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Japanese metamorphosis

by Masahiro Matsumura

OSAKA — Sunday’s landslide general-election victory by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) terminated the one-party- dominated system that the catch-all Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has controlled almost without interruption since 1955.

For most of the last decade, the DPJ was not seen as a viable alternative to the LDP, although they appeared to form a pseudo-two-party system. Twenty years after the Cold War’s end, Japan will at last have a post-Cold War system of government.

The Japanese public, even now, remains uncertain about the DPJ’s ability to govern and is skeptical of its rosy plans for wealth redistribution, which lack solid funding. The public is also fully aware that the ideologically fragmented DPJ lacks a pragmatic, coherent foreign and security policy.

Yet the DPJ will form the next government because of public disgust with the LDP. For the last four years, the LDP had shown itself to be utterly unresponsive to the key issues of popular concern: pensions, unemployment and the fraying social safety net. Moreover, the LDP was plagued by a string of minor scandals and consistent bungling. The LDP’s need for three different prime ministers in the space of little more than a year made plain that the party’s power nucleus had melted down.

Once in power, the DPJ will immediately confront the massive bureaucracy and its entrenched mandarins, which usually sabotage any efforts at administrative reform that threatens their power and vested interests. Indeed, immediately after the election, the budget estimates for the next fiscal year are due. The figures that will be presented are the result of a lengthy process, in which the bureaucracy closely consulted with the LDP.

Without breaking the regular budget cycle, the DPJ not only will be forced to implement the supplementary budget drawn up by the LDP, but also will be stuck with next year’s budget, which embodies LDP policies that the DPJ has denounced.

As a result, the DPJ has announced plans to revoke the LDP’s guidelines for a ceiling on budget requests so as to formulate its own budget from scratch. It will also revise the supplementary budget as well. But time is short, and few of new DPJ lawmakers possess the legislative experience and budgetary expertise to make that happen.

To gain control of the mandarins, the DPJ plans to place 100 lawmakers in the ministries’ top leadership, as well as three dozen political appointees to policy staffs in the office of the prime minister.

Unfortunately, the DPJ scrapped an LDP-sponsored civil-service reform bill that would have let the DPJ replace the mandarins with political appointees. The DPJ, despite its manifesto, seems unprepared to tame the mandarins, and may be forced to rely on them.

The ascendancy of the mandarins is a legacy of Japan’s unique historical development dating back to its early modern period. Unlike in Europe, Japan developed its state before building a strong civil society. Indeed, full-fledged “society”-building started only after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which tipped the balance of power definitively in favor of the state. As a result, the mandarins survived World War II and the postwar American occupation relatively undamaged, and they will strive to survive the DPJ government as well.

They will most likely succeed. LDP lawmakers and mandarins developed a routine in which mandarins drafted Cabinet and the two together finalized legislative drafts before they were introduced to the Diet (parliament).

Since the LDP, with a coalition partner, recently controlled the Diet, the legislative process was simply the interaction between LDP lawmakers and mandarins, centered in the LDP’s headquarters. The Diet’s role was merely pro forma.

Indeed, under the LDP-led one-party-dominant system, this extra-constitutional mechanism became an integral part of Japan’s government polity.

The DPJ government will collide head-on with the mandarins, partly because the party will find it hard to recruit sufficiently qualified policymakers. The mandarins have maintained their privileged position in this regard, owing partly to the tax system, which prevents the emergence of nonprofit institutions, especially think tanks, where independent policy expertise can be forged.

Moreover, perhaps in anticipation of a change in power, the mandarins have moved forward the annual personnel changes in the major ministries’ top administrative positions.

And what of the LDP? Having fallen from power, it will lose its control of the redistribution of government funds. Unable to pay off its constituencies, disintegration looms, for the LDP has never been a party with entrenched grassroots support, but instead operates as a machine of power and redistribution through a web of insiders across the country’s industrial sectors, occupational associations and local communities. Only by recruiting new blood and reorganizing itself with a solid ideological platform will an LDP comeback be possible.

The DPJ has even weaker grassroots support, so the mandarins will most likely use their standard techniques of divide and rule to cajole the party by teaching it to mimic the LDP in using state money and contracts to underwrite its major constituencies, such as labor unions and other interest groups.

The birth of the DPJ government can yet be a turning point. A major power shift in favor of “society” has taken place. If the DPJ can break free of mandarin control by centralizing policy formation in the office of the prime minister, as it intends, Japan can emerge as a more resilient democracy with a full-fledged two-party system and greater willingness to assume an international leadership role.

Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics, St. Andrew’s (Momoyama Gakuin) University, Osaka. © 2009 Project Syndicate