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Japan in Recent Years, Political Turmoil

Sakigake, Emperor Hirohito, progressive conservative party, veteran politician, political left

In January 1989 Emperor Hirohito died after a 62-year reign. His son Akihito succeeded him as emperor, inaugurating what was officially called the reign of Heisei, which means “achieving peace.” However, the years that followed were marked by domestic political turmoil.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a new set of scandals shook the LDP. In 1988 it was revealed that the Recruit Company, a Japanese data services and real estate firm, had bribed many top LDP leaders. Scandal brought down the administrations of prime ministers Takeshita Noboru and Uno Sosuke in rapid succession in 1989. In national elections held that year, the LDP lost its majority in the upper house for the first time in more than three decades. Kaifu Toshiki, elected by LDP Diet members as a “clean” candidate to improve the party’s image, unsuccessfully tried to push through political reform. Unable to cope with economic malaise and lacking the confidence of prominent party members, Kaifu was replaced in late 1991 by a veteran politician, Miyazawa Kiichi.

In 1993 younger LDP leaders, led by Hata Tsutomu and Ozawa Ichiro, became frustrated by the party’s inertia and broke away to form new parties of their own. The loss of these members deprived the LDP of its majority in the lower house, and national elections held that year did not restore it. A coalition of eight opposition parties formed a cabinet under Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro, putting an end to the LDP’s long political hegemony.

The political situation continued to deteriorate, however, as the new parties maneuvered for position. Amid allegations that he had accepted an illegal loan in 1982, Hosokawa stepped down in 1994, and the coalition chose Hata as prime minister. Soon afterward, the largest of the eight parties withdrew from the coalition, leaving Hata without a majority in the lower house of parliament. He resigned after only two months in office.

Meanwhile, the power of the political left had dwindled substantially during the late 1980s. After decades in the opposition, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ; formerly the Japan Socialist Party) moved to gain more support among voters by adopting a more pragmatic platform. The party even abandoned long-standing positions such as opposition to the mutual security treaty with the United States and the maintenance of the SDF.

In 1994 a coalition cabinet came to power made up of the LDP and its former rival, the SDPJ, electing Murayama Tomiichi Japan’s first socialist prime minister since 1948. But the political parties continued to combine, split, and recombine into new political factions and parties. Murayama, whose coalition government was weak, resigned in January 1996, and the Diet elected LDP leader and former trade minister Hashimoto Ryutaro to the post. Hashimoto formed a coalition government with the SDPJ and Sakigake, a progressive conservative party.

In late 1997 the LDP regained a majority in the lower house when a key opposition member returned to the party. Political maneuvering and a stubborn opposition, however, made it difficult for Hashimoto’s cabinet to confront the country’s many economic and political problems. The following year, the coalition of the LDP, SDPJ, and Sakigake broke up. Unhappy with the state of the economy, Japanese voters inflicted a defeat on the LDP in elections for the upper house in July 1998. Accepting responsibility for the defeat, Hashimoto resigned as prime minister. LDP politician Obuchi Keizo replaced him as prime minister, and the LDP entered a new coalition in 1999, this time with the Liberal Party, a group of former LDP members led by Ozawa. Obuchi suffered a stroke in April 2000 and lapsed into a coma. He was replaced as prime minister and head of the LDP by longtime LDP politician Mori Yoshiro.

In early parliamentary elections held in June 2000 for Japan’s lower house, the House of Representatives, the LDP and its coalition partners suffered losses but retained a majority. Public approval ratings for Mori plunged to below 10 percent due to his reported political blunders and the LDP’s lack of success in reviving the economy. In late April 2001 the LDP held an early internal election to choose a new party leader to replace Mori as prime minister. Koizumi Junichiro, a reform-minded former health and welfare minister, was chosen over former prime minister Hashimoto Ryutaro. Koizumi’s victory over the candidate favored by party seniors broke with tradition and was widely interpreted as a sign of growing frustration with Japan’s economic problems.



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