Japanese politics, a model democracy


JAPANESE DEMOCRACY: Power, Coordination and Performance, by Bradley Richardson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. 325 pp.. $17.

Do the revisionists have any clothes? Bradley Richardson argues that the interpretations of Japan popularized by the revisionist school do not bear scrutiny and that the political economy of Japan is far more complex than is asserted by authors such as Chalmers Johnson, Karel Van Wolferen, Clyde Prestowitz and James Fallows. He also defends Japanese democracy, suggesting that it is far more robust and pluralistic than prevailing media images would suggest.

In debunking what he views as the key shibboleths about Japan, the author has set an ambitious and controversial agenda. Certainly few readers will finish this book without reassessing their opinions about Japan, Inc., the development state and the Iron Triangle (big business, the bureaucracy and the Liberal Democratic Party).

The major problem with challenging the so-called revisionist school is that the term is a convenient rubric covering a wide range of interpretations. There are considerable differences, for example, between the strong, centralized state of Johnson and the “donut” state of Van Wolferen.

At the risk of oversimplification, the revisionists share a belief that the state has played a decisive role in Japan’s economic success, that this has had negative consequences for political development and that the government has pursued strategies and policies which are harmful to Japan’s trading partners. Prevailing social, economic and political arrangements in the system are seen to be fundamentally different from those in the West.

The revisionists’ Japan is a more malign, self-serving actor than that suggested by the late 1970s image of an economically successful, pacifist nation practicing an omnidirectional foreign policy. The revisionists share a belief that the world has been far too complacent about Japan’s rising power and seek to shed light on the darker side of a nation that had generally escaped serious critical scrutiny.

The economic miracle was shown to be the direct result of carefully crafted government plans that guided Japan, Inc. to success, eschewing the invisible hand of free markets in favor of loaded dice. The revisionists recast popular images of Japan by focusing on the prevalence of collusion, corruption and cartels.

Japan is depicted as a sham democracy with elections and Parliament serving as a fig leaf for machinations carried out beyond public scrutiny. The opaque system is presented as the antithesis of democracy, serving the common interests of the Iron Triangle. The Japanese people and other nations are portrayed as often unwitting, and increasingly impatient victims of a dysfunctional system unable to cope with new challenges and responsibilities in the global order.

“Japanese Democracy” presents a very different picture, dismissing notions that Japan is a vertical, highly centralized authoritarian polity. The inadequacies and strengths of Japanese democracy are discussed in comparative perspective to show that it is neither so different nor so inferior. Numerous examples are cited to demonstrate that the Japanese polity is conflict-ridden, with dynamic participation by a variety of interest groups, and to refute assertions that there is an implicit consensus and common agenda.

Richardson’s core thesis is that the Japanese political system is horizontal, pluralistic and exhibits far more complex power relations than can be discerned in the revisionists’ caricature of the system. Instead of the development state, the author argues that Japan has a bargained, distributive democracy. In closely examining the political process and the outcomes of government policies, he asserts that there is just too much evidence that cannot be reconciled with the revisionists’ position.

Of course, revisionists are not about to roll over and recant.

No doubt they will respond that Richardson has constructed a revisionist straw man that does not do justice to their arguments. While he suggests the revisionists have not done their homework, citing chapter and verse of contrary examples to their sweeping claims about the Japanese system, they might reply that the larger patterns and shapes of pointillist paintings only emerge if viewed with perspective and from a distance.

When Richardson reports on the small number of public meetings between political and business leaders to counter assertions about an Iron Triangle, revisionists will likely respond that he does not get it. The public record is only the tip of the systemic iceberg. Moreover, the consonance of interests shaped by ideological affinities are the glue of the Iron Triangle.

Even if the process does not fit the revisionist model, proponents claim that the outcomes and results do.

Rather than a rigged one-party system, the LDP-dominated “1955 system” is presented as a pluralistic coalition of disparate interest groups and factions with the normal level of competition and cooperation one would expect in a multiparty coalition. Richardson stresses the need to examine both the formal and informal aspects of the LDP, arguing that an exclusive focus on the former is misleading; the formal structure of power most closely resembles the vertical authoritarian model, while the informal conduits of negotiation and agenda-setting are the basis for his more pluralistic interpretation.

In his view, the Japanese system actually provides greater access for a greater number of politicians lower down the totem pole than the Westminster model, where the national agenda and legislative priorities are decided by a relatively small circle of those at the center of power.

In challenging the revisionists’ assertion of a vertical, authoritarian model, he writes, “The decentralized and fragmented nature of faction and policy group power in the LDP during its hegemonic period has been a key feature of postwar Japanese politics. Centrifugal tendencies within the party and the centrifugal and parochialized nature of electoral competition made LDP-dominated governments less authoritarian than they might have been . . . Penetration of the traditionally dominant party by interest groups and a related flow of policy proposals from the rank and file to the party center through the institutionalized process of the PARC (Policy Affairs Research Council) was facilitated by the general fragmentation of power in the LDP.”

Executive and bureaucratic power are, like party organization, also found to be more complex, decentralized and pluralistic than is consistent with the vertical, authoritarian view of the Japanese polity. Interministerial and intraministerial cleavages belie the existence of a monolithic bureaucracy. The need to coordinate conflict and accommodate disparate interests places constraints on executive and bureaucratic power. Contrary to popular perceptions, the author asserts that political life in Japan is more horizontal, fragmented and decentralized than in major European parliamentary systems.

Richardson argues that the state role in sponsoring development is more modest than suggested by Johnson and repeats familiar arguments about the many cases in which state plans were either resisted or did not have the intended impact. He opines that “. . . the postwar political economy was more a bundle of loose, partially connected threads than a neatly woven tapestry of state designed results.”

Moreover, “When the extensive supports given to recessed industries, medium and small industries and farmers are considered, Japan appears to be as much an economic welfare and party clientalist state as a development state.” Numerous case studies lead the author to conclude that there is a “. . . pluralistic pattern of policymaking participation, interest and motivation.”

In what sense is Japan a bargained, distributive democracy?

Due to intense conflict and cleavages between multiple organizations and interest groups, there is a process of negotiated compromise that spreads the spoils of power. The need for consensus and inclusiveness requires patterns of accommodation and alliance building consistent with a horizontal, pluralistic political system.

Even if one accepts Richardson’s neorevisionist perspective about the political system, there are still many issues on the revisionist agenda left to argue about. Is Japan like other countries? The author acknowledges that Japan’s ministries are unique in being “. . . remarkably free from external judicial accountability.”

The consequences of this difference are now being learned as one bureaucratic scandal cascades into another. The implications of opaque campaign fundraising and the cases of collusion and corruption now dominating the headlines also suggest that appearances might be deceiving. Finally, suspicions of unfair trading practices, a key point of revisionists, are hard to dispel in a climate of burgeoning trade imbalances and backpedaling on market-opening commitments.

For readers who remain convinced that Japan favors producers over consumers and that the entire system is designed to support big business and buttress the collusive Iron Triangle, “Japanese Democracy” is a mandatory and rewarding read. The arguments are lucid, carefully sketched and provocative, pushing readers to question assumptions informed by the revisionist take on Japan. In delivering some telling blows, the author also conveys detailed information about the policymaking process in Japan.