Karel van Wolferen on the Japanese electoral revolution

I mentioned last week that the Dutch writer Karel van Wolferen was, like me, a devotee of "interesting" software for writing and thinking. His real metier, of course, is political analysis, most notably about Japan. On his site he has just put up a detailed post about this weekend's historic ousting of the Liberal Democratic Party from governing control in Japan.

The LDP's name has unfortunately misleading connotations in English; as the hoary joke goes, it is neither "liberal" nor "democratic" but instead is the long-standing force of status-quo, favor-trading conservatism. And as Karel has argued in his many books and articles, its mere existence is misleading in a more fundamental sense, since it implies that Japan is a "normal" democracy, in which political parties compete for the power to control government policy. In fact, elected politicians from the LDP and all other parties have been relatively weak, compared with the permanent and powerful bureaucrats who distribute money, set policy, and in most senses run the country.

To see that analysis applied to the current situation, check out his latest dispatch. He asks whether this election will make any more difference than the only other time the LDP was driven (briefly) from power, just after Bill Clinton's inauguration:

"Will Japan's new government be able to do what the reformists could not possibly accomplish in 1993? Skeptics point at theĀ  divisions within the [new ruling party]...

"But my impression is that the individuals of the inner core of the party are deadly serious about what must be done to turn their country into what one of them, the most senior and most experienced Ozawa Ichiro, has in his writing called a 'normal country'."

The idea of Japan as a "normal" country -- one that takes responsibility for its own defense, one with a functioning political system -- is more significant than most people outside Japan usually recognize. I remember hearing Ozawa use that phrase when I interviewed him, in his role as an LDP potentate, twenty years ago while I was living in Tokyo. I have no idea whether this election really will signify, as the one in 1993 did not, the long-awaited historic emergence of Japan as a functioning democracy. But Karel van Wolferen's post lays out the stakes, and the reasons to think it might.