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The year that is now passing saw a giant coalition government come into being, with a triumvirate of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito controlling about 70 percent of the influential Lower House and more than half of the Upper House.

Despite its numerical strength, the tripartite alliance failed to stabilize the political situation. Instead, its inherent weaknesses were exposed, as illustrated by the LP’s threat to break ranks. Essentially, Japanese politics remained stuck where it was in 1993, when the LDP lost its monopoly on power. Political Japan remains adrift on the eve of 2000, with no clear-cut prospects for the future.

Another political landmark in 1999 was the enactment of key bills affecting Japan’s future. Laws mapping out Japan-U.S. defense cooperation created a new legal framework for this nation to support U.S. military actions during security crises in surrounding areas. Support would be provided not only by the Self-Defense Forces, but also by local authorities and private organizations. The guidelines legislation, however, put Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented security policy on the line.

The Diet also passed a bill giving official recognition to the Hinomaru flag and the “Kimigayo” anthem, both of which militarist Japan used as symbols of its wars of aggression under the prewar Constitution. The law is not compulsory, but it gives authorities justification for promoting compliance.

Another controversial bill that became law — one of three measures designed to combat organized crime — enables public investigators to use wiretaps. Still another is the revised resident registration law, which identifies the address, name, birthday and sex of every resident by a code number.

It would be stretching the imagination to say that these laws reflect some sort of “strategy” on the part of the ruling parties. Still, the laws have one thing in common: They all accentuate the concept of the “state” and thus reveal an implicit desire to hold the people in a firmer grip.

New Komeito played a key role in getting these measures through the legislature. The party first formed a parliamentary alliance with the LDP and the LP, which had launched a coalition Cabinet in January. To bolster the ruling alliance, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi courted New Komeito and, in October, formed a new coalition Cabinet including that party. As a result, the three parties combined held a majority in the Upper House, where the LDP-LP coalition had been in the minority following the debacle suffered by the LDP in last year’s Upper House election.

However, the three parties made a lackluster showing in the extraordinary Diet session held after the launch of the enlarged coalition. Signs of internal discord were evident in, for instance, debate over the nursing-care insurance program for the elderly and a proposal to cut the number of Lower House seats. The Liberal Party, dissatisfied with the Diet’s failure to pass a seat-reduction bill, threatened to quit the coalition.

The reason for all this was that the three parties, in a hasty effort to put together a governing alliance, failed to clarify what kind of politics and policy goals they would try to achieve. Although they managed to avert an outright breakup, they have a long way to go before they can achieve real unity. The LDP and the LP continue to grope toward a merger, while the Obuchi Cabinet is losing public support.

On the opposition front, three leading parties — the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party — closed ranks against the ruling coalition. But disagreements over constitutional and security issues prevented them from devising clear-cut policy alternatives.

In the realm of local politics, April’s elections for the governors of Tokyo and Osaka brought victory to populist candidates who had no political affiliations, demonstrating deep voter discontent with the established parties. Earlier this month, however, Osaka Gov. Knock Yokoyama, who had garnered the largest number of votes ever in the history of Osaka governor’s polls, was forced to resign over a sex scandal.

The past year has witnessed positive moves toward revamping the bloated bureaucracy and rebuilding society under the initiative of politicians, not bureaucrats. The government decided to halve the number of central offices and transfer more authority to local governments. In the Diet, the long-standing practice of bureaucrats speaking on behalf of Cabinet ministers was abolished, and a one-on-one debate system for party heads was introduced. But these and other political changes in 1999 are no better than political-reform campaigns designed to buy public favor. Real reforms have yet to come.

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