Japanese Elections: Dreaming of freedom and change: Significant political reform will not appear overnight and when it comes it will be imposed from the top down

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The Independent Online
SADAMI NIMODA works for the local government in Matsue, in Shimane prefecture on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Since reaching the voting age of 20, he has been voting consistently against the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), although four out of five seats in his constituency are held by the ruling party. His vote was little more than a symbolic protest. 'I thought I would never see change in Japan. Now it looks as if I will see the beginning of change before I die. That's good, no?'

Mr Nimoda is a cautious man - he is not yet 50. With Japan's average life expectancy he has another 30 years to see 'the beginning of change'.

The elections on Sunday, which were called after a group of LDP members mutinied and voted against the government in a no-confidence motion last month, will be the very first step in the beginning of change in Japan. The LDP's monopoly on power has ended after 38 years. With the Cold War over and Japan's economy now the second-biggest in the world, a new political paradigm is evolving, whether the current politicians like it or not. It will take time, and probably several more elections, before the new power structure is in place.

In many ways Japan is in an uncannily similar position to Italy before that country plunged into its chaotic period of political house-cleaning. The ruling party is thoroughly corrupt, with money kickbacks from corporations built into the system. Senior politicians, including at least one former prime minister, have been shown to be linked with organised crime. And yet, because of the spectre of Communism, voters have repeatedly 'held their noses' and elected the conservative LDP time and again since its formation in 1955.

But while the disease may be similar in both countries, the treatment will be different: Japan is not a country of operatic flourishes, of flamboyant hand gestures, raised voices and dramatic rivoluzione. In art as in life, the Japanese treasure subtle understatement, abhor emotional outbursts and approach change with caution, wary of fracturing social consensus. Change, when it happens, takes place behind a screen.

Travelling around the countryside in the last two weeks, it almost seemed as if nothing would change. Politicians are campaigning on the same old local issues: promising the bridge or road that a village wants built, appealing to the memory of the candidate's father who ran in the same constituency, manipulating local personality feuds and pledging to look out for the interests of the jimoto, or home area, in the struggle for government funds in Tokyo.

There are no country-wide demonstrations against political corruption. The notion that widespread public disgust with money politics is boiling over is an invention of the media in Tokyo. In fact it now seems likely that the LDP will be in the best position to form a government after the next elections. Change is coming to Japan, but it is coming from the top down, not from the bottom up.

'People Power' revolutions are not the way Japan has evolved in the past either. The two most significant political changes in the last 400 years were both imposed from the top down, by people already in power. And foreign pressure, or gaiatsu, played a role each time.

In 1600 Ieyasu Tokugawa, the shogun, closed the country to the outside world to keep out Christianity and the influence of European traders. In 1868, after US gunboats had forced Japan to begin trading with the outside world, a group of reform-minded officials and courtiers overturned the 'closed country' policy in the Meiji Restoration, which sparked Japan's frenzied effort to modernise and catch up with the West. In neither case were the leaders responding to popular demands - they imposed their own vision on a compliant populace.

Something similar is starting to happen today. A consensus is growing among some politicians, corporate executives and academics, that Japan's parochial politics, unaccountable bureaucracy and frequently embarrassing paralysis in international diplomacy can no longer be sustained.

Three new reformist political parties have been formed. They are feuding among themselves, but are all feeling their way in roughly the same direction. Meanwhile, big business has made it clear it will no longer continue funding the LDP exclusively as it has done in the past. This little-noticed shift in fact removes a large part of the party's legitimacy.

The top-down consensus for change is also strongly supported by the United States, which up to now has kept close relations with the party of stability, the LDP. During his recent visit to Tokyo President Bill Clinton went out of his way to support the movement for political change, horrifying LDP elders who know many Japanese, almost despite themselves, cannot help thinking of the US as big brother who knows best.

The central figure among the reformers is Ichiro Ozawa, the 51-year- old former secretary-general of the LDP who precipitated the split of the party last month and has established the Shinsei (Renewal) party. In A Plan to Remodel Japan, a book he published just last month, Mr Ozawa lays out clearly the agenda for reform: a stronger cabinet must win back power from the bureaucracy, closed markets should be abolished in Japan and elsewhere and the Japanese should play a larger role in world affairs.

He calls for five freedoms to define the new 'Japanese Dream': freedom from Tokyo, freedom from corporate power, freedom from long working hours, freedom from age and sex discrimination and freedom from government regulations.

'Money politics, electoral reform: that is not the real political reform,' said Moriyoshi Sato, a former agriculture minister and a member of the Shinsei party. 'Japan is now the safest and one of the most comfortable countries in the world. But if we do not reform politics now, we will not be able to pass it on to the next generation. The world will lose patience with us - we should not forget this.'

(Photograph omitted)