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A Lack of Ideology
Local elections show the weakness of Japanese politics

Tokyo's summer is heating up, but Tokyo's politicians are getting scorched.

On July 6th, Tokyo held its elections for City Council, a tally that is widely considered to be a harbinger of national elections to come, including the House of Councilors election coming in summer 1998. After a record low turnout of registered voters, the winner, with 54 percent of the vote, was unsurprising -- the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the party that has been the player in Japanese politics since 1955, won with more than twice the vote of their closest competitor.

But the surprise was the strength of that competitor. The Japan Communist Party (JCP) approached the election with a novel campaign strategy: using really big trucks with really loud speakers. Actually, regular-sized trucks with loud speakers are common in Japanese politics. For weeks before any election, their calls can be heard from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. virtually every day, as vans with campaign posters drive up and down the streets, announcing "Vote for Tanaka! Tanaka! Tanaka! Thank you very much! Tanaka! Tanaka!" This is usually the extent of their pronouncements, however, and any hint of policy is left unspoken.

For a month before the campaign, near many major stations, a JCP official would park his huge truck and deliver a loud and vigorous speech on actual policy issues: stressing how vigorously they opposed the current government's plans to relocate the capital outside Tokyo, how vigorously they opposed the current education system, how vigorously they opposed the big bureaucracy of the current government, and how vigorously they opposed the April hike in the sales tax from 3% to 5%.

Apparently, the irony of a Communist party decrying big government and higher taxes escaped the JCP, but it also escaped the electorate. The voters, fed up with a political climate in which new parties are made and disbanded every day, voted for the JCP in (relative) droves, giving it 26 seats in the Assembly, twice that of the last election. In contrast, newer parties such as the ostensibly liberal Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the ostensibly conservative Shinshinto were big losers, winning only 1 seat between the two of them.

The results of these minor parties point to a huge problem in Japanese government: a lack of ideology in political parties. In the US, Great Britain, France, and many other nations, there are a few major parties, each with a fairly clear-cut overall ideology. Parties on the left tend to favor labor, a more powerful federal government and higher or more progressive taxation, whereas parties on the right tend to favor business, a greater emphasis on localities as opposed to federalism and lower, flatter taxes. Smaller parties, such as various green parties or anti-tax parties, are formed on one or a few specific issues, and tend to side with a major coalition partner in order to press their agenda through that partner. In Japan of late, political parties' agendas usually involve such noble aspirations as not getting arrested.

From 1955 to 1993, one party, the LDP, maintained a plurality in Japanese politics. The principal minority party, the Japan Socialist Party, would form a coalition of opposition with other parties including the Clean Government Party and the JCP. During this period, there was a degree of ideology: the LDP favored economic growth and development, business and a gradual growth of the military whereas the opposition parties opposed military growth and stood for "the little guy" wherever possible.

But in the summer of 1993 this situation changed as various factions within the LDP broke off to form their own parties, including the New Frontier Party and the Democratic Party of Japan. How these parties differed from the LDP was never quite clear; the parties seemed to be formed more around personality than ideology. Furthermore, the 1993 government was a coalition of the LDP, the Socialist Party and occasionally one of the newer parties. The Socialist Party, which held opposition to Japan's military growth as its centerpiece for four decades, did an about-face when the coalition chose a Socialist Prime Minister (Tomiichi Murayama), who promptly announced that the Socialists were apparently just kidding about their opposition, and favored military growth after all.

That left the Communists as virtually the only party with a cohesive ideology. Fortunately for Japan, their ideology consists not of anything remotely Marxist, but simply "we oppose whatever the government says." Their oppositional nature is reflected in their recent vigorous speeches against big government and taxes, a fairly un-Communist point of view. If the LDP suddenly declared that perhaps Karl Marx was right after all, the JCP would promptly issue a declaration that Marx was a blithering idiot, but more so were the LDP politicians supporting him.

The JCP's cohesive ideology (such as it is) is primarily what attracted voters in this recent Tokyo election. Japan's other parties should take note: as of 1993, to win in Japanese politics, one needs more than an effective machine, more than loud trucks, and more than legions of young women in tight dresses handing out tissues at train stations saying "Tanaka! Tanaka! Thank you very much! Tanaka!" Political parties need "the vision thing." They need ideas. They need to convince the nation that Japan has a direction, and they are the ones to lead Japan that way. They need ideology.

They need to turn down the volume, and turn up the vigor.

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