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Mar 26, 2012 | 13:23 GMT

7 mins read

The Rise of Regionalism in Japan


The Japanese political system may be on the verge of a radical shift. The popularity of the country's established national political parties, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is at a historic low, coinciding with record numbers of voters identifying themselves as independents.

At the same time, regional parties campaigning against entrenched Japanese bureaucratic interests are making gains and readying themselves for national elections. If they find success there, it could signify the first major change in the country's political system since World War II, which in turn would have a significant effect on regional dynamics.

According to a late February poll by Fuji TV, only 32 percent of Japanese voters support the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and only 16.6 percent say they would vote for the DPJ in the next round of parliamentary elections. The LDP is faring little better, with the support of only 21.4 percent of voters.

Meanwhile, regional political parties have begun to win elections. In late 2010, Genzei Nippon ("tax reduction Japan") won Aichi prefecture's governorship as well as the mayorship in Nagoya and a majority in its city assembly. Then in 2011, Osaka Ishin no Kai ("Osaka Restoration Association") won Osaka prefecture's governorship, Osaka city's mayorship and majorities in both the prefectural and city assemblies.

Since these elections, the parties' popularity has dramatically increased, particularly that of Osaka Ishin no Kai and its leader, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, who is seeing a 60 percent approval rating in national polls. These parties are now readying themselves for the next round of lower-house parliamentary elections, set to occur before Aug. 30, 2013. Some have started "politics schools" — seminars where they prepare future candidates to run for parliament — and they have drawn important numbers of aspiring students, some of them lawmakers from the major national parties. Several mainstream political figures also have shown willingness to join Hashimoto should he enter national politics, most notably popular Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Hashimoto and Ishihara's prominent positions in regions that have served as historical Japanese power centers have given rise to expectations that they will unite to form a coalition or even a national party. However, their potential for national electoral success is uncertain, as is their ability to execute an agenda of reform in the midst of a Japanese bureaucracy that has been able to resist such efforts for the past two decades.

Past Reform Movements

Reform efforts have been gradually gaining popularity over the past 20 years. These movements have had varied goals, ranging from calls for a federal Japan, economic liberalization, cutting down the bureaucracy, educational reform, and releasing the country from its dependence on the United States for defense.

These also have come in many forms. The first was in 1993 when the LDP was ousted by a broad, anti-status quo coalition of seven minority parties. The coalition came together specifically to eject the LDP, without a clear consensus for what to do after it achieved that goal. Rifts among coalition members eventually began to show, and it stayed in power for only eight months.

Then in 2001, LDP member Junichiro Koizumi rose to the premiership on a platform of "restructuring without sanctuary," meaning breaking the control over the country by the entrenched bureaucracy by reducing the size of government and instituting a reorganization of the administrative apparatus, including increasing regional governance. Koizumi campaigned as a reform-minded outsider who would battle the entrenched interests of the bureaucratic apparatus. His tenure represented the first real attempt at reform and regionalization. Along with privatization efforts, several proposals for a federal Japan surfaced during this period, and laws designed to further the regionalization project were passed. The bureaucracy, and those with interests in the bureaucracy, proved too strong, and Koizumi's efforts ultimately had little effect in the short term. But his policies and his popularity paved the way for the rise of the current wave of regionalism.

The Geography of Regionalism

The dynamics behind both Japan's entrenched bureaucracy and the increasingly popular regional forces are rooted in the country's mountainous geography. Geography divides Japan into several distinct regions, engendering recurrent center-periphery political tensions and inter-regional conflicts. This has given rise to a historical pattern wherein power in the country is regionalized or centralized, generally through a chaotic process, followed by a long period of relative stability.

The most notable iteration of this pattern was the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s to the 1860s. Under the shogunate, the military held the highest authority, but political and economic administration of most domains was left to individual lords. The central government tightly controlled international affairs and trade, greatly restricting the inflow of international goods and information. This system ended with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which once again centralized control of Japan under the emperor through the intervention of regional forces disaffected with the Tokugawa regime and emboldened by its weakness. The Meiji Restoration also gave rise to an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.

This centralization continued for the next 50 years and intensified in the late 1920s, when Japan was stricken with economic downturn, international trade disturbances, such as increased protectionist sentiment, and the threat of communist revolt. The central government increased its power over the following period, and its foreign policy became more aggressive. Japan's defeat in World War II put a relatively quick end to the military aspect of this policy, but it continued its economic expansion, growing to become the world's second-largest economy in the 1980s.

However, Japan's economic model was not without faults. The government effectively controlled the economy and international trade, protected domestic agriculture and industry from international competition and aligned itself closely with these industries and banks. Its economic bubble burst in 1989, and the ensuing economic stagnation has continued until the present, made worse by an entrenched bureaucracy reluctant to allow needed reforms that would strip those in power of their status and benefits. Public frustration with this stagnation and perceived bureaucratic corruption has fueled the current rise of regional parties.

Constraints and Potential

These parties have several obstacles to overcome before becoming a true national political force, foremost among them being the established political parties. The DPJ and LDP are reacting to the regionalists by co-opting parts of their platforms, such as electoral reform, chastisement, reform of utilities and most prominently, the passing of legislation that would allow unified regional governments to be created. Also, it is unclear whether a majority of Japanese voters is in favor of radical reform or simply against the current status quo.

Even if these parties do well in national elections, it does not guarantee that they will be able to effect real change in the face of entrenched bureaucratic interests. Though a regionalist third party would go a long way in changing the political makeup of Japan's parliament, most of the reforms sought by the reformists require either large majorities in parliament or outright constitutional change. This threatens to slow down the pace of reform, making the bureaucracy more likely to absorb this wave of reformers as it has done in the past.

However, these changes could have tremendous regional implications. If the regionalists' economic project succeeds, it could lead to a resurgence of Japanese economic dynamism that will have effects throughout East Asia. An internally strengthened, economically revitalized and externally emboldened Japan would raise concern in China, which would find itself compelled to counter Japan both diplomatically and militarily, and in South Korea, which would feel threatened between an increasingly competitive Tokyo and Beijing. Japan likely would increase its involvement in maritime issues in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and even farther abroad in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Japan's involvement may not necessarily be of an overt military nature, but China will feel pressured in these areas even if Japan simply increases its economic influence. Moreover, a Japanese rise would make it less dependent on the United States and thus less deferential to Washington's policies, while South Korea may become increasingly dependent on U.S. involvement in the region in the face of two powerful neighbors. Other Southeast Asian states, such as the Philippines or Vietnam, would find a convenient ally in its disputes with China over sea rights.

A situation when both Japan and China are strong and externally active has not been seen in the region for a few generations, and the regionalist movement may just make that happen. If these reforms give rise to nationalist sentiment in Japan, tensions are sure to increase in a region with a history of resentment and mutual fear.

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