Practical politics, symbolic conservatism, and the decline of the LDP

The LDP’s presidential race is in full swing, and Tanigaki Sadakazu appears to be in command of the race against Kono Taro and Nishimura Yasutoshi. Polls of LDP Diet members suggest that Tanigaki enjoys the support of roughly a majority of the party’s 199 Diet members; Yomiuri has Tanigaki with 102 votes, Nishimura with 30, with Kono with 28, with 39 members undecided. Tanigaki has secured the support of the party establishment, which, given the LDP’s demographics after the general election, could well be the path to victory. Given these figures, it is little surprise that Kono is pinning his hopes on winning overwhelming in voting in the prefectural chapters, which will cast 300 votes in the election.

At the same time, the LDP is also trying to figure out what is to blame for the party’s devastating defeat last month. One Sankei article notes that one group that studied the election found that the LDP’s notorious web commercials — especially this one — were well viewed, but were poorly received by those who viewed them, prompting Sankei to ask whether the Internet ads are to blame. The survey was conducted online and had a small sample size, so the idea that the LDP somehow lost because of its Internet ads is absurd (although I’m willing to buy the argument that negative LDP ads combined with the DPJ’s positive campaigning may have mattered on the margins). The point is there is no shortage of explanations for why the LDP lost this general election, and undoubtedly many of them have some validity.

One factor that I find worth exploring is the role played by the LDP’s virtual abandonment of bread-and-butter issues — pensions especially — to the DPJ. The 2007 upper house election and the 2009 general election were contested over issues on which the DPJ’s positions were overwhelmingly favored by the voting public, insofar as the elections can be said to have been concerned with policy. While voters may have had their doubts about various DPJ proposals, the DPJ managed to tell a convincing story of how LDP rule had faltered and why “regime change” was necessary. Central to this story is the LDP’s yielding livelihood issues in the years since the end of the bubble economy.

In short, the LDP did not have to lose, at least in the manner in which it lost this year. A critical factor in explaining the LDP’s collapse is, I believe, a shift in how the LDP presented itself to the public. Despite having been the party that presided over the economic miracle and guided Japan — with the bureaucracy, of course — to a position of global economic prowess while maintaining social equality, by 2007 the LDP had abandoned this legacy.

Perhaps it is unusual to speak of the LDP’s having “abandoned” its legacy. After all, perhaps the LDP didn’t abandon its legacy. Perhaps it was punished not for having bad intentions but simply for policy failures: the economy stagnated, LDP-led governments tried to stimulate the economy, failed, and in the process tied the government’s hands with tight budgets, leading to austerity that were invariably felt in different forms throughout Japan and reinforced the image of a Japan that had become less equal and more harsh for many Japanese. (Perhaps the export-led boom during the earlier part of the decade was a poisoned chalice for the LDP, in that it kept urban areas buoyant, thereby reinforcing the image of a profound gap between center and periphery.)

But I would argue that it was not simply a matter of the LDP’s having tried certain policies and failed. The idea I’m toying with considers how the LDP became a different party during the 1990s, culminating in the government of Abe Shinzo, which, given the support Abe had upon taking office and the manner in which he frittered it away (destroying himself in the process). From the early 1990s until 2007 the LDP shifted not just from center to right, but from pragmatism to idealism. It shifted from the realm of practical politics — which has as its fundamental concern the livelihoods of the Japanese people — into the realm of symbolic politics, Japan’s cultural war.

Before I continue, I want to discuss this division between practical politics and symbolic politics. Foreign observers have long puzzled over how to think about ideological divisions in Japanese politics. It is hard to deny that ideological divisions between left and right were an important feature of postwar Japanese politics, especially in the early postwar decades. This division was rooted in the culture war that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II. Not unlike Germany after World War I and the United States after Vietnam, Japanese intellectuals and politicians were polarized largely along lines related to the war. The idealistic left saw Imperial Japan and war as the great enemy and sought to prevent Japan’s return to the dark valley. Because the US had “reversed course,” because it had permitted the return of so many officials associated with Imperial Japan when it realized that Japan was needed as an ally during the cold war, and because in the eyes of the Japanese left US actions against the Soviet Union (with whom the left sympathized, to say the least) risked plunging Japan and the world into conflagration, opposition to the US-Japan alliance became a cultural question as much as it was a political question. Kishi Nobusuke expressed surprise at the opposition to his revised alliance treaty in 1960, which was, after all, a better deal for Japan than the 1951 treaty: but the forceful opposition that drove Kishi from power was responding less to the content of the treaty than the fact that Japan, under the leadership of the former Class A war criminal Kishi Nobusuke (whose ideas about the Japanese economy during the war amounted to Japanese-style national socialism), was in danger of returning to its wartime identity as a participant in power politics and active ally of the “imperialist” US. The treaty protests were, after all, preceded by successful left-wing demonstrations against the 1958 revision of the Police Execution of Duties Law, which the left feared signified a return to wartime repression.

At its founding, the LDP was a party ready to push back against the left in Japan’s culture war. Recall that in its founding charter the LDP declared that one of the party’s fundamental goals was the restoration of Japanese independence, which for Kishi and others meant in practice revision of the 1951 security treaty and revision of the 1947 constitution. It also meant an unabashed admiration for prewar and wartime Japanese society, in which citizens did their duty in service of the Emperor, based on a mystical bound between sovereign and people. As postwar political theorist Maruyama Masao wrote in his essay “Theory and Psychology of Ultra-Nationalism:”

Japanese nationalism…was never prepared to accept a merely formal basis of validity. The reason that the actions of the nation cannot be judged by any moral standard that supersedes the nation is not that the Emperor creates norms from scratch (like the sovereign in Hobbes’s Leviathan) but that absolute values are embodied in the person of the Emperor himself, who is regarded as ‘the eternal culmination of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful throughout all ages and in all places.’

This is an idea with staying power for the idealistic right: Abe, after all, spoke of the emperor as the loom that has weaved the tapestry of Japan (mentioned here), and the right obviously continues to attribute tremendous importance to Imperial family and its “unbroken line” of sovereigns.

The idealistic right was concerned not only with the position of the emperor in the postwar system: the right-wing position in the culture war addressed larger questions of Japanese nationhood and Japan’s place in the world. The difference between left and right was not internationalism versus nationalism, but the left’s neutralist, pacifist nationalism versus the right’s great-power nationalism. The idealistic right effectively inherited Meiji-era Social Darwinism that saw the world as a dangerous place in which the “fittest” nations were those capable of besting others in conflict. That Japan was virtually occupied after 1951 — given the domestic role the initial alliance treaty accorded to US forces in Japan — and that Japan’s ability to compete with other nations was constrained by the “pacifist” constitution drafted by the American occupiers were terrible affronts to the idealistic right, and in practical terms they prevented Japan from contributing fully to the struggle against communism (unyielding anti-communism being another inheritance from the prewar right, despite Kishi’s flirtations with leftism while at Tokyo University — indeed, despite his being branded a leftist by his enemies when he was a senior official at the ministry of commerce and industry during the 1930s). The result was that security policy was as much a matter of symbolism for both the left and the right as it was a matter of practical policy concerning budgets, troop strength, procurement, and the like. The Self-Defense Forces, Article IX, and the US-Japan alliance are the prizes over which the idealistic left and right have fought until the present day, in addition to the Imperial family and the education system, the latter with particular resonance as the left sought to prevent the right from rebuilding the education system along cherished prewar principles.

Earlier I compared Japan’s symbolic culture war with interwar Germany and post-Vietnam America. There appears to be something about losing wars that results in a continuation of the lost war by other means among domestic political actors as they struggle to rebuild after defeat. Part of rebuilding the shattered nation involves, of course, assigning blame for the defeat and taking steps to ensure that the disaster would not be repeated again. (Perhaps it is controversial for me to include America on this list, but I think when one looks at what American conservatives say about the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and about what happened on the home front during the war, indeed their propensity to blame the 1960s for much of what is wrong with the US today, I think post-Vietnam American politics may follow the same lines as the other examples.)

But the culture war was by no means the whole of Japanese politics. Indeed, the interesting story in the 1960 struggle over the US-Japan security treaty was how the LDP ultimately won the struggle. The LDP was by no means united in sharing Kishi’s revisionist and idealistic vision for Japan. While the first principle in the LDP’s policy platform in 1955 stressed “the people’s morality” and “education reform” and the second stressed reforming the electoral system and the national administration (the politicians have been at this for a while), the third and fourth goals were “economic independence” and “creating a welfare state.” There were plenty of LDP members in 1960 who could be called — to borrow the slogan from the DPJ — the seikatsu dai-ichi right, conservatives who stressed the importance of economic reconstruction and egalitarianism as the best weapon against communism. Yoshida Shigeru looms large over this school of thought and it was, of course, Yoshida’s protege Ikeda Hayato who succeeded Kishi, promulgated his “income doubling” plan, and stressed a “low posture” in governing. The Yoshida school, and later Tanaka Kakuei and his followers were grounded in practical politics: symbolic politics and the culture war with the left continued to rage, but was pushed to the margins of the party. The Socialist Party, rather than adapt to an LDP that had shifted from symbolic to practical politics, continued to wage its quixotic battle against the idealistic wing of the LDP, which was the “anti-mainstream” from Kishi’s ouster until the end of the cold war. As such, the party system that emerged from 1960 saw the bulk of the LDP monopolizing practical, livelihood politics, which enabled it to co-opt ideas from the opposition when challenged (environmental issues in the late 1960s, for example). While corruption scandals weakened the strength of the LDP as a whole, the mainstream, practical LDP remained in control of the party and developed a system that enabled it to cooperate with the JSP — behind the veil of the Kokutai system — and the centrist, urban-based small parties that emerged after 1960.

The problem, however, is that by marginalizing the idealistic right within the LDP, Japan’s culture war was essentially frozen in place. The idealistic right never had to modify its views, and thus even today conservatives makes many of the same arguments that their antecedents made in the 1950s and 1960s. Hailing back to the LDP charter, Abe’s first “accomplishment” was revising the occupation-era basic education law. More significantly, Abe saw constitution revision — grandfather Kishi’s unfinished business — as his government’s raison d’etre and the basis upon which the LDP would contest the 2007 upper house election. Even the changes in security policy were as much about symbolism as they were about enhancing Japan’s defense capabilities. The defense agency was upgraded to a ministry without fixing the agency’s structural problems. Building a Japanese-style national security council, a plan abandoned when Abe left office, seemed more like an effort to acquire the trappings of a twenty-first-century great power than a fundamental transformation of Japanese security policy making. Revising the restriction on the exercise of collective self-defense could have had practical implications but was left unrealized. Meanwhile the defense budget continued to shrink and the defense procurement process — exposed as entirely rotten by the Moriya scandal that blew open just as Abe left office — went unreformed, these being two critical goals that a practical conservative like Ishiba Shigeru desperately wants to reverse in order to enhance Japan’s ability to defend itself.

(Ishiba is an interesting figure. He seems to have little patience with the symbolic agenda. A defense policy wonk, he wants to make policies that strengthen Japan’s defense, not symbolic measures that accord with some vision of how Japan ought to be. Little wonder that Ishiba criticized Abe after the 2007 upper house election, and that he wound up as defense minister in the eminently practical cabinet of Fukuda Yasuo.)

What changed since the early 1990s is familiar enough. I have previously discussed the monograph by Richard Samuels (my mentor at MIT) and J. Patrick Boyd, my colleague, in which they tell the story of how the LDP’s pragmatists and the pacifist left worked together to resist the idealist, revisionist right on the question of constitution revision. They argue that from the early 1990s, the LDP became a more revisionist party as the practical wing of the party was weakened as the result of reforms that weakened faction heads and other party organs and strengthened the party leadership. Their argument is essentially that the LDP’s old, practical mainstream was reformed to the point of being marginalized within the party, which may be true, but I wonder whether the practical conservatives also suffered as a result of their having been the ones in charge of the party as the economy foundered and as the bureaucrats — their allies in power — became deeply unpopular following a series of scandals. Indeed, it is ironic that Hashimoto Ryutaro, the heir of the mainstream tradition, was the architect of reforms that contributed to the rise of the idealists.

How did the rise of the revisionists contribute to the LDP’s defeat last month? Not surprisingly I see the Abe government as the crucial turning point. It was not necessarily Koizumi Junichiro who doomed the party. Had Koizumi passed power to a successor with greater ties with practical conservatism, a successor who would have sought to reconcile structural reform with the growing perception of inequality on the part of the public, the LDP might have been able to hold out for longer against Ozawa Ichiro’s DPJ, which successfully seized the “practical” mantle abandoned by the LDP as it embraced the symbolic. Instead the rise of the revisionists made it possible for Abe, virtually a living fossil of the pre-Ikeda LDP, to succeed Koizumi despite having virtually no experience in governing. Abe became prime minister despite having won only five elections and having never held ministerial positions other than a few years as a deputy chief cabinet secretary and less than a year as the chief cabinet secretary during Koizumi’s victory lap. Under the old LDP system, Abe would never have become prime minister when he did (certainly a commendable feature of the old system).

The result was that at precisely the moment that the inequality problem became a grave public concern and the public lost confidence in the pensions system, the LDP was led by a politician who, indifferent to economic policy and the livelihoods of the people he governed, did little more than repeat Koizumi’s slogans, while devoting his attention to the planks of a fifty-year-old party agenda. It was also at roughly the same moment that control of the DPJ passed to Ozawa, who saw that as the LDP moved in the direction of symbolic politics voters who had reliably supported the LDP when it was controlled by the practical right were increasingly disenchanted with the party and open to the possibility of voting for the DPJ. Ozawa’s DPJ effectively grabbed the mantle of the old LDP mainstream. Seikatsu dai-ichi, the DPJ’s slogan in the 2007 upper house election, could have served well as the slogan of the LDP from Ikeda onwards. I do not think it was coincidental that when I visited Kagawa last month, the granddaughter of Ohira Masayoshi, one in the line of practical conservative prime ministers, was campaigning on behalf of a DPJ candidate.

The DPJ as a party, especially under Ozawa, has studiously avoided symbolic politics and stayed focus on improving the lives of the people. By contrast, the LDP’s campaign last month was largely symbolic: warnings about the influence of Nikkyoso, the “radical” teachers’ union, the DPJ’s disrespect for the flag, the party’s “leftism” and inability to defend Japan, and so forth. Aso fully embraced the culture war as he campaigned around the country and warned of the dangers of DPJ rule. Of course, the dangers voters were concerned about were dangers to their jobs and their pensions.

To return to power — or, at the very least, viability — the LDP needs to reorient itself to practical politics. Tanigaki, a heir of the old mainstream, may be able to take some steps in this direction, but the idealist conservatives remain powerful, not least because Abe, Aso, and others will continue to be active in debates over the party’s future. Some party leaders will no doubt continue to advocate a return to Abe’s agenda of “leaving behind the postwar system” (the system built by the LDP mainstream, incidentally). It may be that the idealists are outnumbered, and that should Tanigaki win the LDP might once again focus primarily on livelihood concerns and develop a sophisticated and detailed critique of the DPJ’s agenda while offering its own proposals. If so, so much the better for Japan: two large parties debating how best to ensure economic security and opportunity for the Japanese people, with atavistic culture warriors confined to the margins of the political system.

7 thoughts on “Practical politics, symbolic conservatism, and the decline of the LDP

  1. Jin

    How do you interpret the failure of Fukuda Yasuo cabinet in this context?Also, how do you assess Koizumi years? he adopted idealist causes which were different from Abe, but his stance helped Abe rise to power, right? Maybe his causes could be interpreted as a bridge between conventional and idealist right stance, since they had both idealism and \”seikatsu-daiichi\” stance?


  2. Anand Rao

    Tobias, good essay as always. Another thing to keep in mind about Abe Shinzo is that he exploited the North Korean abductee issue for everything it was worth the moment it exploded on the scene 7 years ago. The abductee issue definitely pushed the LDP in the direction that you mentioned and enabled the clearly unqualified Abe to become PM after Koizumi.


  3. Anonymous

    Do you think that the inequalities that are damaging Japanese society can really be fixed without addressing the ideological issues? Can the DPJ stay relevant in the long term if it simply co-opts the practical politics of the LDP, and does not delve into symbolic politics enough to build a coalition that is cohered on something more than the LDP having become excessively ideological?


  4. I see a silver lining in the intransigence of the ideological wing of the LDP. Namely, there seems to be little danger that the LDP will simply break up or fade into permanent opposition status, leaving the DPJ to become the new eternally-ruling party of pork-n-patronage.


  5. Anonymous

    I think the biggest problem that faces Japan, and probably the main reason for the rise of the DJP, is that there has not been a \”civil rebellion\” that is mirrored in the West. No civil uprising and major political changes to the extent that everything changes, and quickly!Look how the French got fed up with their \”leaders\”…revolution.Same with the English, Spanish, (yup even Americans too) and even more recent history, the Philippines. When the people are suitably fed up and vexed, a movement of thought becomes empowerment and a major social chnage occurs. The same almost occurred in Tehran, and still trying…despite the dangers. It is the only way real social and permanent change occurs nation wide.The \”we\” Japan has always been \”we of those in power and with money and influence, shall remain so and no chnage, because we know we are looking after you\”…not \”we\” everyone of Japan. The lack of social programs when Japan was making more money than it could print, is evidence of this..where has the money gone…no prizes for guessing!The DJP are the closest the average Japanese citizen has to a \”rebellion/revolution\” to make social changes for them, for the individual, rather than the incumbent Govt. and its band of crony corrupt companies, of the past 50 years that clearly has not benefited the average citizen..As slight digression, but valid. This is epitomised when i bought my house. The \”contract\” that was drawn up, is meaningless. It is regarded as a private transaction, as such anyone can write it and anyone can ignore it with impunity. Laws only exits for \”business\” not private citizens. This is the \”we\” Japan that everyone is fed up with….


  6. Tobias,Nice work. I have one thought that comes from the study of American campaigns, especially my colleague Lynn Vavreck's excellent new book (The Message Matters). That is, \”pragmatic politics\” is a viable approach for a ruling party in good times or an opposition party in bad times. After nearly 20 years of economic malaise and serial bouts of incompetence, the LDP could no longer convince voters that it was the vehicle for recovery and reform. The short-term costs, such as rising unemployment and inequality, also hurt the party (hey, things are even worse now!) and Abe's and Aso's backsliding on liberalization smelled like incompetence (does the LDP even know what it's doing?). Once the DPJ figured out that the economy and \”pragmatic politics\” were a winner for an insurgent (opposition) party, the LDP didn't really have a leg to stand on. Incumbents in bad times and oppositions in good times really can't do much. Their \”pragmatic politics\” argument amounts to \”But things could be even better/worse.\” So, they try to change the subject, and it almost never works.


  7. Anonymous

    Great historical assessment of the evolution of thinking and policy under the LDP in the post WWII era. It is clear that the triumph of the pragmatic wing of the LDP starting with Ikeda Hayato was the right move for the LDP and Japan in the formation of a pragmatic solution to the policy dilemma of the first few decades. Japanese school children are brought up and familiar with the resource scarcity and vulnerability of their existence as a nation. But the right wing ideologues as you describe tried to revive the idea that Japan could continue to believe in their great power destiny. The victory of the pragmatic wing of the LDP was therefore closely compatibile with the core beliefs of the public. That explains why the nation went along with the pragmatic wing for such a long time. Realism is necessary for middle level powers as you suggest in this historical essay.


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