14.05.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

How will Reiwa Era in Japan Begin?


On 30 April 2019, the former Emperor of Japan, Akihito, abdicated, and the next day his 59-year-old son, Naruhito, took over the Chrysanthemum Throne. This signaled the end of the 30-year period in Japan’s modern history, known as “peace everywhere” (or Heisei), and the start of the new epoch, denoted by two Kanji characters, which, on transcription into the Latin alphabet, can be depicted by the letters Reiwa.

We are not going to focus on explanations of the far from simple meaning behind the previously mentioned characters (taken from ancient Sino-Japanese poetry), which were proposed by the Prime Minister of the nation, Shinzō Abe. We would like to reiterate once again that from the perspective of current political issues, these characters are not of any interest. It is important to remind our readers that the era, when the new Emperor’s grandfather reigned, was called “Enlightened Harmony”. But during this period Japan became a participant (and one of the biggest losers) in the largest military confrontation in several centuries.

It is simply an ancient tradition in Japan to delineate reigns of various emperors using different names. The fact that Naruhito succeeded his father at a time, when Japan needs to resolve new challenges facing the country within and outside of its borders, is a far more interesting subject for discussion. Earlier, we reported on these issues briefly, but, naturally, we were unable to cover every problem that deserves attention.

As the new era dawned on 1 May, Mainichi Shimbun, a reputable newspaper, shared its opinion that “Japan must now return to the start point” of the 30-year-old reforms, initiated by the Liberal Democratic Party (which ruled then and now). Their outline was released in May 1989, i.e. at the very beginning of the Heisei period (“peace everywhere”).

The newspaper uses the following statement from the previously mentioned document, prepared by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to illustrate its point “Japanese politics is standing at a major crossroads. The public’s distrust in politics has peaked following the Recruit scandal [Author’s note: a corruption scandal that had happened a year earlier], and we face a serious situation never before seen in the history of Japanese parliamentary politics”.

Notably, the “history of the Japanese parliamentary system” did not begin in 1947, when the new Constitution was adopted, but instead in 1889. In other words, the quotation used by the newspaper included very strong words that described the situation in Japan at the time.

The author would like to add that the critical nature of the situation stemmed not only from the well-known and sudden slowdown of economic growth in Japan by 1989, but also from a crisis within the nation’s political system. Mainichi Shimbun has focused its attention, first and foremost, on this political aspect of the crisis, which happened 30 years ago, as it already cautiously scrutinizes the ongoing political processes.

It is impossible to fully describe all the internal and external reasons behind the crisis in Japan at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s in one article. For those who are interested in all these important details, we could recommend a report-presentation, published on the nippon-history website, about 1. Fundamental Restructuring of the Japanese Economy (1974-1993) and 2. The search for a political balance in Japan’s internal political landscape, and development of political system in 1993-2009.

The report was probably compiled for students, i.e. future experts on Japan. It is brief (consisting of 75 slides), but still includes all the important details. The presentation describes (in plain terms) the key stages of and reasons for the transformation of the Japanese economy (in ruins after the most recent war) in the mid-1980s into a model economy to be emulated by everyone else.

The report also talks about issues that arose at the time in the economic and political spheres, and measures taken by the LDP to resolve them. The document includes information about the main stages that the Japanese political system went through up until 2010, i.e. two years before the key idea behind the political reforms, undertaken at the cusp of the 1980s, was challenged.

This concept was a logical response to the realization that there were clear signs of stagnation within Japan’s closed political landscape, almost completely dominated by the LDP until the mid-1990s. The start of the Heisei era was marked by phenomenal successes and, ultimately, the first signs of stagnation within the Japanese “organism”, stemming from, essentially, a one-party system of governance that had been established by the end of 1950s in the nation.

Hence, the logical next step was to rid the “organism” of these “seeds of stagnation”. But by what means? Japan witnessed as its allies started creating competitive political environments, and then rested on the sidelines, while observing how “invisible hands” of these political landscapes rid themselves of the seeds without any assistance.

We should, however, highlight that there already was true (and fairly tough) political rivalry in Japan. We are referring to the first post-war decade, when ideas, in one way or the other associated with the Soviet Union, were very popular in Japan (and the rest of the world). However, they sustained heavy blows in their homeland. At first, during the period of deconstruction of the cult of personality, and then again at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.

Hence, in 1998, Japanese reformers had no other choice but to build the political system on “the foundation”, created by LDP’s competitor, the Social Democratic Party. After that, political rivalry began in earnest.

In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan won convincingly in the general election for the lower house of the National Diet, and its leader Yukio Hatoyama became the nation’s Prime Minister. Half a year later, after accusations of corruption, he was forced to step down. But the Democratic Party of Japan remained in power until the end of 2012, when it suffered a devastating loss during early elections to appoint Members of Diet to the House of Representatives (the lower house). The LDP won triumphantly in this general election. Soon after, the Democratic Party of Japan was dissolved and its members joined other parties that oppose the LDP.

We can highlight several reasons as to why political reformers at the start of the Heisei era were unsuccessful. From the author’s point of view, the key issue was the fact that the Democratic Party of Japan was artificially pieced together out of completely disparate components.

Hence, it took only a few serious incidents to cause this party to begin falling apart “at the seams”. The first of these cataclysms occurred on 11 March 2011 at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. All the negativity, associated with this incident, cast a long shadow on the Democratic Party of Japan in power at that time. Secondly, from 2010 to 2012, the highly unpopular (but at the same time inevitable) issue of raising the consumption tax arose.

The third factor that contributed to the demise of the Democratic Party of Japan had to do with LDP’s risky decision to re-appoint Shinzō Abe as its head in the autumn of 2012. Today, this leader is viewed as one of the most important political figures in Japan of the post-war period.

We would like to remind our readers that Shinzō Abe first became the Prime Minister as far back as autumn 2006, when he was only 48 years old. However, a year later, after a series of scandals involving some politicians from the administration, he announced his decision to step down from the post. It is rumored that Shinzō Abe suffered from a nervous breakdown after these failures, which did not stem from his actions, and that he needed to undergo psychological treatment to restore his mental health.

In any case, the political career of this (formerly) rising political figure appeared to be over by common consensus. Hence, his re-appointment to the post of President of the LDP at a crucial time before the upcoming general election (in December 2012) was viewed by many as a desperate move, made by the leadership of the party.

The decision turned out to be the right one. And since then, the LDP has enjoyed success in every nation-wide election of any type that has taken place in Japan. But there have been some “local losses”. For example, the LDP was not successful in the 2016 Tokyo gubernatorial election or, a year later, in the 2017 Tokyo prefectural election.

Still, it seems as if these local losses serve only to spur both Shinzō Abe and the LDP (de facto, a sole political force in modern Japan) on. Seemingly, this is what is giving Mainichi Shimbun pause, as the newspaper staff see parallels between the current situation and the one at the cusp of the 1980s, which required reforms of the national political landscape as we mentioned before.

The serious nature of the external and internal challenges Japan is facing 30 years on means that these issues have to be discussed at all levels of the government. Hence, it is crucial that the ruling party has rivals of equal stature. But the newspaper does not see such competitors among the currently divided ranks of the opposition.

We will see, to a certain extent, whether the newspaper staff are right or not, once the Japanese House of Councilors (upper house) election takes place in July of this year. As we highlighted earlier, whenever opposition forces transform from disparate factions into (at least in part) a “unified” whole, they succeed.

Among problems that affect not only the internal political life of Japan but that of its neighboring nations, the issue of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution (renouncing armed conflict) and its fate takes precedence. Very recently, on 3 May of this year, “as the country marked the 72nd anniversary of the supreme law coming into force”, Shinzō Abe once again highlighted the need to “seek constitutional amendment” to Article 9.

Whether the Reiwa era starts with this momentous occasion or not will largely depend on the answer to another question “Has Japan been able to create a truly competitive environment in its political system, which it aspired to 30 years earlier?”.

Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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