Earthquakes occur daily in Japan— according to the US Geological Survey, since 2000 there have been 26 earthquakes measuring 6.3 or more on the Richter scale. The Japanese know how to adjust: Many live in wooden homes, and the society picks up the pieces, returning quickly to normalcy.
Now Japan must deal with a political earthquake—the defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for most of the past five decades. To be sure, this is not the first time the LDP has lost: Between 1993 and 1996 Japan saw three non-LDP governments; voters returned to the LDP, as if preferring the dull familiarity of a stable marriage after a brief fling.
But this time it feels different. Japan has been in stasis, and it needs a decisive break from the fossilized politics which has stunted the nation. Its society has transformed; its businesses are globally competitive; its politics has remained frozen in time.
If you go to Akihabara, Ginza or Roppongi in Tokyo, you will find the young exploring technologies, fashion, and pleasures that may one day take the world by storm. Its politics has not reflected that energy. When Nandalal Bose taught Satyajit Ray art at Santiniketan, he told him to think of Fuji Yama—fire within and calm without. Japan’s outward calmness has concealed the ferment bubbling within.
The illusion of calmness has persisted because many, Japanese included, fear what an unrestrained Japan can do. Ian Buruma’s lucid history of Japan’s modernisation, Inventing Japan :1853-1964, had chosen 1853—the year Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its markets—and 1964—the year Japan hosted the Olympics—as its book ends. In the period in between, Japan had succumbed to imperial frenzy, leaving a devastating trail in East Asia.
The sword had to be taken away from the samurai: Japan must not become a military power again. As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, observed with characteristic bluntness, you don’t offer liqueur chocolates to a former alcoholic. So the US stationed troops there, underwriting Japanese defence, while Japanese companies grew big, and the economy steamed ahead. There was a tacit social contract. In an essay in The New York Review of Books, Buruma describes it as “material wealth in exchange for political acquiescence, a virtual one-party state with no more protests, and the dutiful army of salarymen would be taken care of”. The sound currency helped Japan win favours abroad, by making investments and giving aid. Japan became predictable, even dull—and that was fine, because the fire within Japan, if unleashed, could singe others.
As long as the economy did well, the LDP’s monopoly survived, even as it became corrupt, with factions trading favours, and power passing from one generation to the next. Outgoing prime minister (PM) Taro Aso is the grandson of former PM Shigeru Yoshida; recent PM Shinzo Abe is the son of Shintaro Abe, a former foreign minister, and a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, another former PM. (The Japan Democratic Party’s likely PM Yukio Hatoyama is also the son of a former PM.)
The LDP worked closely with the permanent government—the bureaucracy —and rewarded the constituency that kept returning it to power—the conservative, sparsely populated rural areas, where LDP heroes could do no wrong. Former premier Kakuei Tanaka left office in disgrace after a corruption scandal in the 1970s, but when one morning in the 1990s I got off the shinkansen (bullet train) at Urasa in Niigata (Tanaka’s turf), his statue greeted me.
That magic, of keeping constituents happy, has been failing. Bill Emmott had predicted the economy’s eventual unravelling in his seminal book, The Sun Also Sets (1991). Today we see the consequences: joblessness, deflation, and malaise. Men, too proud to admit unemployment, pretend they are still working; women have turned to flexible contracts of the kind Pasona group presciently began to offer in the 1990s.
To explain the malaise, Buruma, the keenest observer of Japan, picks Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film, Tokyo Sonata (2008). Here, the protagonist loses his job, a loss of face he can’t handle. He conceals it from his family, going to “work” daily, passing his time at park benches—like Mr Phillips in John Lanchester’s eponymous novel set in London—while his family disintegrates. When the protagonist asks his boss why he is being let go, the boss asks: What skills do you bring to the table? Salarymen—like LDP MPs—never faced such questions.
But the LDP knew that change was coming. Its leaders could have sought inspiration from a film by another Kurosawa—the master himself, Akira (no relation). Ikiru (1952) showed a bureaucrat in a listless municipal job. He discovers he is dying of cancer; he decides to build a playground.
Instead of building for tomorrow, the LDP remained stuck in yesterday. Now, it must bow and repent.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org