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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 28, 2003)

Reflections on the Hosokawa Administration

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Part of the 1993 Regime Change in Retrospect Series

A decade has ebbed by since Morihiro Hosokawa broke 38-years of Liberal Democratic Party rule. In August 1993, he became the first non-LDP prime minister since December 1954. Today, he is remembered as a highly popular prime minister who greatly contributed to changing the course of Japanese politics. Although he was the leader of a relatively small party in the eight-party coalition that toppled the LDP, his widespread public appeal helped to propel him into the top slot. Another crucial factor in his rise to power was an amazing ability to inspire a sense of change in the ordinary Japanese citizen. Some observers claim that Hosokawa was merely a puppet for more powerful behind-the-scenes figures like Ichiro Ozawa, the then leader of the Japan Renewal Party (Shinseito). However, this is an unfair and highly simplistic interpretation of events. It completely ignores the very real authority Hosokawa could harness due to his immense popularity. During his time in office, he injected huge measures of both passion and vision into the previously stale body of Japanese politics. Even though he retired from political life in May 1998, he remains fully committed to reforming the way the country is governed.

On the subject of his core political motivations, the former prime minister comments, "I sincerely believe that with the right determination you can achieve anything if you try hard enough. To be successful you must have a strong vision of what you actually want to achieve. This is how I felt when I formed the Japan New Party (Nihonshinto). It had a clear goal which was to smash the power of the Liberal Democratic Party. Within a couple of years of its formation that is exactly what it had done and in the process I became prime minister."

Hosokawa was the first of a new more independently minded breed of Japanese leader similar to today's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Traditionally Japanese prime ministers were masters of compromise and vagueness. These qualities were essential for holding together a fractious LDP, but on the world stage they often made Japan seem ineffectual and lacking leadership. Hosokawa attempted to rectify this impression by demonstrating that Japan could offer clear positions on difficult international issues.

As part of his effort to project a more powerful global imagine of Japanese leadership, Hosokawa took an assertive position in his dealing with the then U.S. President Bill Clinton. This new more forceful negotiating style covered a wide range of areas spanning everything from trade issues to Asian social values. He recalls that this new approach often caused difficulty, "When I met President Clinton for discussions in America, he gave me what amounted to a lecture on human rights in China. I politely listened to his analysis. Then I told Clinton that it was one thing to compare American concepts of human rights with those practiced in China, but an entirely different matter to try to impose the same American ideals on China. While American human rights concepts were undoubtedly the best ones for Americans, they were not necessarily the most suitable for the Chinese. Each country must have the right to determine its own particular set of moral and social values. I did not intend to offend with my comments, but Clinton appeared quite taken aback by my observations."

Hosokawa believes that past indecisiveness by Japanese leaders made it difficult to have a dynamic relationship with the United States, "According to Clinton's briefing notes, Japanese prime ministers were meant to be compliant never assertive with opinions of their own. Apparently, my behavior caused confusion. In fact, (Secretary of State) Warren Christopher thought I might have misunderstood what the President had said (about human rights in China). So, he carefully reiterated Clinton's words. I then reaffirmed my viewpoint and both men genuinely seemed stunned. I think their surprise had more to do with a Japanese premier having a firm opinion on a difficult issue and less to do with what I actually said."

Hosokawa used his time in office to vigorously promote the goal of establishing a more European-style political order in which the balance of power can regularly shift between different parties. While this vision has yet to be realized, it remains a key element in political discourse and is a major component in shaping the current political landscape. Today, the electorate has a solid understanding of how political regime change can occur, something that was largely lacking a decade ago. This post-1993 climate frequently influences voting trends and preferences. Today, polls indicate that the vast majority of people prefer coalition governments to the pre-Hosokawa pattern in which power was mainly concentrated in the hands of LDP faction-leaders.

Hosokawa sums up his political philosophy by saying, "I would like to see Japan develop a real two-party political system of the kind seen in the U.S. or Britain. Furthermore, I do not really like the long-standing custom of having a new prime minister every two years or so. I much prefer the British system in which the premier is in office for several years. In order to ensure future success, the opposition parties need to make politics more interesting and relevant to people's lives. People must be aware that it is possible for them to change the way the country is governed. This will raise the public's expectations about lawmakers. We also need to increase the level of passion in political debates. If we do all these things, more people will become interested in politics and more of them will vote. Then Japan really will begin to change for the better"

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