Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- January 15, 1996
by James Fallows

Constant Change

When first learning about Japan outsiders are taught the two great clichés about the place: first, that it is a dynamic culture given to frequent, often dramatic, changes; and, second, that it is a timeless land where nothing can be rushed. These sound contradictory but the Hashimoto case shows how both can be true.

Japan's political life has been nothing if not changeable. During the last three years, while Americans have made do with the Clinton administration and Britons with John Major, there have been five prime ministers in Japan. The new one, Mr. Hashimoto, has a reputation as a very tough trade negotiator, so American reports about him have warned that changed relations between the countries lie ahead.

This sounds logical until you remember that the other prime ministers had reputations too. Prime Minister Miyazawa, who was in office when Bill Clinton was elected, was known as a savvy financial expert, fluent in English, a sophisticate. His successor, Prime Minister Hosokawa, was a charismatic young reformer dedicated to rooting out the corrupt old ways of Japanese politics. His successor, Prime Minister Hata, a former bus conductor, was billed as a man of the people and reformer too. After him came Prime Minister Murayama, leader of the socialist party that had long pledged to kick U.S. soldiers out of Japan. And now Prime Minister Hashimoto, the reputed tough guy.

The most amazing thing about this sequence of characters, roughly comparable to James Baker then Jerry Brown then Pat Buchanan taking turns in office, is how little difference any of them made. Japan's domestic and international policies have chugged on as if there had been only one prime minister -- or none, since the main shifts in policy were engineered by Japan's great industrial and governmental bureaucracies. This takes us back to our paradox of change with no change. And the explanation seems to be that the parts of Japan that do change frequently, from the names of the leaders to the fashions on the street, are the ones that matter least. Much like the U.S. army, where chiefs of staff come and go but the institution endures, Japan's educational, economic, and financial structures brush off the political hubbub, and shift priorities only when historic circumstances dictate.

So don't feel too bad if you can't name the nine Japanese prime ministers of the last decade -- though it would be a shame to forget Prime Minister Uno, who left office under criticism not for having a geisha mistress but for being chintzy in paying her. Instead you can resolve, or at least intend, to think and read about the big institutions that make this constant, competent society run.

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Copyright & copy; 1996, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.