Takako Doi, a former head of the Social Democratic Party, was once a symbol of political forces that held up the banner of protecting Japan’s postwar Constitution, in particular its war-renouncing Article 9.
Her death at the age of 85 last month came just as the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has moved to reinterpret the Constitution to enable the nation to engage in collective self-defense.
Although Doi’s passion and energy in her advocacy of the pacifist principles should not be forgotten, those who try to follow her path need to learn from her and her party’s weaknesses that resulted in their eventual failure to win broad and sustained popular support.
Originally a constitutional scholar, Doi was returned to the Lower House 12 straight times since first winning her seat in 1969 with the SDP’s predecessor, the Social Democratic Party of Japan. She became the party’s first chairwoman in its history — also the first woman to lead a political party with representation in the Diet — after the party was badly defeated in the 1986 Diet elections.
When the Liberal Democratic Party came under severe criticism in 1989 for a series of scandals involving its top leaders and introduction of the consumption tax, the SDPJ sharply gained strength in the Upper House election that year, depriving the LDP of its majority in the chamber.
Doi, with her clean image and popular appeal, captured the hearts of many voters, and large crowds of people came out to listen to her campaign speeches.
“Otaka-san” as she was popularly called embodied the political mood at that time. She created the “Madonna” boom in which large numbers of female candidates were fielded with success.
After the election, Doi, with joint support from other opposition parties, was nominated as prime minister in an Upper House vote — although the position went to the LDP’s Toshiki Kaifu as the LDP-controlled Lower House took precedence in the election of prime minister.
“The mountain has moved,” she said as she described the election result. Her short, appealing phrase “What’s wrong is wrong” testified to her good quality as an agitator. But it also appeared to symbolize her rigid approach to various issues that ruled out compromises.
The SDPJ went on to sharply increase its standing in the 1990 Lower House election, but the LDP managed to retain a comfortable majority, and the momentum for a united opposition front against the ruling party quickly evaporated. Doi’s fall from grace was equally quick.
She resigned as head of the SDPJ after the party’s defeat in local elections in 1991.
Although the SDPJ lost nearly half its Lower House strength in the 1993 election, Doi came back into the limelight when a coalition of eight parties, including the SDPJ, forced the LDP out of power and chose her as the first woman to serve as speaker of the Lower House.
Then in 1994, SDPJ chief Tomiichi Murayama was elected prime minister as the party formed a surprise coalition with the LDP. Murayama’s policy of endorsing the security treaty with the United States and accepting the existence of the Self-Defense Forces under the Constitution marked a reversal of the party line under Doi.
The party continued to lose its Diet seats, and a split of right-leaning members sharply reduced the party’s strength even as it changed its name to the SDP in 1996.
Doi returned as party chief just before the 1996 general election, but was unable to reverse the downtrend in popular support. She quit as the head of the party after its losses in the 2003 Lower House election, then lost her Diet seat in 2005.
Doi clearly left her footprints in Japan’s postwar politics. Her accomplishments have encouraged many women to take part in politics or play a leading role in civic movements.
But she was not successful in presenting policies that bridge her idealism — including her approach to the Constitution — and political realities. Despite her popular appeal, the Socialist party under her leadership could not go beyond its limitations as a force of resistance and opposition to the LDP. It could not present a convincing grand alternative program to replace the LDP’s.
People who respect and try to inherit Doi’s ideals have a lot to learn from what she achieved and what she could not achieve.