On Wednesday, September 12, Japan witnessed an expression of political instability it has not seen in many years. The Prime Minister at the time, Shinzo Abe resigned his position due to massive unpopularity. This had been coming for some time. The cabinet had been mired in scandal almost from the start, with several resignations and even a suicide. However, it is much more than government corruption that caused this wave of unpopularity for the Liberal Democratic Party, the party which has ruled Japan since 1955, it is directly related to the policies which the party is now attempting to put forward.
Abe came into office with the slogan of creating a "beautiful Japan." He meant of course, beautiful for the wealthy business people and further erosion of living conditions for the workers and poor. His idea was to simply continue to carry out the "reforms" of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, further privatisation, lowering social spending and further market liberalism. The effects of these so-called "reforms" are now being felt by average people and they are rightly showing their displeasure through a complete lack of support for the government. The Upper House elections in July were a complete disaster for the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) which saw them go from a big majority to a minority. The main opposition party the Democratic Party of Japan swept up even the rural areas which are the traditional LDP stronghold.
However, opposition to the current government is not due solely to growing hardship for workers in Japan - at a moment when the economy for the first time in years is supposed to be growing ‑ but also to the shift in foreign policy which the government is attempting to make.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Japanese government has been doing what it can to assist the US in its imperialist endeavours. Ironically they have been constrained in their efforts by the very constitution which was written by the Americans after the surrender of Japan in the Second World War. The constitution forbids having a military beyond what is required for self-defence purposes only. Although Japan does have a sizeable and advanced "self defence force" they are forbidden by the constitution from engaging in combat. The government has been pushing for a rewriting of the constitution and attempting to whip up nationalist feelings around the issue. The attempt however is failing to win the Japanese people over, as they know all too well the results of war. Japan is currently playing a minor supporting role for the US military in Iraq by refuelling ships and planes in the region. They also sent soldiers to Iraq for a short while, but since the constitution forbids them from entering combat, they were essentially forced to huddle in a military compound the entire time. When it was found out that they had engaged in "self defence" the government soon had to pull them out due to the extreme unpopularity of the mission.
The Lower House, still strongly controlled by the LDP, elected Yasuo Fukuda to take over as Prime Minister. He is seen as part of the old guard, basically born into the party, as his father was a former Prime Minister. He is carrying out the exact same programme as those who came before him. His first challenge as Prime Minister is to attempt to pass a bill to extend the Japanese naval mission in the Indian Ocean, in support of US troops in Afghanistan. The DPJ has said they will attempt to stop the bill in the Upper House.
So, given the unpopularity of the current government, it would seem likely that after the next election we could be seeing a new government, most likely a government of the Democratic Party of Japan. However, what exactly is this party and where do they stand on the issues?
The DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) is a coalition party containing several different factions of social democratic and liberal backgrounds. It is a relatively new party, being formed only in 1998 and promoted mostly by the right wing of the Social Democratic Party. It has a confused programme which expresses the internal division in the party between the left and right. It is opposed to militarisation and is vocally against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in regards to domestic policy, it only seeks to maintain the status quo.
So what other choices does the Japanese electorate have? The Social Democratic Party, formally known as the Japan Socialist Party, has a long history and ties to several union organizations. From being a major political party just 20 years ago, they have been in a steady state of decline. Due to their very dubious role in a coalition government in the 1990s where they abandoned all party principles, followed swiftly by a name change to the wishy-washy "Social Democratic Party" their decline has continued since then.
The history of this party is actually very interesting, as since its creation in 1945 it has had a very strong left wing, which also coincided with the party's success. Despite many right wing attempts to break from the party and create rival parties, these had all ended in failure.
In the mid 1990s the party leadership attempted what they called a "perestroika" against that section of the party known as the Japan Socialist Association, which were said to be committed to doctrinaire Marxism. Although they were unable to rid the party of Marxism completely, they succeeded in changing the party programme and its name. It is important to note that contrary to what the party leadership thought, this caused the party to enter into decline, not electoral gain as they assumed. Abandoning the old name and moving more openly to the right has led to a loss of a lot of votes. They currently hold 11 seats between both the Upper and Lower House. There is also some speculation that their continued decline may also be attributed to their continued support for North Korea, which is a major issue in Japan, especially during the last elections.
The Communist Party of Japan has managed to avoid the problems which have afflicted other Communist parties after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact it is one of the largest Communist parties in the world with around 400,000 members with links to various trade unions. However, despite having the name Communist, it is not committed to socialist revolution, but to achieving "democratic change in politics and the economy," and also "the complete restoration of Japan's national sovereignty." In fact they do not recognize that Japan is a major economic imperialist power, and furthermore they call for the United Nations to be the centre for fighting global terrorism. Although their calls for the complete removal of US military bases from Japan are correct, their view that Japan is a nation dominated by American imperialism rings very false today. Incredibly, for a party claiming to be "Communist", they have also dropped opposition to the Emperor remaining the head of state as long as he is simply a "figurehead". It has maintained itself in part due to the dramatic decline of the Social Democratic Party and is now in a superior position in electoral terms.
From a brief examination of the various parties at play in Japan, we can clearly see that what is lacking is a party with a clear revolutionary programme. The vote for the DPJ is not to be seen as a sign that the people support their vague liberal policies. What it reflects is the fact that nobody is offering a clear programme for change and all the parties are saying similar things regarding foreign policy. Most people agree that the support in the last Upper House elections for the DPJ was not a vote in favour of its programme, but a vote against the government, against the so-called "reforms" and against the status quo.
As we can see by looking at the "good old days" of the Japan Socialist Party, what is needed is not moderation in order to gain popularity, but radicalisation and a clear revolutionary programme, that while speaking in the language of the people, shows a clear way forward to a better society.
The DPJ will soon become discredited in the eyes of the people, if indeed they are able to form a government after the next elections. On economic questions they differ very little from the outgoing government. That will give parties such as the Social Democratic Party and Communist Party the opportunity they need to gain the ear of the people. It is inevitable that at some stage the mass of workers will turn to these parties. However, in order to offer a genuine alternative, they must first revisit the ideas of socialism, Marxism and revolution.
- Japan's economic nightmare deepens by Fernando D'Alessandro (1998)
- World deflation - led by Japan by Michael Roberts (March 2001)
- Japan's Economic Crisis by Phil Mitchinson (May 1998)