VOTERS have staged a revolt in Japan. After almost 35 years of total control, the Liberal Democratic Party has been stunned by an overwhelming defeat in the Diet's upper chamber. The election signals change, but the new currents shaping Japanese domestic politics need not alarm the West. The defeat gives us a clue to just how unpopular the LDP has become. The Recruit scandal proved what the Japanese public always suspected; virtually everyone in the party leadership is corrupt, and corruption is spreading even to the usually trustworthy bureaucracy.
The country's new 3 percent consumption tax, railroaded through the Diet last year by the LDP, certainly did not help either. At a time when the Japanese government is promising more consumption to trading partners, and when the privatization of public corporations is bringing budget surpluses, the general public perceives this new tax as a barefaced attempt to curb personal spending even as the LDP lives it up on money extorted from favored business sectors.
The replacement of disgraced Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita by Sousuke Uno only showed how out of touch with public sentiment the LDP had become. The LDP's first choice to replace Takeshita was the bland, but respected, party elder Masayoshi Ito, but when Ito demanded a free hand in reforming the LDP, the party installed Mr. Uno.
Uno wasn't even important enough to have been paid off during the Recruit scandal, and was nobody's popular choice, even within his own party. His only virtue was that he was supposed to be clean. Then came the damaging revelations about Uno's dealings with women.
Most Western observers have favorable perceptions of the LDP. They point to Japan's economic growth and four decades of conservative rule within the Diet. This view, however, is not wholly shared by the Japanese public.
Japanese often say that ``Japan is rich but the people are poor.'' Despite the highest per capita GNP among industrial nations, Japanese employees work 25 percent longer than West Germans; they can't find affordable housing; their road, public transportation, and recreational areas are woefully inadequate; they even have to go outside their country to enjoy shopping or to take a vacation.
Japanese women also object to the rigid, feudalistic attitudes of the ruling conservatives. Women find it difficult to do anything but cater to the needs of children and men. On top of that, the younger generations of Japanese have tired of the self-denial and notorious regimentation upheld as the model of virtue by their elderly leaders.
So what does this defeat mean? Uno certainly had to resign, but this diversionary tactic cannot pave a return to the status quo ante. The opposition parties can use their new majority in the upper house to bring the parliamentary process to a standstill. To break the anticipated deadlock, the LDP may have to call an early election that jeopardizes its position in the powerful lower house.
In fact, the LDP could lose control of that chamber as well. In that case, the party would have to cut a deal to entice into its coalition one of the moderate opposition parties, the Democratic Socialist Party or the Clean Government Party. The LDP would be expected to concede its support of the consumption tax and agree to political fund-raising reforms. It might even give up Cabinet posts and give the opposition a chance to change conservative labor, social welfare, and educational policies.
The LDP is learning the hard way that the Japanese public wants something more than the narrow, pro-growth policies it offers. Like the Roman galley that won naval glory on the backs of the oarsmen below deck, postwar Japan has won victories in international economic competition under the guidance of its conservative leaders, but at some cost to social welfare and development. Today, the LDP has to deal with a population that is beginning to realize there is more to life than just rowing hard to keep Japan ahead in the international GNP race.
The West needn't fear the domestic political crisis in Japan. Despite its big victory, the Japanese public doesn't trust the Japan Socialist Party, because it wants to scrap the popular security treaty with the US. The Japan Communist Party is close to pariah status because it can't escape an association with China and the Tiananmen massacre. Japanese voters are not shifting to the left; they are simply fed up with the corruption within the LDP.
This current crisis could actually improve relations with the West. Japan's trading partners have been pressuring it to work less, invest more in housing and other social services, and buy additional finished goods in a truly liberalized domestic environment. Now Japanese voters have told the LDP they like that idea, too. This new domestic pressure could reinforce foreign demands for a balanced relationship between growth and social welfare inside Japan. The sun isn't setting yet for the conservatives, but they may be forced to devise new policy priorities that will mean a better deal for both the West and the average Japanese citizen.