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Japanese Foreign Policy - The Role of Domestic Politics

The influence of Japanese domestic politics on the conduct of foreign affairs changed in the mid-1970s. Up to that time, the foreign policy debate in Japan had been between "progressives," who favored advances toward socialist countries and more independence from the United States, and "conservatives," who tended to identify Japanese interests closely with the United States-led alignment of Western countries. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was closely associated with the conservative, pro-United States position, while opposition parties often staked out positions at odds with the status quo.

General satisfaction in Japan with the peace and prosperity that had been brought to the country made it hard for opposition parties to garner much support for a radical move to the left in Japan's foreign policy. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the widely publicized brutalities of communist regimes in Asia in the late 1980s further dampened popular Japanese interest in shifting foreign policy to the left.

Meanwhile, the ruling LDP modified its base of political power. By the 1980s, it had markedly shifted the social composition of LDP support away from the traditional conservative reliance on business and rural groups to include every category of the electorate. This shift resulted from efforts by LDP politicians to align various local interests in mutually advantageous arrangements in support of LDP candidates. The LDP had brought together various candidates and their supporting interest groups and had reached a policy consensus to pursue economic development while depending strongly on the United States security umbrella.

Domestic political challenges to LDP dominance waxed and waned later in the 1980s as the party faced major influence-peddling scandals with weak and divided leadership. In 1989 the opposition Japan Socialist Party won control of the Diet's House of Councillors. But the Japan Socialist Party's past ideological positions on foreign policy appeared to be more of a liability than an asset going into the House of Representatives elections in 1990, and the party attempted to modify a number of positions that called for pushing foreign policy to the left. In contrast, the LDP standard bearer, Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki, used identification with the United States and the West to his advantage in the successful LDP effort to sustain control of the House of Representatives in February 1990.

In 1993 the coalition government of Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro pledged to continue the LDP policy of economic and security ties with the United States; of responding to domestic and international expectations of greater Japanese political and economic contributions; and of international cooperation through the UN and other international organizations in the cause of world peace, disarmament, aid to developing countries, and educational and technical cooperation. Foreign policy speeches by the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs were widely disseminated, and pamphlets and booklets on major foreign policy questions were issued frequently.

Political groups opposing the government's foreign policy presented their views freely through political parties and the mass media, which took vocal and independent positions on wide-ranging external issues. Some of the opposing elements included were leftists who sought to exert influence through their representatives in the Diet, through mass organizations, and sometimes through rallies and street demonstrations. In contrast, special interest groups supporting the government--including the business community and agricultural interests--brought pressure to bear on the prime minister, cabinet members, and members of the Diet, usually through behind-the-scenes negotiations and compromises.

Partisan political activities of all ideological tendencies were undertaken freely and openly, but the difference in foreign policy perspectives appeared increasingly in the 1980s to derive less from ideology than from more pragmatic considerations. Broadly stated, the partisan disagreement among the various groups competing for power had centered on the question of Japan's safety from external threat or attack. The dominant view was that although the Japanese should be responsible for defending their homeland, they should also continue their security ties with the United States, at least until they could gain sufficient confidence in their own self-defense power, which has been interpreted as not being proscribed by Article 9 of the constitution. Proponents of this view agreed that this self-defense capability should be based on conventional arms and that any nuclear shield should be provided by the United States under the 1960 security treaty.

The Sino-United States rapprochement of the 1970s and the stiffening of Japan-Soviet relations in the 1980s caused the opposition parties to be less insistent on the need to terminate the security treaty. The Democratic Socialist Party and the Komeito (Clean Government Party) indicated their readiness to support the treaty, while the Japan Socialist Party dropped its demand for immediate abrogation. Only the Japan Communist Party remained adamant.

Despite partisan differences, all political parties and groups were nearly unanimous during the 1970s and 1980s that Japan should exercise more independence and initiative in foreign affairs and not appear so ready to follow the United States on matters affecting Japan's interests. They also agreed that Japan should continue to prohibit the introduction of nuclear weapons into the country. These shared views stemmed from the resurgence of nationalism during the post-World War II era and from the pride of the Japanese people in their own heritage and in the economic achievements of the postwar decades. Although there were indications that the "nuclear allergy" produced by Japan's traumatic experience with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was beginning to moderate, nuclear weapons remains a sensitive political issue.

Except for security-related matters, most foreign affairs issues involved economic interests and mainly attracted the attention of the specific groups affected. The role of interest groups in formulating foreign policy varied with the issue at hand. Because trade and capital investment issues were involved, for example, in relations with China and with the Republic of Korea (South Korea), the business community increasingly became an interested party in the conduct of foreign affairs. Similarly, when fishing rights or agricultural imports were being negotiated, representatives of the industries affected worked with political leaders and the foreign affairs bureaucracies in shaping policy.

Because of the continuous control of the government enjoyed by the LDP since its formation in 1955, the policy-making bodies of the LDP had become the centers of government policy formulation. Because the unified will of the majority party almost invariably prevailed in the Diet, some observers believed that the Diet had been reduced to a mere sounding board for government policy pronouncements and a rubber-stamp ratifier of decisions made by the prime minister and his cabinet. This situation meant that significant debate and deliberations on foreign policy matters generally took place not in the Diet but in closed-door meetings of the governing LDP. Deliberations took place, for example, between representatives of the Foreign Affairs Section of the LDP'S Policy Research Council and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MITI, or leaders of major LDP support groups, such as the Federation of Economic Organizations (Keizai Dantai Rengokai- -better known as Keidanren). The loss of the LDP majority in the July 1993 election for the House of Representatives was bound to affect this situation, but it remained to be seen how it would affect it.

The role of public opinion in the formulation of foreign policy throughout the postwar period has been difficult to determine. Japan continued to be extremely concerned with public opinion, and opinion polling became a conspicuous feature of national life. The large number of polls on public policy issues, including foreign policy matters, conducted by the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other government organizations, and the media led to the presumption by analysts that the collective opinions of voters do exert significant influence on policymakers. The public attitudes toward foreign policy that had held throughout much of the postwar period appeared to have shifted in the 1980s. Opinion polls reflected a marked increase in national pride and self-esteem. Moreover, public discussion of security matters by government officials, political party leaders, press commentators, and academics had become markedly less volatile and doctrinaire and more open and pragmatic, suggesting indirectly that public attitudes on this subject had evolved as well.

The mass media, and particularly the press, as the champion of the public interest and critic of the government, continues to mold public attitudes strongly. The media is the chief source of demands that the government exercise a more independent and less "weak-kneed" diplomacy in view of the changing world situation and Japan's increased stature in the world.

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Page last modified: 01-08-2012 20:14:16 ZULU