Charles de Gaulle, the magisterial president of France from 1959-69, was inordinately fond of the phrase, “Moi ou le chaos” — “Me or chaos.” It was not much of a choice.

The same might be said of the imperious message the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been sending out to the Japanese people in the lead up to August 30th’s House of Representatives election: Us or chaos.

Campaigning 10 days ago, Prime Minister Taro Aso cut the hot air with his index finger, and said: “The Liberal Democratic Party is conservative, and this means that we defend.”

By using “defend” as an intransitive verb, i.e. without an object, he left open the question of what, exactly, his party is defending. Foremost, presumably, would be the LDP’s right to rule Japan for another 54 years — the span of time over which, with one short hiatus, it has held power.

In fact, LDP politicians and the tens of thousands of government bureaucrats who are their ideological cohorts have, for more than five decades, represented not so much Japan as a Japanese ruling class. The year the LDP was created, 1955, is considered the last year of sengo fukkoki — the period of postwar reconstruction. By 1956, national income had recovered to its 1940 level, and the populace gave over its allegiance to the party that promised rapid economic growth and the rebuilding of the nation’s pride.

With this election, Japan is again, as it was in 1955, at the crossroads.

The election buzzword of 2009 is undoubtedly seiken kotai (change of government). But the reality is more far-reaching. This election may, if the opposition Democratic Party of Japan takes power — either by itself or in coalition — change the course not only of government but of the values and beliefs of the citizenry at large.

The postwar consensus, “defended” since 1955 by the LDP, has outlived its usefulness. Actually, it had outlived it by the middle of the 1990s, when many citizens came to the realization that constant growth for its own sake was a vacuous goal. But it has taken nearly 15 years since then for them to latch onto something that might take its place.

I have been observing Japanese elections for nearly 40 years, and one thing unequivocally stands out about this one: It has been the most issue-oriented of them all. This is an election of stark choices.

But to return to the national consensus that formed in 1955. It was all about people being willing to sacrifice individual needs of self and family for the good of the company, the group, the nation. People identified with the achievements of Japan Inc., and took personal pride and joy from them.

The three most admired people in Japan in the late 20th century were, arguably, Akio Morita, cofounder and president of Sony Corporation; Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic; and Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Co. Those three men made their mark as inventive, hands-on managers, not as high-flying merchant bankers or stock-market speculators. They and their firms were models of social achievement, and they afforded Japanese a healthy outlet for their pride, much wounded, by their own vicious hand, due to war.

However, the near-20 years of economic stagnation in Japan triggered by the collapse of its asset bubble in the early 1990s led Japanese people to question the validity of this model of pride. Who now was worthy of looking up to and modeling oneself on?

By the mid-’90s, Japanese began asking themselves the big questions on TV talk shows, in letters to newspapers and in many other public forums. How to reorient our politics, they agonized, so that our personal needs and those of our families are met in terms of health care, education and welfare?

And they added another question not publicly aired until then: Shouldn’t we be looking after the needs of the disadvantaged, including those of the disabled and minorities neglected during the years of rapid growth?

This background concern has finally matured into a political stance set to topple the party that had taken scant notice of it.

What are the real issues that have reopened the polemic and driven this election? As I see it, there are three that dominate.

First, the issue of social welfare and which party is best suited to cater to the real needs of the elderly, working people (many of whom have been stripped of their “lifetime employment”) and the young people about to launch themselves into a much less secure social environment than their parents experienced.

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the DPJ and the man who appears most likely to be Japan’s next prime minister, has hammered away at the LDP during the campaign, lambasting it for having spent more time, energy and money protecting vested interests — particularly the bureaucracy’s — than on looking after the jobs and pensions of ordinary citizens. (The pension scandal of 2007, in which details of an estimated 50 million files were lost or misplaced, was symbolic of the government’s slipshod attitude toward people’s welfare.) The slogan of the DPJ is, “The Lives of the People Come First.”

Second, the issue of who will formulate policy in the coming decades. The power of bureaucrats to decide social policy in every sphere of life went virtually unquestioned during the long reign of the LDP. In very many cases this power even continued beyond retirement from the bureaucracy, as high-ranking functionaries parachuted effortlessly down into high-paying jobs in the private or public sector. One of the pillars of the DPJ platform is to dismantle this system known as amakudari (descent from on high).

Of course, whether in power the DPJ will manage to pull this off is another matter. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians dismantled their own elite bureaucracy, the nomenklatura, only to have it reinstated and lavishly refurbished by Vladimir Putin during his presidency from 1999 to 2008. It is easy to see how a disgruntled Japanese nomenklatura could sabotage a reformist government by feeding it disinformation while retaining its symbiotic tie with the LDP.

The third major issue concerns foreign relations. No one is suggesting that a DPJ government would toss the intimate Japan-U.S. diplomatic and defense relationship to the prevailing winds in Asia. But a realignment of many foreign ties, particularly those with China and the Koreas, can be expected. There may well be at last, too, a genuine coming-to-terms by Japan with its heinous record of invasion and colonization between 1910, when Japan annexed Korea, and its 1945 defeat in World War II.

How far the rightwing, arch-patriotic fringe will go to foment chaos and derail this realignment, even employing violent means, is a big unknown that may come to plague a new, progressive government.

The turning point may be Aug. 30, 2009, but its lead-up has been going on for more than 10 years now. How a new, non-LDP government might fare will depend on how mature Japan’s democracy has become since 1945 — and how deeply committed its people are to it.

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