Click here to read the essays by this event's participants, in Special Report #117.
In any discussion on the need for Japanese economic reform, someone almost always comments, "The problem is actually lack of political will." As Japan drifts into the twelfth year of its "lost decade," why does Japanese politics remain a stalemate? The four experts on the panel avoided cultural explanations and challenged conventional wisdom as they speculated on what structural barriers prevent the Japanese government from tackling its difficult economic problems.

One common explanation for Japan's sluggishness is that there is no viable opposition. But according to Shinichi Kitaoka, this is a misleading view—in fact, intense opposition does exist, but it takes place within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP factions are parties in all but name—they are large, formally organized, and ideologically consistent. Japan's problem is too many parties. Kitaoka suggested that 1) the electoral reform of several years ago is gradually improving the situation by uniting parties (this development is evident in foreign affairs) and 2) assuming Koizumi wins the next election, he will be popular enough to force through political reform.

Junko Kato discussed the bureaucracy, which wields considerable power in such a fractured system. Many call the current system "pathological" and argue that its characteristics—homogeneity of background and education, extreme organizational loyalty, on-the-job training—should be scrapped in favor of a more flexible and politically dominated U.S.-type system. Kato argued that radical reform (as was done in 2000 by reducing the number of ministries from 22 to 12) only succeeds in destroying the morale of existing bureaucrats. The most important thing to do is increase the competence of politicians (give them more staff, for example) before making them dominant over the bureaucrats.

Robert Pekkanen discussed the effects of the 1993 electoral reforms. He disagreed with Kitaoka by arguing that the system has not significantly changed. For example, switching to a "first past the post" system has not led to sharper policy distinctions among parties. Campaigns are still based largely on personality, and koenkai---personal networks that are mobilized to win elections---have not disappeared as many analysts predicted they would. Therefore, Pekkanen suggested that even more reform is necessary.

Robert Hathaway, Asia Program Director, 691-4012
Drafted by Amy McCreedy