Squaring up to Japan's 'iron triangle'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2009, 12:00am

Some years ago, a political science professor at a Japanese university told me that he reckoned you could fit everybody who counted in Japan into one room. There are about 400 of them, so it would have to be a ballroom. All but a couple would be men, of course - and at least half of them would be there because their fathers and grandfathers were in the same ballroom 25 and 50 years ago.

The Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory in Sunday's election, but it must break the system if it is really going to change Japan. It won't be easy.

Since the last elected Liberal Democratic Party prime minister resigned three years ago, three other members have filled the job: Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a former prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, the son of a former prime minister, and Taro Aso, also the grandson of a former prime minister. Meanwhile, Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ leader who will now become prime minister, is the grandson of the prime minister who defeated Aso's grandfather.

The DPJ should end up with 308 members in the 480-seat House of Representatives, which should be a majority big enough to crush all opposition, but in Japan it gets more complicated. Not everybody in that small ballroom filled with the 400 people who matter is a politician.

Most of them are the businessmen who run the giant corporations that used to be called zaibatsu (the pre-second-world-war industrial conglomerates) and the top layer of senior civil servants - all of whom have been in bed with the LDP all of their working lives. They call it the 'iron triangle ': LDP faction leaders, senior civil servants and industrial bosses, all working to stifle change and maintain power.

About 15 years ago, I spent a couple of months in Japan pursuing a single question: why was it the only developed country outside the communist world that didn't have a '60s'? Was there something in Japanese culture that insulated it from trends elsewhere in the industrialised world? Why were the Japanese still so deferential, so hierarchical, so docile in the face of arrogant power and insolent corruption? Why was Japan, in effect, a one-party state?

Japan's equivalent of the 60s actually began in the 1950s, but it was ruthlessly crushed. By the 1950s, the cold war was going full blast in Asia, and the US was afraid that the youth revolution getting under way in Japan was the prelude to a communist takeover. It took action to stamp out all the nonsense.

The old zaibatsu were allowed to rebuild. Conservative politicians (including some war criminals) were encouraged to form a political party that received full American support, the LDP. And the government that emerged, with considerable help from its yakuza (gangster) allies, beat the kids' revolt into the ground. Most people kept their heads down and stayed out of trouble.

That is the system and the mindset that the DPJ must start to dismantle. The 'iron triangle' will fight until the very last ditch to preserve the present system. So the key question is: Can the DPJ take the last ditch in only four years?

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries