Leading Article: Time for Japan to face up to its responsibilities

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BY THE standards of any other industrial country, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party should be out on its ear after this Sunday's elections. In the past year, the party has been tainted by scandal, corruption and links with organised crime. It has proven unable to avert the country's first full-blown recession since the 1970s. It has visibly mismanaged the vital relationship with Washington. And a fifth of its parliamentary members have deserted it to form new parties.

Yet it is by no means certain that Japan's one-party political system will be finished by Monday morning. Some pollsters and analysts think the LDP may make a triumphant return to power a year or two hence; others predict that it will be able to join a new coalition government; still others believe that the LDP might retain sole control of the government. Whatever the outcome, however, great changes are taking place in Japan - changes that should be of the utmost interest to its allies and trading partners. It is tempting to attribute the inclination of Japanese voters to return the same party to power time after time, even after 38 years, to some specific factor that makes them different from voters elsewhere. In fact, the LDP owes its survival to two more prosaic factors: the incompetence of the opposition, and its own ability to evolve.

The Japanese socialist party is still burdened with many of the anti-American, anti- capitalist policies it adopted after the Second World War. Voters mistrust it because those few of its proposals that are coherent are untried, and its politicians have no experience of government and only feeble links with business and the bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the LDP has been adept at changing policies to suit circumstances, and leaving to the discretion of civil servants many of the detailed decisions that would be taken by ministers in Britain. It has thus attracted talented men of many different sympathies. Money, ruthlessness and personal ambition, rather than ideology, decide the relative strength of its factions. There have been breakaways before; most have stayed outside the fold only long enough to negotiate advantageous terms for their return.

Underneath the apparently familiar political landscape of the present crisis, however, much is different. The end of the Cold War has made nonsense of the left-right split, for Japan need no longer place the friendship of the United States before all other considerations. The recession has brought cracks to the edges of Japan Inc, with companies laying off workers for the first time, and the corporate structures that bind manufacturers to their bankers and their subcontractors coming apart. Workers in Tokyo and other big cities are coming to lose patience with the favours to farmers and small businesses that have made life harder and more expensive for them. And the explosion in travel abroad has made many Japanese aware of the mismatch between their paper wealth - an income per head higher than that of the United States - and the drab details of their own existences.

There are already stirrings of change. Trade policy has become more assertive; in the latest round of talks, the Japanese side flatly turned down US demands for quantitative promises on imports. Deregulation is spreading through the economy, making Japanese business more like its competitors. The first hints of an international conscience are visible, as the country grapples with its responsibilities in Cambodia, in the Gulf and on the UN Security Council.

Japan's political system does not yet reflect these new interests and stresses. There are many different ways in which it might do so, starting with the removal of the blatant over-representation of the backward countryside. But reform may not be sudden. Given the choice between the status quo and an uncertain future in which Japan would acquire the social tensions and economic crises of western societies, many of its citizens will opt for caution. Until they are ready for change, outsiders will see a rudderless Japan, unable to take its place in the world yet unwilling to remain an obedient client of Washington.

Other countries have reason to be concerned. As one of the world's top two aid donors, Japan wields great influence in the developing world. Its growing commercial empire has earned it a voice among industrial countries. The interests of not only Japan itself but also the rest of the world, therefore, demand that it should face up to its responsibilities as a great power.