JAPAN’S DYSFUNCTIONAL DEMOCRACY: The Liberal Democratic Party and Structural Corruption, by Roger W. Bowen. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2003, 139 pp. $21.95 (paper).
JAPAN’S FAILED REVOLUTION: Koizumi and the Politics of Reform, by Aurelia George Mulgan. Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, 2003, 139 pp. $36 (paper).

During Japan’s prolonged economic malaise, its politicians have been caught with their hands in the till, their pants down, asleep at the wheel or driving the getaway car. The two books under review explore the problems of the political system and help explain why politicians are not making headway on Japan’s main challenges. Both focus on the flaws of Japan’s parliamentary system in comparative perspective, and draw similarly pessimistic conclusions about the prospects for democracy in Japan.

Some readers might think Bowen’s book too brief to do justice to his topic. However, he does evoke the rot of the system and details the kozo oshoku (structural corruption) that impoverishes Japan’s democracy. The cascade of money scandals and mob ties reported in the media are depicted as merely the tip of the iceberg; influence peddling is intrinsic to the system. Political power is bought and traded in the smoke-filled rooms where envelopes of cash carry more weight than citizens’ votes.

Bowen argues that the seamy side of Japanese politics is corroding democracy and weakening civil society. He writes, “The argument made here is that the sort of ethical dwarfishness displayed by most of Japan’s prime ministers in the postwar period cannot strengthen Japanese democracy; rather, it only undermines the sort of public trust required for the occupant of that office to act boldly and lead in making the kind of policy that strengthens democracy.”

In his view, “It is no small irony that the LDP’s ethical lapses, its frequently corrupt leadership, and its failure of vision cause the very disorder that voters want corrected. At the root of Japan’s dysfunctional democracy is the LDP and the ways it conducts politics.” For example, there is the case of the late Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo who “had been implicated less than a year earlier by an oil wholesaler [Izui Junichi] who testified that he had tried buying Obuchi’s influence by making an under-the-table ‘gift’ to Obuchi and five other LDP Diet members, including Obuchi’s successor, Mori Yoshiro. But as prime minister, Obuchi, like the proverbial waterproof duck, boldly named as his finance minister Miyazawa Kiichi, the very same scoundrel who had been forced to resign as finance minister in 1988 for allegedly taking bribes.”

Bowen sees little hope for reforming the real world of Japanese politics, “where crooked deals are made between politicians and gangsters, where political manipulators corrupt poorly paid bureaucrats with bribes, where corporate money is traded for political favors.” He suggests that the only chance is if big business comes to recognize the huge costs of Japan’s corrupt system and forcefully advocates greater transparency, deregulation and accountability. To the extent that bureaucrats retain discretionary regulatory authority, they will be in a position to trade favors as a quid pro quo for retirement amakudari (sinecure) in the private sector and pocket bribes from influence-peddling politicians.

The problem Bowen faces is that Japan’s corruption problems are endemic in democracies all over the world. Japan does not have a monopoly on money politics and sleazy politicians are far too common everywhere. So, what makes Japanese corruption different? Bowen asserts that it is more common and on a greater and more systematic scale than in other democracies. He also argues that Japanese voters seem more disinclined to vote the bums out of office and have been remarkably forgiving of those tainted by scandals. Again, this tendency does not seem distinctive to Japan. Indeed, his indictment of Japanese democracy resonates throughout the democratic world where the golden rule is so widely observed; he who holds the gold, rules.

Bowen laments that citizens should be up in arms about their shabby politicians and rigged democracy, but they seem to be disconcertingly unconcerned. Again, one wonders what democracy Bowen has in mind where citizens are sufficiently concerned about the downsizing of democracy. In his view, this insouciance about corruption suggests that Japanese citizens have abandoned moral standards. People seem to have given up hope and accept shady practices as the norm. Can democracy withstand this cynical acceptance of wrongdoing? Perhaps, but at what cost to the vibrancy of civil society? He concludes, “Corruption hurts democracy: voters stop voting, they sever their ties with political parties, and generally avoid involvement in civic affairs.”

Perhaps, but there probably has never been a time when more Japanese were involved in civic affairs through a variety of nonprofit organizations, volunteer groups and other citizen activist organizations. One of the lessons of the Kobe earthquake is that youthful volunteers will pour into a city to assist in relief efforts, indicating that community spirit is vibrant in contemporary Japan. So, too, is widespread public support for the 1999 information disclosure legislation as a way of promoting transparency and accountability in government. The massive civil disobedience against the introduction of the “Juki Net” data registry system in 2002, involving nearly 5 million voters, is further evidence against his thesis that the people are too apathetic to be bothered about the erosion of democracy.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is currently depicted as yesterday’s man for not living up to the unrealistically high expectations he aroused by winning his position in 2001. His victory in the Liberal Democratic Party leadership battle against the pick of the party bosses seemed like the dawn of a new era. The media that once conferred rock star status on him has now turned to sniping about his weakness and speculating about his demise. What went wrong for the man who came to power as a maverick reformer promising a no-holds barred approach to restructuring the economy?

Mulgan’s book is an ambitious and successful attempt to understand why Koizumi has not delivered on his promises of economic reform. She argues that the structure of the policymaking process involving the LDP and the bureaucracy is weighted against reform. One of the strengths of this excellent book is its analysis of Japan in the context of the comparative literature on failed reform. Koizumi’s failure was predictable largely because the power and role of the prime minister is subordinate in the policymaking process. She writes, “Prime ministers have been figureheads for the political and bureaucratic forces operating outside the cabinet who exercise the real power.” Although modeled on the Westminster parliamentary system, Japan’s version is quite distinctive due to weak party discipline, prolonged one-party rule and the inordinate influence of the bureaucracy in policymaking.

The “forces of resistance” that Koizumi has quixotically challenged since assuming power are so embedded in the policymaking structure that he never stood a chance of succeeding. She writes, “Koizumi’s leadership and vision are slowly being ground down and dissipated in fighting constant battles not over grand strategy but over the implementation of these strategies in the form of specific policies that pose a threat to particular interests.”

Mulgan points out that Koizumi never had an effective strategy for converting his personal popularity into real political power, and has not been adept at building a reform coalition. As a result, the inherent weakness of the prime minister against entrenched LDP powerbrokers and bureaucratic mandarins has been his undoing. In her view, because he has not kept his promises the public now views him as, “both feeble and untrustworthy.”

To understand Japanese politics it is important to recognize that “Japan does not have cabinet government, it has party-bureaucrat government. It is a system in which the executive is left out of the loop.” Policymaking is shaped by the collusive nature of politicians’ ties with bureaucrats, and the reciprocal rewards these confer. Mulgan agrees with Bowen that corruption is structural and will persist as a dominant feature of Japanese democracy because politicians and bureaucrats control the policymaking process and have a vested interest in protecting the influence-peddling racket.

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