedom is an objective that does date back only to 1945, since Japan is now a densely populated nation without self-sufficient food or energy supplies, the earlier political objectives described above are more important than ever.