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The Re-Birth of Japanese Democracy

NEW YORK – Moods and fashions in Japan often arrive like tsunamis, typhoons, or landslides. After more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted power, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been buried in a general election. Once before, in 1993, change came when a coalition of opposition parties briefly took power, but the LDP still held on to a majority in the Diet’s powerful lower house. This time, even that last bastion has fallen. The center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took more than 300 of 480 seats in the lower house. The LDP rules no more.

The world, fixated on China’s rise, was slow to pay attention to this seismic shift in the politics of the globe’s second largest economy. Japanese politics has a dull image in the world’s press. Most editors, when they cover Japan at all, prefer stories about the zaniness of its popular youth culture, or the wilder shores of Japanese sex.

The main reason for this is, of course, that Japanese politics was dull, at least since the mid-1950s, when the LDP consolidated its monopoly on power. Only real aficionados of arcane moves inside the ruling party could be bothered to follow the ups and downs of factional bosses, many of whom were from established political families, and most of whom relied on shady financing. Corruption scandals erupted from time to time, but these, too, were usually part of intra-party maneuvers to rein in politicians who got too big for their britches, or who tried to grab power before their time.

The system worked in a fashion: LDP faction bosses took turns as prime minister, palms were greased by various business interests, more or less capable bureaucrats decided on domestic economic policies, and the United States took care of Japan’s security (and much of its foreign policy, too). Some thought this system would last forever.