LONDON — Fifty years ago this year, the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed and the Japanese government began preparing to resume full sovereignty. Then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida was a shrewd politician. He knew that the peace treaty, despite the difficulties some of the clauses would cause for Japan, was essentially a generous one for a nation that had waged all-out war in the Pacific and whose forces had caused so much devastation throughout Asia. He was also a realist who recognized that Japan could and would revive.

The terms of the peace treaty have long since been forgotten by the Japanese people. Okinawa has been recovered, and the only territorial clause that still troubles Japan is the one under which Japan renounces its claim to the Kuril Islands. The problem with this clause is that no definition of the Kuril Islands was included in the treaty. Japan has since argued that the southern islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan were not traditionally part of the Kuril Island chain.

Little needs to be said about the other articles. Agreements have been negotiated and concluded in fulfillment of Japan’s general international obligations. The Japanese government, unwisely in my view, stuck to a strictly legal interpretation of Article 16, which concerns compensation for former prisoners of war. A more generous approach would have benefited Japan’s relations with many of the former Allied powers and helped to nullify the still-existing belief that Japan has never really recognized the extent of its responsibility for the suffering caused during World War II.

Japan has changed greatly in most respects over these 50 years. Postwar poverty has been replaced by unprecedented affluence, and the burden of a growing population has been replaced by fears of a population decline in an aging society. The most significant changes on the political scene have been the decline of the socialist parties and the reinvention of the Communist Party as a constitutional organization working within the electoral system. Those of us who began to study Japanese politics half a century ago had hoped for even more fundamental changes in Japanese politics.

Recently, I read in the British Public Record Office a dispatch from Tokyo to the Foreign Office in London, dated Nov. 26, 1951. It was from Sir Esler Dening, just arrived as the head of the United Kingdom Liaison Mission to the Supreme Command Allied Powers and later Britain’s first postwar ambassador to Japan. Having served for many years before the war as a member of the British consular service in Japan, Dening knew the prewar Japanese political scene well. He noted in this dispatch that the Japanese were as nationally conscious as ever. He was “unable to discover that the Japanese people have changed very much, and indeed there is very little reason for them to have done so, since six years [the period the Occupation had been in place] represent a very short span in the life of a nation.”

Dening was not optimistic about Japanese politics. He believed that “the prospects of good government in Japan in a Western democratic sense . . . are not very encouraging.” And he was particularly conscious of the continuation of corruption in government, which had so undermined parliamentary institutions in the prewar years.

I arrived in Tokyo as a very junior official (third secretary) on Dening’s staff in the autumn of 1951 and soon began my studies of the Japanese political scene. I served in the British Embassy in Tokyo from 1951-54, from 1961-65, from 1966-70 and, as ambassador, from 1980-84. During these stints and as a conscientious observer of the Japanese political scene since I retired from the diplomatic service, I have continued to be concerned about political corruption in Japan and about the way in which Japanese parliamentary democracy has been conducted.

The Liberal Democratic Party is not liberal in the correct sense of this word. Nor is the group really democratically constituted. It is not a party with a consistent political philosophy and policies based on such a set of political principles. There have been a number of occasions when the LDP has announced that factions are to be abolished, but I have never seen much sign that such resolutions are anything more than hot air.

The basic problem in Japan remains that, in order to get elected, a candidate needs a lot of money and this means joining a faction with access to substantial funds. Such funds can only come from groups who naturally expect a return for their contributions in the form of appropriate legislation or construction projects that benefit specific areas.

There is nothing particularly new in the recent revelations of corrupt practices by the mutual-aid society KSD. Those involved probably feel hardly done by because they have been unlucky in being found out. Over the last 50 years, cases of corruption have been exposed fairly consistently. Unfortunately, there have probably been many other cases where the culprits were not found out. A study of political corruption over the last half-century should be undertaken and published. The Japanese public should also be reminded of the history of parliamentary institutions in prewar days. The problem of political corruption was a serious one from the inception of the Meiji Constitution at the end of the 19th century to the outbreak of World War II. Political corruption was a major factor in the breakdown of democratic institutions in the ’20s and ’30s and opened the way for Japanese militarism.

If parliamentary democracy in Japan is to be saved, much more has to be done to root out the canker of political corruption. In addition to all political donations being made public, much stricter controls on the spending of political parties and parliamentary candidates need to be rigorously enforced. There should also be greater oversight of political lobby groups, with media exposure of their activities. A revamping of Japanese constituencies, designed to equalize votes, should be a top priority.

The opposition parties in Japan need to be quite sure when they attack the LDP that their own houses are in order. Many members of the opposition came from the old LDP and had connections with some of the most corrupt of the old guard, such as Shin Kanemaru.

I hope that leaders will soon appear in Japan who are willing and able to lead a mass movement in favor of clean government and the establishment of real parliamentary democracy.

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