Out of Japan: Endless enigma lies at the very heart of power

TOKYO - Who holds power in Japan? This is perhaps the most frustrating question for anyone trying to understand how Japan works. Its corollary - to whom do we talk to to get something done? - is the 64,000-dollar question for governments seeking to negotiate with Japan. For decades foreign diplomats, business people and academics grasped at one centre of power after another, only to find each one dissolve like quicksilver between their fingers.

The prime minister does not hold power. For more than two weeks, Japan has been without one, after Morihiro Hosokawa resigned because of a financial scandal. There was no sense of crisis and few seemed aware that there was no head of government. Nor does anyone seem to care that the bickering over Mr Hosokawa's successor means that Japan has had no budget for more than a month. The system continues working smoothly, as if political control and decision-making were a colourful irrelevance to running the country.

Mr Hosokawa has not been distraught and miserable, stripped of his job after eight short months as the leader of the world's second most powerful economy. Mr Hosokawa has been gambolling like a schoolboy at the beginning of his summer holidays, merrily attending dinner parties and cherry-blossom-viewing ceremonies as if nothing had happened. Last week he told two colleagues that he had been manipulated and 'used as a tool' by bureaucrats.

It would be wrong to think of Japan as a carefree, anarchic society. Maddeningly anonymous and apparently unaccountable, power structures thread their way throughout Japanese society, leaving not the smallest space without some form of constraint. The positioning of a bus-stop, the timing of the entire workforce's summer holidays, stunting the roots of a bonsai tree - everything must be subjected to control. Nothing can be left to grow wild, at random, of its own accord.

There is a whiff of fear in Japan's fabled politeness and social deference, as if samurai still roamed the country able to kill people of lower class without retribution. Pedestrians walk with eyes downcast in an unobtrusive, almost servile, manner - as if to look someone in the eye risked provoking a challenge from an armed superior and immediate dispatch with a sword-thrust. Bowing to express one's inferiority is a highly developed social skill.

Street crime is rare in Japan, yet the police drive around in armoured cars similar to those used by South African troops when confronting township riots. Schoolchildren wear the same uniform, get regulation haircuts, buy identical schoolbags and eat their mothers' packed lunches that have the same components in the same-sized lunch box as all their classmates. In office lifts, the youngest woman invariably takes charge of the buttons to open and close the doors. When the last emperor was dying, the nation adopted a sombre 'self-restraint', cancelling parties out of respect.

And yet if you ask any Japanese who told him or her to behave in this manner, the answer will be vague: 'It is just done that way.' 'Consensus,' say the experts, nodding sagely. 'Individuals are terrified of taking responsibility for a decision.' But that does not explain Japanese power hierarchies either, since often the consensus is a manufactured myth.

Most Japanese, when pressed, admit to feeling little for the remote figure of the Emperor. The average salaryman dislikes the stereotyping and conformism. He tolerates - if not actually resents - the heavy-handed authority of the police, local bureaucrats, right-wing extremists who deafen the streets with their amplified propaganda, dictatorial teachers, government officials, gangsters and the other wielders of power.

Nor can one build a watertight case for the conspiracy theory about the top bureaucrats who supposedly run Japan Inc to take over the world. Senior bureaucrats spend more time protecting their own fiefdoms than plotting to destroy Western industry.

Karel van Wolferen, who wrote a book entitled The Enigma of Japanese Power, concluded that 'no one is ultimately in charge'. Japan, he says, 'is pushed, or pulled, or kept afloat, but not actually led, by many powerholders in what I call the System'.

But who controls the System? The veteran journalist Tiziano Terzani, says real power is held by five small, old, grey-haired men in the small town of Kamakura outside Tokyo. Everything can be traced back to their regular policy meetings. But despite years of research, Mr Terzani has not managed to dig up their address.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before