The Economist eulogizes the LDP

In its Banyan column, the Economist documents the rise and fall of the Liberal Democratic Party, in effect writing the LDP’s obituary before the party’s death.

For the most part it is a handy review of a fascinating organization, whose history is virtually synonymous with Japan’s postwar political history. Indeed, the genius of the LDP system was that it ensnared everyone: bureaucrats, opposition party politicians, local politicians, the media, interest groups, big business, small business, farmers, and the United States. It was the perfect system for a growing economy tied to an open US economy, for dividing up the pieces of a growing pie. In an era of stagnation, of demographic decline, and of international uncertainty, it is a system that has produced nothing but paralysis. Deprived of resources, the ideal machine for winning elections could well result in a truly historic defeat for the LDP on 30 August.

Some wonder whether Ozawa Ichiro plans to build a new system for perpetual rule around the DPJ, but whatever Ozawa’s desires, it is questionable whether a two-party system, based mostly on single-member districts, could sustain the type of policy-election machine constructed by the LDP over the course of the postwar era. Not only do the problems of the age demand decisive action by a centralized government, but because a two-party system contains the risk of being removed at the next election, the ruling party will want to act decisively to implement its policies before going to the voters, as doing so can both boost its electoral chances and possibly bind a victorious opposition party. A ruling party confident in its electoral prospects can be more patient and can comfortably seek the approval of as many actors as possible when formulating policy.

But while the Economist captures this well, it gets the LDP’s origins wrong, important if one wants to draw parallels to today’s battle between Aso Taro, Yoshida Shigeru’s grandson, and Hatoyama Yukio, Hatoyama Ichiro’s grandson. The LDP emerged not through Yoshida and Hatoyama’s “joining forces” — after all, even the Economist notes that Hatoyama was Yoshida’s “nemesis” — but through maneuvering by Liberal Party members dissatisfied with Yoshida who allied with conservatives in the ironically named Progressive Party to form first the Democratic Party and then, once Yoshida had retired, the Liberal Democratic Party. Tellingly, Yoshida refused to participate in the LDP when it formed in 1955. Completely missing from the Economist’s story of the LDP’s creation is Kishi Nobusuke, Abe Shinzo’s grandfather, who first helped create the Democratic Party and then the LDP itself. A history of the rise of the LDP without Kishi is wholly incomplete; for this piece of the story, I strongly recommend Richard Samuels’s “Kishi and Corruption: An Anatomy of the 1955 System.” [Full disclosure: Samuels is my adviser at MIT.]

The Economist even misattributes the creation of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry to Yoshida, when it was Kishi who was among the founding fathers of MITI.

To quote Chalmers Johnson:

…The struggle of greatest interest to this study occurred between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and MCI [MITI’s predecessor].

Most important in this struggle was the fact that the key politician of the postwar years, Prime Minister Yoshida, was an ex-Foreign Office official. Yoshida has always acknowledged that he did not know much about and was more or less uninterested in economics, but he had quite firm views on certain other matters about which he knew a great deal. Two such issues concerned Japan’s wartime controlled economy and the economic bureaucrats who cooperated with the military. He deeply disliked both of them. According to many accounts, Yoshida “could not distinguish an MCI official from an insect”; and he was determined to put reliable Foreign Office men over what he regarded as the dangerously national socialist MCI bureaucrats. (pp. 176-177)

The point of this episode is that it reveals the many streams that flowed into the LDP and shaped its history up to the present day. Ex-bureaucrats versus party men; Yoshida versus Kishi; mainstream versus anti-mainstream; Tanaka Kakuei versus Fukuda Takeo; and so on through to Koizumi’s struggle against the “opposition forces,” to a certain extent an extension of the “war” between Tanaka and Fukuda.

But the LDP as a system of government was finished years ago — this is Nonaka Naoto’s argument in his Jiminto seiji no owari [The End of LDP Politics], which describes the shape of the LDP system but opens with the roles played by Ozawa and Koizumi in destroying it — and the LDP being led by Aso into what looks like a certain landslide defeat is merely a shell of the party that governed Japan during the cold war.

6 thoughts on “The Economist eulogizes the LDP

  1. This raises an interesting question: after all these years of waiting for the rise of two-party politics in Japan, is it possible that the rise of the DPJ could just mean the continuation of a one-party system with a new party in charge? In other words, is what's left of the LDP going to be enough to hold up its end of a two-party system, or is it just going to keep withering away?


  2. Tony,In its standard dictionary usage, eulogize is definitely the wrong word, but my understanding is that over time eulogy has come to refer to any remarks, good or bad, given on the occasion of someone's death.


  3. Anonymous

    I am wondering what you think of the role of ideology in the formation of the LDP? Seems to me that like the Tory party in the UK, the LDP is primarily non-ideological and committed only to power. Yoshida Shigeru may have had strong ideas about what was wrong with politics in Japan but as you said he refused to participate in the LDP after he left active political life.


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