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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 16:03 08/04/2008
Book Review #91: August 4, 2008

"Governing Japan, Divided Politics in a Resurgent Economy" by J.A.A. Stockwin

Reviewed by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Title: Governing Japan, Divided Politics in a Resurgent Economy
Authors: J.A.A. Stockwin
Language: English
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing, Oxford
Date/Time: 2008
Pages: 298 pages including index and tables
ISBN: ISBN-10: 1405154160
ISBN-13: 978-1405154161


Professor Arthur Stockwin, who was until recently Nissan Professor of Modern Japanese Studies in the University of Oxford, is the leading British expert on Japanese politics. His aim in this book has been "to make at least partly comprehensible what to the outside observer (and indeed to many Japanese themselves) often appears to be the great muddle of Japanese politics." His analysis is succinct and he has managed to unravel most of the complexities of Japanese politics.

This is the fourth edition of a work which was first produced in 1975, but many important changes have taken place in the way Japan is governed since the last edition in 1999. Much of the book attempts to assess these changes. This entailed rewriting a large part of the book which now covers the political scene up to the appointment of Mr Yasuo Fukuda as Japanese Prime Minister in 2007.

Stockwin identifies "six broad areas of crisis." These are crises "of political power and accountability," "of political participation and non-involvement in politics," "of the Constitution and political fundamentals", "of liberal versus illiberal ideas," "of ageing society and diverging life-chances," and "of national status and role." He considers that these crises are "all relatively serious, actually or potentially," but Japan as "a major and dynamic economic power" has a basically democratic structure and "the political system has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to overcome crises and achieve reasonably satisfactory solutions to problems."

His analysis which takes due account of economic and social as well as political factors is based on careful research and observation and his judgements are fair and objective. He occasionally allows himself to make some shrewd and pointed comments, for instance that "prime ministers in Japan may be categorized as ranging from weak to moderately effective." At the presentation of his book at Daiwa House in London recently he gave the palm to Shigeru Yoshida, but also praised Hayato Ikeda and Junichiro Koizumi.

After an introduction headed "Why Japan and its Politics Matter" Stockwin gives useful summaries of the historical, social and economic background. He also discusses the attempts at political reform in the 1990s and writes about "the Koizumi Effect" in the twenty first century.

This section is followed by a chapter which tries to answer the question "Who Runs Japan." In this he discusses the theories of writers such as Chalmers Johnson and Karel van Wolferen and notes that while Japan has unique features it is not "uniquely unique."

In commenting on the changing character of elections he explains the differences in the make-up of constituencies following the replacement of multi-member constituencies by a mixture of single member constituencies and an element of proportional representation. Groups supporting individual candidates are not the equivalent of the local branches of political parties found in Britain.

He notes that Japan is "at once dynamic and conservative" and that traditional styles of personal, "pork-barrel" politics remain embedded in the appeal and modus operandi of the LDP." He regards the DPJ as essentially another conservative party, which is critical and fractious but which does not present a real alternative government of a different complexion. Ideology now plays a limited role in Japanese politics and personality still counts more than party. There is little sign that Japan is moving towards a two party system.

In discussing domestic political issues he underlines the problems facing Japan with its declining and ageing population. He is concerned by the "clear trend since the 1990s towards illiberal policies in certain areas" and considers that "central government power is subject to insufficient restraint, whether from opposition parties, Parliament, the judiciary, the media or the voluntary sector…recent governments have shown worrying signs of riding roughshod over opposition including the media."

The chapter on the constitution provides valuable background to the problems involved in amending the constitution and includes the text of the changes proposed by the LDP.

In his chapter on the political implications of foreign and defence issues he reminds readers that Japan's GDP is still more than double that of China and that China is now Japan's second largest trading partner. He believes that the era of "Japan-Passing" in the 1990s is over and that "an innovative Japan brand" has been developing. "If politicians could be persuaded to understand and develop the comparative advantages that Japan now has, as a sophisticated post-industrial society in a globalizing world, the future for the country could be bright indeed." He is thus cautiously optimistic for the future of Japan.

There is much food for thought in this stimulating and informative book. It contains with its numerous tables all the essential facts for understanding the Japanese political scene. It should be read and kept for reference by all foreign diplomats and journalist who have to attempt to interpret Japanese politics.

(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society, UK)

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