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End of the Cold War in Japan

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Some 20 years ago, Europe celebrated the end of the Cold War on its continent with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This was in many ways the real beginning of modern globalization, as the former communist countries joined the global economy. 

While this historic event is still reverberating across the world, the Cold War is unwinding only slowly in East Asia.  North Korea and Taiwan are major problem spots.  There is still no Russo-Japanese peace treaty.  The US has many bilateral alliances throughout the region.  And Japan is still ruled by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a relic of the Cold War order established in Japan by the US in its capacity as World War 2 victor.

In Japan's upcoming national election, the LDP is very likely to lose power to the Democratic Party of Japan.  This may accelerate the long period of change and modernisation underway in Japan.

The shortcomings in Japan's national governance are well documented:

(i)  Apart from a brief period in the mid-1990s, Japan has been ruled by the LDP for over 60 years.  It has been essentially a one-party state until the recent competition from the DPJ.  As the recent election of Barack Obama demonstrates, one of the great benefits of democracy is that it allows change, and peaceful change at that.

(ii) The LDP is dominated by factions, which means that there is little meaningful political leadership, except for the leadership of Prime Minister Koizumi a few years back.  This is a carry-over from the pre-opening Edo period, where central power was weak, and peace was achieved by checks and balances from the rivalries between the different feudal lords ("daimyo" in Japanese).

(iii)  Within the LDP, prime ministers are usually chosen on the basis of seniority, not competence, and at any point in time, other factions are trying their best to undermine the prime minister -- not a difficult thing to do, as too many prime ministers, like the current Taro Aso are idiosyncratic and eccentric. 

(iv) Dynasty politics mean that a large proportion of politicians are descendants of politicians, some of whom even inherit their parliamentary seats from parents, like the daughter of former Prime Minister Obuchi.  (Current Prime Minister Taro Aso is the grandson of Japan's famous post war Prime Ministers Shigeru Yoshida.)   This is just one aspect of Japan's oligarchic society which leaves little room for fresh blood to rise up.

(v) The public service, especially the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, wield immense power, virtually governing in the place of politicians. 

(vi)  The civil service is also characterised by silos ("tate-wari" in Japanese), another form of factionalism, which means that there is little co-ordination and overall strategy.  Indeed, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is only a minor player in the nation's foreign affairs, as each ministry runs its own foreign policy.  When several ministries are in involved in an international policy issue, they spend more time defending their own ministry's turf against each other than they spend defending their national interests against other countries.

(vii) Pork barrel politics, which exist everywhere, are unsurpassed in Japan.  This has been exacerbated over the last two lost decades as government stimulus packages have covered the country in infrastructure white elephants.

(viii) Close connections between goverrnment, business and ministries mean that the whole political system is fundamentally corrupt.  Tendering for government expenditure projects is often phony with projects being allocated among all the friendly elements of the business sector.

How did we end up in this situation?  Early in the US post World War 2 occupation of Japan, the Americans could see that the main challenge of the future was communism and the Cold War. 

Thus, the American priority for Japan was quickly rebuilding the country to serve its interests in struggling with the Soviet bloc.  The LDP received favoured treatment to ensure its dominance over the Socialist and Communist parties.  While the US offered Japan open markets, it did not insist on Japan opening its markets.  Japan increased bureaucratic interventions and mercantilist policies.  The former Ministry of War transformed itself into the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.  Pre-war leaders were allowed to resume national leadership.  In short, Japan got a very easy ride because of the Cold War.

This system worked for a long while, as it generated miracle economic growth, making Japan a strong democratic ally in Asia and the world's second biggest economic power.  By the 1980s, the US had grown impatient with Japan's closed markets.  And with the end of Cold War, there was less need for this ally against communism, especially as China progressively rose in strength and the US developed what is now a symbiotic relationship with China.

Further cracks in Japan's governance appeared at the same time as the end of the Cold War, with the onset of a massive financial crisis, which took more than a decade to solve.  But there was more than that.  The corrupt workings of Japan's politics came more into the open, contributing to a massive loss in credibility for the political/policy class.  This was exacerbated a couple of years ago as the government mishandled a scandal in which the social security agency was found to have lost tens of millions of pension records.  The rise of the Internet also meant that it was more difficult to hide everything.

The Premiership of Koizumi seemed to herald a new era of governance, coinciding as it did with an economic recovery driven by exports to China.  But Koizumi's departure from the political scene has been followed by three traditional Japanese prime ministers in the space of a few years, prime ministers who have proved both incompetent and unpopular.

If the DPJ wins, it will not be a revolution.  Its politicians are cut from the same cloth as those from the LPD, and many are LPD defectors.

But hopefully it will be the beginning of real modernisation in Japanese politics and the end of the Cold War in Japan.  A real revolution, which is more than necessary, will require a revolution in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people.  This will be a long time coming for a people who have been raised to be conservative, obedient and passive, and to have an army-style discipline.


"Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose", by Kenneth B. Pyle, 2007.  A Century Foundation Book. 

"Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation", by Michael Zielenziger, 2007.  Vintage Books.

"Lost Japan", by Alex Kerr, 2009.  Lonely Planet. 

"The Inept Captain of a Sinking Ship: the rise and fall of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, and his Party", by Tobias Harris, July 9, 2009.  Foreign Policy. 

"Observing Japan", Tobias Harris's blog.