The electoral reforms that were introduced by successive Japanese administrations throughout the 1990s radically shifted the balance of power among bureaucrats, legislators, and the prime minister and the Cabinet. The factional politics that once formed the bedrock of the Liberal Democratic Party was fatally undermined by the introduction of a single-member seat electoral system in 1994, a revision that allowed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to take advantage of these decentralized institutions to exert strong leadership in terms of policy direction. Did these reforms change the political landscape forever? Scholars were divided but the Democratic Party of Japan’s victory in the 2009 election effectively ended the debate once and for all.
Koizumi’s stunning rise to power in 2001 only marked the beginning of the story, professor Tomohito Shinoda writes in “Contemporary Japanese Politics: Institutional Changes and Power Shifts,” a hefty brick of a book that traces political undercurrents in Japan from the late ’80s to the first few months of Shinzo Abe’s second administration. Shinoda traces developments that led to the LDP’s fall from grace and goes on to examine efforts by the DPJ to introduce structural changes in a bid to strengthen political leadership, a move that ultimately ended up weakening the policymaking power of the bureaucracy. As he himself notes in his analysis, “institutions do not produce leadership, they only enable it.” Fortunately for us, Shinoda successfully explains how.