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Top>Opinion>What has Japan's Regime Change Brought About?


Steven R. Reed

Steven R. Reed [Profile]

What has Japan's Regime Change Brought About?

Steven R. Reed
Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan's perennial ruling party since 1955, was defeated by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) during the August 2009 general elections, allowing the DPJ to bring about a historical regime change. Although the LDP also lost power in 1993, this was because of a weak coalition government and the party easily regained political control. The regime change last year represented true change, as the DPJ's victory put it on equal footing with the LDP, signifying the achievement of a two-party system in Japan.

A great majority of voters, however, have been let down by the DPJ administration and they feel that nothing has changed. Although the DPJ administration has certainly been a disappointment, there are also problems in the unrealistic expectations of the electorate. By focusing on the effects of the regime changes themselves rather than on the DPJ administration, we find that Japanese politics are changing according to theory. Whether or not the Kan Administration succeeds or fails this time, Japanese politics will continue to change. At least three changes are coming into view. These are: 1. Greater Transparency, 2. Changing Politico-Bureaucratic Relations, and 3. Division of Block Votes.

Greater Transparency

The perennial ruling party enjoyed the ability to cover up its mistakes. Since it was difficult for the opposition party to acquire relevant information, the ruling party did not disclose its policy missteps. With the regime change, however, the new administration has the motivation and authority to disclose the mistakes made by the previous ruling party.

A typical example of an issue subject to disclosure is the LDP's persistent denial of a secret nuclear pact with the US. The most important example of an issue subject to disclosure, however, concerns recommendations made by the Government Revitalization Unit. Although various issues are being criticized, it is clear from any vantage point that wasteful projects have been eliminated. Most importantly, information regarding the recommendations made by the Government Revitalization Unit has been fully disclosed. The DPJ has not forgotten how difficult it was to obtain information from bureaucrats during the years it served as the opposition party. To prepare for the possibility of once again becoming the opposition party, the DPJ should promote further transparency, naturally creating a system which makes cover-ups difficult. When the LDP once again takes control, they will likely be unable to cover up information, and the roles will undoubtedly be reversed, with the LDP requesting the DPJ administration to disclose its policy missteps.

Changing Politico-Bureaucratic Relations

Although it was widely predicted that bureaucratic resistance would be a major problem if a regime change occurred during the 2009 general elections, there have actually been more reports about bureaucrats being criticized by the DPJ since it came into power. As a matter of fact, it is surprisingly simple for politicians to control bureaucrats. This is because bureaucrats will not be able to create resistance if the ruling party provides them with consistent leadership. Consistent leadership means the promotion of policies by the ruling party with a unified voice.

During the age of the perennial ruling party, as prime ministers and cabinet ministers changed, so did policies. Since regime change did not occur, policy shifts were brought about by changing prime ministers, cabinet reshuffling, and similar acts which served as substitutes for regime change. One of the results of this situation was that there would be a change in prime ministers and cabinet ministers just before policies were to be implemented if there was resistance from bureaucrats—an arrangement of proceeding even though policies were not implemented. During the age of its perennial rule, the LDP was a free political party, focused more on candidates than on the party itself. Freedom meant the ability for each party member to promote their own policies, providing the opportunity for various party members to be heard by bureaucrats.

Since the two-party system was formed, political debates between parties and party-oriented manifesto elections have both been playing central roles. During the long rule of the LDP, the DPJ debated about the manifesto and created party policies. Since the DPJ administration is now able to promote policies by having a stronger influence over bureaucrats than before, vice ministers form a team together with two vice ministers and are sent to each government ministry and agency. In addition, it is forbidden for party members other than team members to have direct contact with bureaucrats. The team also provides bureaucrats with consistent leadership by promoting manifesto policies rather than their own.

Division of Block Votes

During the age of the perennial ruling party, it was necessary for interest groups to support the ruling party even if they did not approve of its policies. Important political debates occurred within the LDP, so if interest groups did not support the party, they would not have any influence in the policymaking process.

For example, the Taijyu no Kai, a political alliance made up of regional post office chiefs during the 2001 Upper House election was vehemently opposed to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's postal privatization policy at the time. In the two-party system, if the Taijyu no Kai opposed the policies of the LDP, it would have supported the DPJ. However, aware of the LDP's perennial rule, the Taijyu no Kai took the opposite approach and supported the official candidates for the LDP's proportionately represented constituency in order to strengthen its influence within the LDP. The Taijyu no Kai thought it could strengthen its influence by showing its solidarity and ability to draw votes. In the end, however, arrests were made as a result of election violations.

In the two-party system, since there is no guarantee that the party which a group supported will become the ruling party after an election, it is possible that, depending on the outcome, a group's political influence would disappear if they supported only one party during the election. Rather than focusing on and supporting one party, it is more advantageous to establish an election strategy where influence is preserved no matter which party wins. Therefore, block votes are divided in a two-party system. During the 2009 general elections, the number of groups that moved closer to the DPJ grew after the realization that the LDP wouldn't necessarily win. This trend has been growing at a rapid pace since the regime change.

Irreversible Changes

These changes have brought about the creation of a two-party system and regime change, and it is thought that they will continue for the next 10 to 20 years as long as no changes are made to the electoral system. Even if the LDP is able to become the ruling party again during the next regime change, it will not be able to return to the cover-up heaven that they previously enjoyed. On the contrary, the LDP should agree to disclose information since it has now experienced being the opposition party. It is also possible that they will publicly promise to effect better political leadership than their rivals. That being said, there is no reason for interest groups to support only one party. The changes brought about by this regime change are irreversible.

(translated from the Japanese)

Steven R. Reed
Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Professor Reed was born in Indiana on April 4th, 1947. He came to Japan during the Vietnam War as part of his military service and later married a Japanese citizen in Kyushu. After returning to the US, Professor Reed received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan in 1979. He then served as a Lecturer at The University of Alabama, as an Associate Professor at the University of Alabama and at Harvard University, and as a Professor at The University of Alabama. After his work at The University of Alabama, Professor Reed became a Professor of Modern Government on the Faculty of Policy Studies at Chuo University, a position which he has held since 1993. His primary works include: Comparative Politics [Hikaku Seijigaku] (Minerva Press).