The Real World of Japanese Politics: 1945–1985

As discussed both here and in the history chapter, democracy grew relatively rapidly in Japan, and the Japanese now have a more than 60-year democratic history. However, Japan’s political history, culture, geography, economy, and changing position in the world, just as is the case with any nation, makes the nature of Japanese democracy unique in many ways. Before further discussion of how democracy has worked in practice in Japan and the changes and challenges the system faces, it is important to review those objectives that have been part of the political culture and motivated Japanese political leaders in power before 1945 that remain unchanged: communications and negotiations, particularly with the middle classes; reliance on a strong bureaucracy; generation of ample tax revenues and private prosperity through allowing private enterprise freedom; ensuring food and energy supplies; and successfully coping with foreign policy problems.

Although the Japanese people embraced democracy during the years of the American occupation, pragmatic leaders were elected who did not deviate from objectives they saw as vital to national and individual prosperity and survival. Often, because Japan is a group-oriented culture that focuses more on collective than individual leadership, who is actually exercising political power and decision making is still not always easy to determine. However, historians agree that Yoshida Shigeru (1878–1967) was the Japanese political leader most responsible for shaping the contours of the early postwar political system. Yoshida was a welleducated, conservative former Ministry of Foreign Affairs bureaucrat and diplomat who served in Italy, China, and the United Kingdom before the outbreak of World War II. Although a conservative and supporter of the emperor, Yoshida was also an Anglophile who had disdain for the chauvinism of Japan’s wartime military leaders. Near the end of World War II, he was briefly jailed by the Japanese police for assisting former Prime Minister Konoe in attempting to communicate a message to the emperor urging surrender to save Japan. As a 68-year-old, with MacArthur’s approval as well as the approval of Japanese voters for his party, Yoshida became prime minister of Japan as head of the Liberal Party. He would go on to be prime minister four more times between 1946 and 1954.

Yoshida personally thought the American-imposed Constitution was too liberal but pragmatically realized that accepting the new Constitution, and making such changes as the land reform that made many landless poor tenants into independent farmers, was essential to make Japan stable, keep the archipelago from a possible communist revolution, and retain imperial institutions, all goals he and his political associates strongly favored.

Yoshida went on to formulate what has come to be known as the ‘‘Yoshida Doctrine.’’ Although there was nothing in writing, the Japanese government followed this important prime minister’s foreign and domestic strategies for decades. Domestically, Japan should focus its national energies on economic reconstruction and growth using a combination of economic management by bureaucracy and considerable support for big business. In foreign policy, the Japanese should maintain an extremely low profile and defer to the United States in its Cold War positions. Furthermore, the Japanese government should adhere to Article 9 of the Constitution, which prevents the creation of a military, and allow American forces to protect Japan through the maintenance of military bases long after the end of the occupation.

The question of how to craft Japan’s foreign policy immediately after a crushing defeat in World War II was, at one level, simple but, from another perspective, complex. Yoshida had to solve the difficult problem of how to both build a domestic coalition that would support a particular foreign policy and secure U.S. approval of Japan’s course of action. The easy part, at least for the short term, was following the American lead. Based on militarist government wartime propaganda, many of the Japanese people expected draconian treatment at the hands of the Americans. When the Americans treated the conquered people in much more positive ways than feared, there was a groundswell of public gratitude. This attitude on the part of average Japanese, despite the tough economic situation of the first few years of the occupation, worked to Yoshida’s advantage. So did a prewar affinity for American popular culture on the part of many and the moral triumph of pro-Western and democratic elements within Japanese society when they were liberated from military rule and encouraged by the occupiers to develop democratic institutions. The enthusiasm for creating a democratic government for the first time spread to the man and woman on the street in the early part of the occupation. To be democratic at that time was to be pro-American.

The hard part for Yoshida was developing a foreign policy that would insure Japan’s survival and placate the more ideological elements of Japanese society. Japan specialist and advisor to two American presidents, Michael Green identified the foreign policy dilemma Japan faced at this time as a classic one for weaker states that was noted by Thucydides during the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta and has resurfaced many times in history. How does the less-powerful state strike a balance between being so tied to the powerful ally that it is trapped into wars it would rather not fight yet not be so distanced from the ally that it would be abandoned in a crisis?

Many of Yoshida’s fellow conservatives wanted to rebuild Japan’s military through significant weapons expenditures and by promoting Japan as a bulwark against communism. The Japanese Left, which suffered the most by far during World War II at the hands of its own government, eagerly embraced Article 9 of the Constitution, making Japan the first ‘‘pacifist nation.’’ Although Yoshida shared none of the Left’s idealistic beliefs that Japan could renounce possession of military forces into perpetuity, he saw Article 9 as a highly useful short- to medium-term tool to set Japan on a course of reconstruction, satisfy the Left and Right, and both embrace the Americans and fend them off from putting too much pressure on the Japanese to rapidly build a military if U.S. interests were threatened by communism in Asia.

The conservatives, who were anticommunist, had to live with, at least for a short time, Japan having no military but benefiting from U.S. protection against communism and support for a more conservative government. The Japanese Left was mollified by having a nation, first with no military and then later, when Article 9 was reinterpreted, with no offensive military and no foreign bases.

One of the attributes of any great political leader, as opposed to a politician, is that he or she has a long-term vision and, even if compromises are in order at times, never loses sight of end goals. Yoshida was farsighted and a good student of history. He was well aware that throughout the history of East Asia, China had been a dominant power. By the time Yoshida was formulating his plans, China was both a poor developing nation and firmly on the side of the USSR in the Cold War. Yoshida went on record as predicting that one day China would break with the USSR and rise again in the region as a major power with which Japan would need to contend. Yoshida kept a solid foot in the Western camp through his policies but was certain that there would come a time when his country would need to formulate its own China policy as a sovereign nation. Given Japan’s wartime actions in China and the bitterness that those actions caused, another benefit from Article 9 is that the lack of a major Japanese military buildup a relatively short period after World War II paved the way later for Japan to develop mutually advantageous economic relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s after Mao’s demise.

Yoshida successfully convinced the Americans of Japan’s support for military bases and helped to broker both a peace treaty and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which he signed in San Francisco in 1951, with the occupation formally ending a year later. Neither the Japanese Right nor Left was satisfied with the treaties. Japanese conservatives, given the nation’s military heritage, disliked the country’s dependence on the American military, while Leftists and many moderates were troubled that adherence to U.S. foreign policy might drag Japan into another unwanted war. However, Yoshida helped to sow the seeds for Japan’s prosperity and the stabilization of a democratic government through his policies. As a believer in an elite bureaucracy, Yoshida’s policies also continued Japan’s reliance on welleducated bureaucrats as an essential component of government.

Although the blunt Yoshida was eventually permanently driven from the prime minister’s office by his enemies and some of his former allies, his conceptualization of Japan’s political course of action was soon solidified and enhanced. Facing what appeared to be serious political instability and fearing the rise of socialism, powerful business groups proposed and helped to implement a plan that in 1955 resulted in the merger of two conservative parties, the Liberals and the Democrats. The new party became the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP quickly dominated Japanese politics and remained in power for 38 years, until it was defeated by a seven-party coalition in 1993. LDP dominance, the style of Japanese democracy that ensued based on one-party legislative rule, and the implementation of Yoshida’s policies lasted for so long that many political analysts use the expression ‘‘1955 system,’’ the date of the LDP’s birth, to categorize the era from that date until the mid-1980s. The LDP, in conjunction with the Japanese bureaucracy, large and small businesses, and an increasingly prosperous public, developed the Yoshida Doctrine into a system that managed to make Japan rich, peaceful, and democratic for decades despite encountering sporadic and sometimes serious problems. Domestically, the LDP, although conservative, was a big-tent party. In close association with elite bureaucrats, the Japanese government managed to focus the nation’s attention on economic development. Large corporations that went on to become powerful multinational economic actors were allowed the freedom to innovate and be productive.

National government ministries involved in the economy also provided assistance for these companies through research, advice, subsidies, and, at times, restriction of foreign competition. Government bureaucrats managed to develop budgets that the Diet passed that kept corporate and personal income taxes low for economic growth. Employees of national ministries were so powerful that often Japan was referred to as a government by bureaucracy, but this was an oversimplification. The bureaucrats’ expectation of LDP Diet members was that they would cultivate popular support from other groups besides multinational corporations, most notably the nation’s large number of (mostly) rice farmers, small self-employed business people, and such industries as construction and food processing that employed many people but were not particularly productive. LDP politicians specialized in procuring government monies and subsidies for these groups and in doing local constituents a wide variety of favors including showing up at weddings and distributing money.

As Japan’s economy and standard of living grew impressively from the 1950s through most of the 1980s, the LDP was able to claim credit for this achievement with Japan’s large, increasingly affluent urban middle class. The opposition parties, most notably the Japanese Socialist Party and the Communist Party, were able to successfully negotiate with the LDP for economic benefits for their core constituencies but gained no experience in actually governing the country. Even though these parties won seats in the Diet, they were not able to convince voters, given Japan’s prosperity.

As mentioned, important elements of the Japanese public, although for different reasons, were troubled about the national government’s postwar foreign policy. Yoshida and subsequent Japanese prime ministers faced the problem of how to rehabilitate Japan’s Asian and world reputation, how closely to be allied to the United States in the Cold War, and how to eventually gain an acceptable degree of national sovereignty over foreign policy. As the Cold War became more serious, the Americans in 1954 authorized Japan to develop what would eventually become air, naval, and ground Self-Defense Forces (SDF). However, political leaders were also able to use Article 9 to resist spending even one percent of the gross domestic product on the SDF since Japan was constitutionally a pacifist state.

The U.S.-Security Treaty was renewed by the LDP-dominated Diet in 1960 in the midst of substantial opposition from the socialist party and demonstrations by Leftists on the grounds that Japan was in danger of letting American dominance potentially drag the nation into a nuclear war. However, this opposition died down because Japan’s government diverted public attention away from security issues through successful economic development. The 1970s thawing of U.S.-USSR tensions through detente also helped to ease fears in Japan about nuclear war. Meanwhile, after Mao’s death, Japan was able to initiate a successful economic bilateral relationship with the new, more market-oriented Chinese communist leadership.

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan and superpower confrontation by proxy heated up in Africa and Latin America in the 1980s, the Reagan administration successfully negotiated with Japan that its SDF forces would be poised to defend the home islands in case of home attack. Japan’s political leadership was able to spend more on the SDF in the 1980s than earlier by telling the public the increase was for defense of the home islands. However, because of geographical proximity to the USSR, not only was Japan helping to defend itself in this new era, but also its military forces were now a key part of U.S. East Asian Cold War strategy. Thus, until 1989 and the end of the Cold War, Japan followed the American lead on security issues, had the benefit of the American nuclear umbrella, and the countries’ leaders largely did not need to make national defense a major concern.

Domestically, entrenched bureaucrats and LDP Diet members, throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and much of the 1980s, became increasingly close in their social and working relationships as the country continued to grow wealthy. Theoretically, Japanese prime ministers had relatively strong executive powers along British lines, but Japanese political culture in the postwar years resulted in, with the exception of Prime Ministers Tanaka Kakuei in the 1970s and Nakasone Yasuhiro in the 1980s, relatively weak prime ministers. LDP faction leaders anointed party leaders in smoke-filled back rooms, and then LDP Diet members usually approved the choice by vote. The proportional election system, dominated by a large number of LDP candidates who often ran against each other, meant that elections were determined by personalities, personal loyalties, and promises of pet projects, rather than policy debates. District candidates with the most powerful koenkai, or support groups, who could raise cash, won elections.

Candidates and their koenkai were often part of four or five powerful factions within the LDP, and when a new government was formed, the factions would negotiate for seats in the cabinet based on their respective power bases. The LDP and bureaucrats assuaged opposition parties such as the socialists by supporting wage increases for their core constituents or other legislative concessions such as environmental legislation.

The LDP developed a well-oiled machine throughout Japan where businesses contributed in return for influence with the bureaucracy while LDP politicians also worked in the Diet and through the national ministries to bring pork-barrel government spending projects home to their constituents, regardless of need. As the decades progressed, and particularly by the 1980s, pork-barrel projects involving the construction industry, a pet beneficiary of government funds, meant that much of Japan’s beautiful environment was despoiled with wasteful public works programs, such as Shinkansen routes in relatively rural areas or technological colleges in prefectures with few young people.

But as briefly mentioned earlier, the LDP carefully cultivated a number of special interest groups that included many voters. Small farmers were one important group. Because of legislative apportionment, rural areas containing farmers, whom the LDP heavily subsidized and who had a disproportionately high amount of electoral clout compared to urban dwellers, consistently voted LDP. Urban residents had to both pay for government subsidies to farmers and pay higher prices for food because of government-protected agricultural interests.

Another favorite constituency of the LDP and of some in the national bureaucracy were small mom-and-pop businesses. LDP elected officials and sympathetic bureaucrats prevented large stores with lower prices from opening through excessive regulation of large stores. Small business people voted LDP to show their gratitude, and the public paid much higher retail prices for many such goods and services as clothing, hardware, and food than citizens paid in other developed countries.

It had been a longtime government policy that low taxes should be the norm to increase the incentive for Japanese to work hard, but coupled with this policy were policies from which employees in noncompetitive industries received government favors, including protectionism from foreign competition and subsidies, so that they could make a successful living. This resulted in such high prices that Japanese, particularly those who traveled abroad and shopped, began to call themselves poor people living in a rich country.

Although the Diet had more power than a number of the prime ministers, during the years of the Yoshida Doctrine, many analysts contended that Japan had as much a government by bureaucracy as a government by Diet and prime minister. Most important legislation, including the national government budget, emanated from or was heavily influenced by elite bureaucrats. Even though Diet members occupying cabinet positions were the nominal policy makers, often they reflected the views of the civil servants in the ministries who had the real expertise on the issues.

Japan’s national bureaucracy, as discussed, had long been powerful throughout history, but the elite civil servants who constituted career bureaucrats in the most powerful national ministries became even more influential in the 20th century both before and after the war. Top officials in government ministries graduate from the most prestigious Japanese universities. The University of Tokyo Law Faculty (law is an undergraduate degree in Japan similar to political science in the United States) has traditionally been the most important source for top bureaucrats.

Those university graduates who aspire to a top-tier position in a government ministry take a rigorous ‘‘class 1 examination,’’ and only about 3 to 4 percent annually, or less than 1,000 people, of all those who take this examination are hired for elite bureaucratic fast-track positions. There is a class 2 examination to fill temporary, more menial jobs. Although some young women are now hired, the typical top-tier civil servant is still a male who has spent his student life with the singleminded goal of career preparation.

Among the national government ministries, the MOF has been seen as particularly important. During the 20th century, the MOF exercised, among other powers, unchallenged de facto control of the budget, responsibility for design of the national tax system, and regulatory authority over the banking and securities sectors. The elected politician serving as the official minister of finance has a very tough job, to say the least, in actually shaping the direction of this vast ministry. By contrast, in the United States, although career high-level civil service employees with permanent positions also wield considerable influence, a change in the White House also means political appointees in major departments who often have the power to change policy directions. While a few strong politicians like Tanaka, who served as prime minister during the years of the 1955 system, managed to get Diet members more involved in developing expertise in policy matters to challenge senior civil servants, this was the rule rather than the exception.

LDP dominance in electoral politics increased bureaucratic influence. Seniorlevel bureaucrats, most of whom encountered mandatory retirement in their fifties, engaged in the practice of amakudari, or ‘‘descent from heaven.’’ The former bureaucrats subsequently accepted positions as executives in nonprofit government corporations or with private firms that they previously regulated. This often created special advantages for the private firms that hired these retired bureaucrats since the latter were able to effectively lobby their former public-sector associates on behalf of their private employers. Similar practices occur to some extent in the United States and other democracies but were, and still are to an extent, more widespread in Japan. The result is often collusion between representatives of different organizations who should be independent of each other.

As the LDP continued to win elections, increasingly bureaucrats retired and then successfully ran as LDP candidates for the Diet. Approximately 25 to 30 percent of LDP Diet members were ex-bureaucrats. Diet members, often in return for contributions from businesses, acted as go-betweens to the bureaucracy on behalf of their private-sector contributors. The result of such cozy interactions often meant special favors for both big business and bureaucrats, with the typical Japanese consumer paying higher prices due to government-arranged cartels or monopolies.

Years of LDP dominance and cementing of the bureaucratic relations also resulted in abuses of power. The combination of political dominance by one party and great bureaucratic influence coupled with the political and bureaucratic incentives to protect clients led to a great deal of corruption that beginning in the 1980s was regularly reported in the media. One LDP vice president was discovered to have about $50 million in cash and gold bullion in his office, most of which was thought to be construction industry kickbacks. One prime minister and several other top LDP members were implicated as recipients of insider trading information from a firm in return for political favors.

Throughout the same time period, the media reported instance after instance of situations in which bureaucrats were bribed or given special gifts by both elected officials and private-sector interests in return for favors. By the 1980s and early 1990s, the level of overt public criticism of national bureaucrats in Japan reached higher levels, due to several widely reported scandals, than at any time in Japanese political history. One expose by a former Ministry of Health bureaucrat even became a best-selling book in Japan and elsewhere. It should be emphasized that elected politicians in Japan are no more prone to corruption than Western democratic leaders.

Japanese top-tier national bureaucrats are some of the most intelligent and hardworking professionals in the world, but the 1955 system eventually encouraged corruption. Also, by the latter years of the 20th century, the 1980s combination of LDP/bureaucratic rule was proving dysfunctional, given the great changes in the domestic and international economy and in Japan’s international relations.