Click here to read the essays by this event's participants, in Special Report #117.
Junichiro Koizumi has won a new term as prime minister of Japan. But analysts are becoming increasingly pessimistic about his abilities to reform the Japanese economy. How can a reform-minded leader—the most popular in Japanese postwar history—fail to carry out his goals? According to the panelists at this Asia Program event, many aspects of the Japanese political system (such as bureaucratic strength and the political donation system) work to prevent the exercise of strong leadership. But they maintained that the system is changing, and younger leaders on the horizon will succeed where Koizumi has not.

According to Michio Muramatsu of Gakushuin University, the Japanese system is in the midst of a transformation. He is optimistic that electoral reforms will have the intended effect of bringing about a two-party system—which will encourage issue-based (rather than personality-based) competition and allow for healthy policy debate. This view is controversial in the Japan studies field; many consider electoral reform a failure. Muramatsu also addressed the decline of the once-mighty Japanese bureaucrats. Survey data show ever-declining confidence among bureaucrats, and growing alienation between them and the politicians they once partly controlled.

Richard Samuels of MIT gave a brief history of postwar Japan, demonstrating that the term "Japanese leadership" was not always considered an oxymoron. In Japan's past, leaders have come forward in times of crisis. Now, however, the lessons of the long postwar prosperity—that leaders can simply fine-tune the system—have been too deeply internalized, and the Japanese have not yet realized that the country is in crisis. Samuels predicted the eventual rise of a bricoleur, a nationalist leader who can sell his message through the symbolism of the past and use what "the people already know and love."

Vena Blechinger-Talcott of Hamilton College addressed generational change. She pointed out that professional political training academies, such as the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, are training ambitious young politicians to think and lead in new ways. Like Muramatsu, she underscored the importance of electoral reform, which has (at least in part) eliminated the bias toward rural districts. Instead of catering to narrow interests, politicians must appeal to a diversity of urban voters. They must pay attention to the demands of several groups within the constituency in order to maximize their chances to get elected.

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