Travels in Japanese Politics, Old and New

H. D. P. Envall, La Trobe University [About | Email]

Volume 6, Issue 1 (Book review 3 in 2006). First published in ejcjs on 27 March 2006.

Hayes, Louis D. (2005), Introduction to Japanese Politics, Fourth Edition, New York: M. E. Sharpe, ISBN: 0765613387, paperback, 407 pages.

McCormack, Gavan (2001), The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence, Revised Edition, with a foreword by Norma Field, New York: M. E. Sharpe, ISBN: 0765607689, paperback, 311 pages.

Bowen, Roger W. (2003), Japan's Dysfunctional Democracy: The Liberal Democratic Party and Structural Corruption, New York: M. E. Sharpe, ISBN: 0765611023, paperback, 139 pages.

Explaining post-war Japanese politics (and society) is a task that often lends itself to outdoors-adventure metaphors. One has to sail through the maelstrom of the immediate post-war period, climb the mountain that was the 'bubble era' and, finally, descend into the abyss that has been Japan's post-bubble 'lost decade' and beyond.

Three scholars who venture into Japan's post-war political terrain are Louis Hayes, Gavan McCormack and Roger Bowen. Their books—a mix of revised old classics and a newer contribution—have been written with quite distinct objectives, a fact reflected in the differing approaches taken.

Introducing Japanese Politics

The first book, Introduction to Japanese Politics by Louis D. Hayes, is a classic introductory text to the politics of Japan. A brief scan of many online library catalogues reveals that the book's first edition was published in 1992, the second in 1995 and the third in 2001. This edition (the fourth) was published in 2005. And although much has changed in Japanese politics over the intervening years, as is often said about Japan: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In many ways, therefore, Introduction to Japanese Politics remains as relevant in 2005 as it ever was, which makes it a must for students wishing to develop a strong grasp of Japanese politics and political history, especially of the post-war period.

Introduction to Japanese Politics does, however, miss much that has changed since the early 1990s. The reader will be informed, in great detail, of the comings and goings of Messrs Tanaka, Nakasone and their contemporaries, but will find less on more recent events and issues. Changes to the '1955 system' with the LDP's fall in 1993, the subsequent fall of the coalition governments led by Hosokawa and Hata, the electoral and administrative reforms of the 1990s, and Koizumi Jun'ichirō's economic reform plans (to name a few) are all passed over much too quickly. Although Hayes has alleviated the problem since the previous edition of 2001, there is still a structural imbalance that preferences long-past events at the expense of the contemporary. To take one example, after a lengthy discussion of the events surrounding the 1986 double election (pages 80–3), Hayes squeezes the last 20 years into around four pages (pages 84–8), beginning with the sentence, 'In the years that followed, the LDP began to lose its grip on the Japanese political system' (page 84).

The book begins with a background review of the pre-war and occupation periods (chapters 1 and 2). In the second part, it examines the Japanese 'political process' (chapters 3 to 7), with chapters on the structure of government, political parties (two chapters), political corruption and reform, and political participation. The third part looks at 'social and economic processes' (chapters 8 and 9), and the fourth part (chapters 10 and 11) looks at 'public services', meaning education and public safety. The fifth part examines Japan's relations with the world, focusing on political and economic relations (as well as Japan's relations with the US) in Chapter 12, and defence in Chapter 13. Finally, the conclusion consists of one chapter, entitled 'Problems and Prospects'. This structure has remained unchanged from the third edition.

The main strength of Introduction to Japanese Politics is its thoroughness in dealing with the basics; although its tendency to compare the Japanese context with the American one will, undoubtedly, grate on some non-American readers. Hayes essentially looks at three main areas of Japanese contemporary life: politics, society and economy, and foreign policy and defence.

Hayes begins discussing politics by looking at the structure of government in Japan and, specifically, by drawing attention to the issue of democracy and its applicability to Japanese politics. Indeed, he asks explicitly (page 66): 'How well does the Japanese political system meet the test of democracy?' Readers will have to make up their own minds whether the answer—'Barring some unforeseen interruption, the democratization of Japan's political processes can be expected to continue' (page 67)—is positive or negative. Although Hayes does raise the issue of 'ineffective opposition' (page 113), he could have made the book more relevant by examining the Democratic Party of Japan and discussing whether Japan has been moving towards a stronger two-party system since the electoral reforms of the 1990s.

Introduction to Japanese Politics does introduce the political parties, and explains their workings with great clarity, albeit without covering the most recent changes in sufficient depth. Inevitably, Hayes discusses the role of the bureaucracy. Quoting Woronoff (1986), he notes that the 'Japanese bureaucrats are frequently more influential than bureaucrats in dictatorships' (page 58). Unfortunately, the trials and tribulations of the bureaucracy in recent years are not covered, despite the major revelations during the 1990s that Japan's bureaucrats had over a long period been seriously abusing their relationships with the private sector (see Curtis 1999).

Nevertheless, the book examines the major scandals of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—the Lockheed, Recruit and Sagawa Kyūbin scandals—arguing that these cases, and subsequent ones (that include opposition parties) through the 1990s, share one particular commonality: 'Neither the political system as a whole, and particularly the electoral system, nor the internal mechanism of political parties are equipped to address them as important issues of public concern and to take remedial action' (page 111). Chapter 7 is not as comprehensive nor as in-depth as previous chapters. Under the heading of 'Political Participation', Hayes covers too many issues in too short a space, meaning that the book loses focus and struggles to provide more than a superficial examination of the different topics.

From the third part of the book onwards, Hayes moves away from the narrow focus on politicians and traditional politics and instead examines broader issues of society and Japan's place in the world. In Chapter 8, the review of individual-group dynamics is particularly interesting—if as much for its reflection on American attitudes as for its insight into Japanese practices: 'Americans are probably inclined to exaggerate the distinctiveness of Japanese customs and social organization' (page 149). The section dealing with the place of women in Japanese society is highly relevant, with Hayes showing an appreciation for the historical development of women's position in Japanese society (see Hunter 1995) while also recognising that gender equality remains far from achieved. 'Apart from foreigners and minority ethnic groups,' Hayes points out, 'women are the clearest victims of social discrimination' in Japan (page 153).

Chapter 10 helps lay bare the troubles of Japan's educational sector, though not just because it examines Japan's current multitude of education problems, such as truancy and violence in schools and reform of the university system. Rather, the book reminds the reader that Japan has been struggling with its education system for most of the post-war period: even from the 1960s, quality education, at least at the university level, was a serious concern (pages 205–6). In describing university standards, Hayes observes, with excellent understatement, that 'generally speaking, expectations are less than for the higher education systems in Europe or North America' (page 201). He then lists some of the characteristics of higher education in Japan, including irregular class attendance, copying or selling of class notes, undemanding exams and the prevailing attitude of students that sees a university, especially a private one, as a 'leisure center' (page 201). Similarly, readers reflecting on contemporary debates, such as those over the national anthem and flag in schools, as well as the history textbook saga, could hardly be faulted for thinking that the government's attitude towards education—that is, deeply conservative—had hardly changed since the days of Fujio Masayuki. It was Fujio who, as minister of education in 1986, criticised the Occupation for having ruined Japan, downplayed Japan's role in World War II, and was then forced to resign (page 208).

The fifth part of Introduction to Japanese Politics looks at foreign relations and defence. Again, Hayes covers these subjects well in terms of the 1970s and 1980s but has less to say about the post–Cold War period or Japan's foreign relations and defence since September 11. For instance, on Japanese peacekeeping and Article 9, the fourth edition adds only a little on Japan's peacekeeping operation in Iraq to its discussion (from the third edition) on the first Gulf War and the demise of the Soviet Union (pages 264–6).

Hayes concludes by looking at post-industrial politics and Japanese democracy. The last chapter summarises all the key parts of the book, reviewing Japan's institutions, political processes, changing social context, economic development, international relations, and quality of life (pages 280–91).

Rethinking Japanese Affluence

For those looking for a more challenging, polemical journey, Gavan McCormack's The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence is a comprehensive examination of all that is troubling and unresolved in Japan. In contrast to Hayes' more straight-forward approach, McCormack is more interested in debating a diverse range of issues. But like Introduction to Japanese Politics, 'Japanese Affluence' is also a re-release of a previous edition. (The book was first published in 1996.) Nevertheless, this edition not only keeps the original's dark immediate post-bubble pessimism but also continues to say much about Japan's present and future. Although still frustratingly digressive at times, the work retains its classic prescience about Japanese politics, society and culture.

McCormack begins with an introduction to the revised edition. Excluding the introduction and conclusion, the main text is divided into three parts—on political economy, identity, and memory. The first part consists of three chapters that look at the roles of construction, leisure and agriculture in post-bubble Japan. In the second part, made up of two chapters, McCormack looks at Japan's relations with other Asian nations (Chapter 4) and the way Japan's post-war pacifist state has been constructed under the so-called 'peace' Constitution. The third part consists of a single chapter that focuses on how Japan is coming to terms (or not) with its role in World War II. McCormack completes the book with some 'concluding remarks' entitled 'Japan at Century's End'.

By looking at 'leisure' (Chapter 2), the book provides both an illuminating insight into Japan of the late 1980s and early 1990s—the period known as the 'bubble era'—and an excellent tool for comparing this 'bubble' Japan with the Japan of today. McCormack's thesis is that leisure in the modern Japanese economy is artificial. Designed to produce corporate profits and available only in tiny amounts to much of the workforce—the modern-day kamikaze (salary-men) who work themselves to death (karōshi) for their companies—such leisure is good for the economy but impoverishes the people (fukoku hinmin, pages 104–6).

The resorts, golf courses and absurd theme parks all receive the McCormack criticism. On the other hand, attractions that were developed locally, under the Takeshita administration, to revive declining rural regions—such as the world's biggest scarecrow in Yamagata Prefecture—receive praise as 'a fund of energy and originality at the local level' (page 103). It is perhaps too easy to be critical, even cynical, about Japan's bubble-era leisure-building mania. Indeed, McCormack, despite making valid points about the philosophy behind many of these projects, not to mention their environmental effects (pages 95–7), only comes across as sanctimonious when he derides Disneyland as Orwellian and infantile (page 100). If bad taste were all that were wrong in Japan, there would be little real reason to complain.

Conversely, McCormack is most prescient when he describes the future towards which young people were looking in the 1990s.

As they enter the workforce, young people are sceptical of claims that Japan is a 'livelihood greater power.' As they contemplate their estimated life earnings, they know at the start of their career the virtual certainty of ultimate relative poverty. (page 79)

A decade later, the scepticism of the young has broadened and, with the pressures of Japanese society multiplying, a range of reactions have appeared within the post-bubble, or 'global' (Sugimoto 1997), generation. The furītā (freelance worker), parasite single and hikikomori (reclusive adolescents) phenomena are, in part, responses to the social insecurities that McCormack describes so well.

The one weak chapter in Japanese Affluence is 'The Farm State: GATTing Japan' (Chapter 3). Here, McCormack ponders the ramifications of liberalised trade in agriculture, both generally and on Japan. Unfortunately, the valuable insights and information in this chapter are overshadowed by its anti-market dogma.

McCormack attacks the free trade system of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT but now known as the World Trade Organization (WTO), for its impact upon inequality, malnourishment and environmental degradation. Yet he also notes that the current trade system in agriculture is actually far from free, but rather is dominated by protectionist interests in the US, Europe and Japan (pages 126–7).

Thus, in a chapter overflowing with words such as 'abnormal', 'malignant' and 'catastrophic', McCormack blames a trading system that doesn't really exist and calls for more of the same. His answer is one whereby 'environmental, social, and cultural costs should be assessed by some agreed-upon international standard before free trade is implemented in food' (page 130). This standard includes such principles as guaranteed wages and safeguards against 'possible future health or environmental damage' (page 130). Yet more of the same, which is exactly what this proposal is, would more than likely lead to more of the same malnourishment, inequality and environmental problems, since such 'international standards' would in reality mean the over-producing North continuing to protect, to an even greater degree than hitherto, its markets (and wages) from an increasingly competitive South.

Whereas the first three chapters of Japanese Affluence examine some of the social, political and economic problems facing Japanese society, the second half of the book looks essentially at Japanese identity, in terms of both the kind of state Japan is now and how it views its past. What is Japan in the Asian region, an insider or an outsider? What kind of state is Japan, a pacifist or 'normal' state? And how does Japan wish to deal with its role in World War II?

McCormack sums up Japan's response to European power (and Asian weakness) during the colonial period as a kind of schizophrenia: 'Japan vacillated between insisting on being not Asian at all, and declaring itself the epitome of Asianness' (page 159). This trait was especially pronounced during the 1930s and 1940s when Japan 'insisted on its own distinctiveness as leader [of the Great East Asian Coprosperity Sphere], claiming at the same time to be part of, but essentially superior to, Asia' (page 161).

Whatever terms such as 'Asian' or 'Japanese' mean, it is clear that Japan continues to struggle not only with its own identity but also with its Asian relations. As Pyle (1996, 164) points out, 'Japan's Åc aloofness from the region and narrow pursuit of its economic self-interest during the cold war also deferred the task of restoring trust.' Looking at domestic attitudes, McCormack argues that 'incidents suggestive of continuing discrimination against Asian people are Åc common in Japan' (page 178). The number of crimes committed by foreigners, especially Chinese, is widely reported in an atmosphere of fear mongering by the press and government.

One reason for this problem lies in the Japanese struggle to come to terms with its role in World War II. As Japan fails to confront its war role, it also fails to build trust with its neighbours who, in turn, doubt Japan's intentions. In the final chapter, the book looks at this issue of 'remembering and forgetting', noting that 'The question of how the war should be remembered, even what it should be called, continues to trouble a generation that is increasingly removed from the events themselves' (page 225).

Although Japanese Affluence was written shortly after the 50th anniversary of the war, this observation remains equally valid beyond the 60th anniversary (see McCormack 2005; McNeil 2005). While young Japanese are even further removed from the events of World War II, young people from around the region seem ever more passionate about them. Prime Minister Koizumi, for instance, has stirred up resentment and hatred around Asia, and hindered Japanese diplomacy, by visiting the Yasukuni shrine (mostly recently on 17 October 2005), where the spirits (kami) of Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals, are housed. Meanwhile, young Chinese (with the encouragement of their government) riot over what they see as Japan's attempts to gloss over its wartime history.

Behind all this foreground noise, the major strategic dynamics in the region—the rise of China, Sino-US rivalry and so on—further entangle the history problem in today's strategic problems. It is, therefore, difficult to disagree with McCormack when he argues that 'Japan's participation in any new world order in the late-twentieth or early-twenty-first century will depend on its ability to come to terms with and settle outstanding issues from the failed order it tried to create in the 1930s and 1940s' (page 276).

Democracy in Japan

Moving forward in terms of publication date is Roger Bowen's work of 2003, Japan's Dysfunctional Democracy: The Liberal Democratic Party and Structural Corruption. Where McCormack attempts to address all the troubles of modern Japanese society, Bowen focuses on one main subject—the state of Japanese democracy.

More specifically, Japan's Dysfunctional Democracy looks at how democracy in Japan has been affected by the corruption inherent in the country's politics. The book's basic argument is that Japanese democracy is 'dysfunctional', a term which seems to mean that Japanese democracy does not work properly: 'Japan's democracy does not work very well and has not worked as designed since the end of World War II' (page vii). Japanese democracy is dysfunctional, Bowen argues (page 3), due to the presence of structural corruption (kōzō oshoku)—that is, corruption built into the Japanese political system. Japan's structural corruption includes elements such as: 'personalism, graft, cronyism, favoritism, bribery, money politics, factionalism, and collusion' (page 3). The cause of this structural corruption is the nature of Japanese culture, which is tolerant of these elements. Although the Japanese public bemoan political corruption, they also admire corrupt politicians, such as Tanaka Kakuei. According to Bowen, 'this contradiction hints at a deeper problem within Japanese democracy, that is, the absence of the sort of democratic disposition that is unforgiving of political corruption' (page 6). He describes this as the 'shikata ga nai (it can't be helped) society'.

Following the introduction (Chapter 1), Bowen argues his case in six chapters. He begins by discussing the process of choosing prime ministers (Chapter 2), before describing the 'dysfunctional' nature and mixed history of the Japanese prime ministership in Chapter 3. In Chapter 4, perhaps the most wide-ranging of the book, Bowen examines a range of subjects, including: the fall and re-emergence of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the views of 'Japan experts' on Japanese democracy, the sturdiness of this democracy, the nature of 'democracy' in general, Japan's major areas of democratic weakness, the business-bureaucracy-politics link (known as the 'iron triangle'), and political corruption. Bowen is more focused in Chapter 5, where he looks at Japan's constitution (the tatemae, or surface, of Japan's politics), while in Chapter 6, he purports to explain the honne (real workings) of the political world, or the 'Bureaucracy-Dominated Iron Triangle' (page 70). Bowen finishes with a conclusion that reflects on Japan's cultural contradiction and considers the future of its democracy.

Unfortunately, Japan's Dysfunctional Democracy is at times inclined to moralise on Japanese politics. At the beginning (page 3), Bowen concedes that 'Singling out Japan for its failings as a democracy is difficult on the heels of the 2000 presidential election in the United States.' Indeed, considering the problems associated with contemporary American democracy—electoral squabbles, the upcoming trials of senior politicians and lobbyists (such as Jack Abramoff) the influence of money, gerrymandering, the seemingly illegal detention of terrorist suspects, and so on—one might expect Americans to tread more carefully in recent years when taking others to task for their democratic failings.

This style is well illustrated by the needless introduction of Japan experts thus: 'if one turns to the specialists on Japanese politics, most western experts would say that the question of whether Japan is democratic is gratuitous, nonsensical, or perhaps rhetorical' (page 48). This is not a fair way to begin an analysis of the current state of academic knowledge of Japanese politics; moreover, Bowen seems to contradict himself later when he accuses American Japanologists of largely ignoring the issue of corruption (page 56). Both Hayes and McCormack (granted, an Australian) do deal with different aspects of corruption in Japan, though it is not the central issue of their books.

The book's reasoning and assumptions are also problematic. The arguments are disjointed and at times contradictory, while the evidence presented is patchy. To take one example, Bowen at one point suddenly suggests that it is the LDP (and not Japan's culture, of which the LDP might be considered a symptom) which is the cause of Japan's dysfunctional democracy: 'at the root of Japan's dysfunctional democracy is the LDP and the ways it conducts politics' (page 60).

Most significantly, the details of the chief argument turn out to be circular. The book essentially says that apathy born by culture is the breeding ground for corruption which leads to a dysfunctional democracy (e.g. pages 3, 61). But where did this apathy come from? The answer is that Japanese apathetic culture (and alienation) is a response to the corruption in Japanese politics (e.g. pages 5, 8). This is captured perfectly when Bowen notes that 'the Japanese have more to be "disillusioned" about, yet, curiously, the Japanese voting public is itself responsible for electing corrupt political leaders' (page 6).

The second problem is the use of the word dysfunctional. Is Japan's democracy dysfunctional? And how should we measure this 'dysfunction'? There are different ways in which this task could be achieved. One could establish criteria, measure post-war democracy and give a grade—5 per cent dysfunctional, 15 per cent dysfunctional, and so on. But should there be a pass mark? And if so, where is the line between functional and dysfunctional? Alternatively, one could compare Japan's current circumstances to other situations—either other historical periods or other democratic countries. For instance, Japanese democracy is no doubt more functional today than it was in mid-1945 (see Sims 2001).

Bowen has a stab at establishing criteria (pages 63–7) and does compare Japan to other democracies (pages 61–2). Yet these tasks are not carried out in a rigorous way. The book compares Japan, not too unfavourably, with Italy, and also the US, but effectively stops there. Moreover, only the US counts: 'because Japan's constitution is "made in America," it is entirely appropriate to ask whether it "works" as our Constitution does in America' (page 62). With all that has happened in recent years, it would seem more likely that, in an imagined 'Dysfunctional Democracy Stakes', Japan would merely be 'keeping pace' with the US and would in fact be falling well behind Italy. Ultimately, there is a certain ambiguity about the term. At one point Bowen argues, somewhat against his main contention, that 'Japanese democracy functions more poorly than it might because of corruption, but it functions nonetheless' (page 6).

The book is also marred by an apparent indifference to distinctions between presidential and parliamentary systems and a disdain for the realities of political factions (a phenomenon not confined to Japan). All this is doubly unfortunate because Japan has over the years struggled with many problems, including but not restricted to structural corruption. Voter apathy has been identified as another problem, as have bad electoral rules, the latter which have in no small part contributed to corruption problems.

Indeed, Japan's Dysfunctional Democracy does contain valid points about the state of Japanese democracy. Prime ministers have quite often been chosen in a manner that falls far below democratic ideals (see Hayao 1993; Masumi 1995; Shinoda 2000); corruption, which undermines democratic institutions, has for a long time been an endemic problem (Samuels 2003); the bureaucracy retains considerable, arguably too much, power and has for too long taken an excessively paternalistic approach to the welfare of the country's citizens (pages 70–97; Johnson 1995; van Wolferen 1993); and there is a serious distortion of the one-person-one-vote principle (page 66).

Overall, Japan's Dysfunctional Democracy is an ambitious yet flawed work. It addresses a significant issue in Japanese politics yet falls down in comparison with other notable works that examine—though not exclusively—the issue of corruption in Japan (e.g. Johnson 1995; Hrebenar 2000; Samuels 2003). This is a key difference between this work and the works by Hayes and McCormack also examined in this review.


The objectives of the above books are quite distinct, a fact reflected in the differing paths they take. If Hayes presents a kind of detailed street directory of Japanese politics, then McCormack looks at the characteristics of the country's social topography, while Bowen zooms in on a single city (of sin). The three books are not of equal quality however. The first two are not only broader in their scope; they are also more rigorous and cogent in their arguments and analysis. Nevertheless, despite these differences, all three books undoubtedly help guide students, scholars and general readers in their travels through complexities of contemporary Japanese politics, economy and society.


Curtis, Gerald L. (1999), The Logic of Japanese Politics: Leaders, Institutions and the Limits of Change, New York: Columbia University Press.

Hayao, Kenji (1993), The Japanese Prime Minister and Public Policy, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Hrebenar, Ronald J. (2000), Japan's New Party System, with contributions by Peter Berton, Akira Nakamura, and J.A.A. Stockwin, Boulder: Westview Press.

Hunter, Janet (1995), 'Men and Women', in Tim Megarry (ed) The Making of Modern Japan: A Reader, Dartford: Greenwich University Press, pp.467–81.

Johnson, Chalmers (1995), Japan: Who Governs? The Rise of the Developmental State, New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

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McNeill, David (2005), 'History Redux: Japan's Textbook Battle Reignites', JPRI Working Papers, no.107, June, accessed 15 March 2006,

Pyle, Kenneth B. (1996), The Japanese Question: Power and Purpose in a New Era, Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press.

Samuels, Richard J. (2003), Machiavelli's Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Shinoda, Tomohito (2000), Leading Japan: The Role of the Prime Minister, Westport: Praeger.

Sims, Richard (2001), Japanese Political History since the Meiji Renovation, 1868–2000, New York: Palgrave.

Sugimoto, Yoshio (1997), An Introduction to Japanese Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolferen, Karel van (1993), The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation, Tokyo: Tuttle.

Woronoff, Jon (1986), Politics: the Japanese Way, New York: St MartinÅfs Press.

World Bank (2005), The Little Green Data Book, World Development Indicators, Washington: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, accessed 15 March 2006.

About the Author

H. D. P. Envall completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Japanese and Political Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 1999. He first studied in Japan as an exchange student at Sophia University in 1997 and, in 2004, completed an MA in the Graduate School of Law at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo. In 2005, he completed a PhD in the Department of Political Science, University of Melbourne. David is currently an associate lecturer in Politics at La Trobe University, Australia, and the book reviews editor at ejcjs. His research interests include Japan's G7 diplomacy as well as its defence and alliance politics.

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