Japan’s Unfinished Reformation

TOKYO – Revolutions, it is often claimed, do not happen when people are desperate. They occur in times of rising expectations. Perhaps this is why they so often end in disappointment. Expectations, usually set too high to begin with, fail to be met, resulting in anger, disillusion, and often in acts of terrifying violence.

Japan’s change of government in 2009 – when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) broke the almost uninterrupted monopoly on power held by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1955 – was not a revolution. But, rather like the election of the first black president of the United States, it was fizzing with popular expectations, promising a fundamental shift from the past.

This was even truer of Japan than the US. The DPJ not only put many new faces into power, it was going to change the nature of Japanese politics. At last, Japan would become a fully functioning democracy, and not a de facto one-party state run by bureaucrats.

To judge from the Japanese press, as well as the DPJ’s plunging poll ratings, disillusion has already set in. The permanent bureaucracy proved resistant, and DPJ politicians, unused to power, made mistakes. One of the worst was Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s announcement in June of a consumption-tax hike just before the Upper House elections, which the DPJ went on to lose badly.