Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Saying Sayonara to the "Inscrutable Japan" Theory in the Wake of the Democratic Party's Landslide Victory
KITAMURA Fumio  / Journalist

September 18, 2009
On August 30, Japan's general elections ended in a clean sweep for the opposition Democratic Party. Of the 480 seats of the House of Representatives, 308 went to the Democratic Party, while the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a sharp decline from 300 to 119. For the first time in its postwar history, Japan experienced a change of government between two opposing political parties. Over the years, I have made friends with many intelligent foreigners, and through such friendship had learned just how persistent the view of Japan as an "inscrutable country" was in other countries. For this reason, I was relieved by the Democratic Party's landslide victory for it is likely to lead to a considerable correction of this negative stereotype.

Such a sentiment is probably mine alone. No doubt it is connected to my memories of working at the Foreign Press Center (FPC) for eight years from 1988. The FPC offered support and cooperation to foreign media organizations in their coverage of Japan, and as Managing Director, I spent my days conversing with foreign journalists and scholars of Japan. During those years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan was buoyed by its bubble economy. Tongue in cheek statistics describing Japan's total land value to be more than double that of the entire United States gave a boost to the Japanese ego, and opening the Japanese market and controlling exports from Japan were always the central agenda in Japan-U.S. negotiations.

One after another, major Hollywood movie productions and famous landmarks in New York and other places were sold to Japanese capital, fanning the frustration of the proud American people. Against this backdrop, journalists and scholars known in western countries as the "Revisionists" started a phenomenon called "Japan bashing" that spread like bushfire, and soon books with provocative titles such as "Containing Japan" began to line the shelves in U.S. bookstores. Roughly summed up, their logic was that although Japan was an economic superpower its society and culture remained alien to western countries, and since the Japanese themselves cannot be expected to change their own country, pressure must be applied from the outside to open up the Japanese market.

In the aftermath of the bubble economy, "Japan bashing" died out as Japan sunk deeper into its "lost decade" of stagnation. However, the "Inscrutable Japan" theory became deeply rooted in the minds of westerners. Similarly, there was little change in the stereotypical view of the Japanese as a "people with an intrinsic fear of change." The discomforting feeling towards Japanese politics, long dominated by a single party, must have been a major element that gave rise to these images. Despite the numerous political scandals and absurd comments and slips of the tongue uttered by its ministers, the LDP had remained in power for over half a century. Indeed, such a political situation must have been an enigma to western eyes.

LDP domination was founded on a system it built up to distribute the country' expanding wealth among various industries through LDP lawmakers with vested interests in areas such as agriculture, medicine, road construction and education. As long as the Japanese economy remained on the growth curve, the LDP would have been able to maintain its patriarchal dominion and continue setting the political agenda.

However, amid the tide of globalization that followed the end of the Cold War, the doctrine of market competition spread throughout the world, regional alliances such as the European Union were organized, and countries led by China and India began to show rapid economic growth. These were all factors that presented obstacles to Japan's past growth path. Furthermore, as Japan’s transition into an aging society with a low birthrate gathered pace, anxiety mushroomed over diminished employment, worsening plight of the low-income group and despair for the future among younger Japanese.

Nevertheless, the LDP failed to reinvent itself in response to the overwhelming changes out of a sense of inertia and comfort borne of its longtime rule. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party focused its election strategy on formulating and strengthening safety nets for daily livelihood, such as benefits for single-mothers and free education at public schools up to high school. Compared with the LDP, which could not discard its traditional strategy of gathering votes, the Democratic Party campaigned on an election strategy that was in better touch with the sentiments of a people dissatisfied with the present and worried about the future. In other words, the Japanese people had set the agenda for this election.

A multitude of tasks lie ahead of the new government, and it is unclear whether they can deliver on their promises to voters. However, one thing is clear. Japanese voters have chosen a way out of LDP domination, making Japan a "normal country" and creating an effective argument for refuting the "Inscrutable Japan" theory. One day, voters may turn their back on a Democratic Party-led government. They can then choose another government. That is what parliamentary democracy is all about. In any case, I for one am enjoying a moment of liberation from frustration pent up over so many years.

The writer is a former Professor of Shukutoku University and former London Bureau Chief and Senior Editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

北村文夫  / ジャーナリスト

2009年 9月 18日








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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Saying Sayonara to the "Inscrutable Japan" Theory in the Wake of the Democratic Party's Landslide Victory