Miyakodayori 74

Political reformers of Japan unite!

July 17, 2003

The new buzzword in Japanese politics these days is Manifesto. The Japanese language does not use capital letters but if it did, you can be sure Manifesto would be written with a capital M to convey the weighty tone with which it is pronounced by those who believe it is the answer to Japan's political problems. It is so simple: once political parties and party presidential candidates issue their Manifestos, politics will become party- rather than personality-centered, and issues and principles rather than constituency service and opportunistic compromise will dominate political debate. Once a Manifesto is produced, politicians who do not subscribe to it will have no choice but to leave the party and form their own. The result will be a reorganization of the party system and the revitalization of politics.

What's wrong with this Manifesto picture is that there are no politics in it. The Manifesto-inspired image of governance is of a kind of idealized bureaucratic state. In this ideal system, parties offer lists of specific policy promises. These promises are called Manifestos, that term written in katakana to suggest something new, foreign and profound. Voters decide what party to vote for based on the concrete policy promises made in the Manifesto, and then that party's elected politicians implement those commitments. When the next election comes around, voters will be able to judge how true the party in power has been to its Manifesto. Politics, in other words, ends when the Prime Minister comes into office armed with his Manifesto. After that governance is simply a matter of implementing the promises made in the Manifesto.

There is no democracy in the world that operates in this way, including the United States and Britain. When the Democratic Party or the Republican Party holds its national convention to nominate its presidential candidate, it also convenes a platform committee to prepare the party's policy agenda. The platform is always a product of compromise. Party zealots try to get extreme demands into the platform. The presidential candidate's supporters often try to get more centrist language into to it in order to appeal to floating voters or they play up some demand for radical change that is popular with the voters, no mater how unrealistic its adoption as policy might be. The idea that the party's presidential candidate decides what his party's platform is going to be and the party's members in Congress then simply implement his promises has no base in political reality.

A wildly distorted picture of American presidential power seems to have taken hold in Japan. The president's power, as a classic study of the presidency by Richard Neustadt (Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan) puts it, is "the power to persuade." A leader in a democracy needs to persuade his party, his parliament, and his public of the need for the policies he is advocating. Persuasion takes many forms, from arm-twisting, legislative compromises, Japanese style nemawashi or consensus building, the effective use of the mass media, to the firing of disloyal cabinet ministers. Issuing a platform or a Manifesto is part of that process of persuasion; it is not the end of it. (In 1952, outgoing President Harry Truman had this to say about how Dwight D. Eisenhower's background in the military would work when he became president: "He'll sit here (Truman tapping his desk for emphasis) and he'll say 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike---it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating.")

Modern politics are dominated by "catch-all" political parties, catering to diverse constituencies and seeking the widest possible support. The major parties in modern democracies agree far more than they disagree on basic policy issues, and if they are after majority support, they invariably seek to serve plural and in some ways contradictory interests. These modern parties, in Japan and elsewhere, are teams of individual political entrepreneurs (to paraphrase a definition Anthony Downs came up with about half a century ago) banded together to seek political power. Their candidates are elected by voters from different kinds of constituencies, of different ages, with different levels of income, and so on. When voters go to the polls in a national election, they are not engaging in a policy referendum; they are choosing a team to rule in the best interests of the people who elect them. Many factors go into making that choice. Knowing what policies the party wants to adopt is one of them, but so too are issues of candidate personality, party leader image, the performance of the incumbent government, and the existence or absence of a credible alternative.

Of course parties, and the politicians who want to lead them, have an obligation to tell the voters what policies they favor. To the extent that the Manifesto movement will get parties to be more explicit in defining their policy agendas it will provide information that voters can take into account at election time. But it is unrealistic to think that it can amount to more than that.

Politicians and parties have to stand for something to be sure. As a politically savvy US Senator, Everitt Dirksen of Illinois, said many years ago, it is absolutely critical for politicians to have principles. "And my first principle," he went on to say, "is flexibility." Prime Minister Koizumi made a campaign promise to keep the ceiling on deficit financing of the government budget to under 30 trillion yen. And he was right when he dismissed criticism that he had failed to keep his promise by saying well, it is no big deal, it was only an election promise after all. Leaders need to be judged not by their fidelity to their election promises but by how well they govern.

Democratic politics is a messy and contentious business. It involves compromise and it involves struggle between interest groups seeking access to the public purse, between bureaucrats who believe they know what is in the national interest and politicians who know what is in their reelection interest, between the party or parties in power and the political opposition.

Yet in Japan such behavior is often dismissed as "backward" and immoral. There is a long tradition of what amounts to a kind of "anti-politics" in Japan which results in reformers putting forth an idealized, antiseptic model of modern politics as a yardstick against which to measure Japanese performance, which of course always comes up short. Thus some new dramatic, fundamental reform is needed to purge the system of politicians who focus on constituency rather than national issues, on parties that appeal to personality rather than policy, and so on and so forth.

In the 1970s reformers clamored for the disbanding of party factions as the way to purify Japanese politics. In the early 1990's, purging Japanese politics of its troubles was to be accomplished by an electoral reform to create mostly single member districts, surely one of the most misguided reforms in modern Japanese political history. And now there is the Manifesto movement.

Perhaps someone should issue a Manifesto that would borrow liberally from the phraseology in the mother of all manifestos, the Communist Manifesto. It might start out something like this: Political reformers of Japan unite! Banish talk of anti-politics! Deal with Japan's historical, institutional realities and focus on concrete, incremental, realistic reforms! You have nothing to lose but your illusions!

Author, Gerald Curtis
Faculty Fellow, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI)
Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University

Editor-in-Chief, Masato Hisatake
Director of Research
Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI)
e-mail: hisatake-masato@rieti.go.jp
tel: 03-3501-8248 fax: 03-3501-8416

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The opinions expressed or implied in this paper are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), or of the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI).

July 17, 2003