Jonathan Dresner: Soft and Fuzzy Historic Events





[Jonathan Dresner is Associate Professor of History at Pittsburg State University, where he teaches World History on a regular basis. His research is on Japanese social history of the Meiji era (1868-1912).]

Last time I lived in Japan, the LDP lost control of the Diet, and for a year and a half there was a Socialist Prime Minister in charge of an implausible coalition between the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The Democratic Party of Japan, which just took control of the lower house of the Diet, was formed in the aftermath of that coalition: the more liberal elements of the LDP combined with the more moderate elements of the JSP.1 This left a more conservative LDP and a more Socialist SDP, and also, as a side effect, left the LDP again in charge of the government, in coalition with the Komeito and other conservative groups. Another side effect: the bushy eyebrows and grandfatherly face of Murayama Tomiichi were immortalized in the “Ton-chan” dolls sold by the JSP; I bought one, thinking that this might be “historic.”2

You could hardly tell from the news reports coming out of Japan at the moment.3 I suppose that I’m not surprised by the lack of respect given to the mid-90s political turmoil: it was inconclusive and sloppy, not the kind of clear-cut “historic” event that makes for banner headlines. But what came out of it was an LDP that was, honestly, destined to fail: instead of representing the middle two-thirds of the Japanese political spectrum, it represented a heavily right-oriented one-third, while the DPJ took a big chunk of what was left. Essentially, the LDP split, probably the natural end to a party that was a coalition to begin with, formed out of a Cold War fear that Japan’s leftist parties might put aside their differences long enough to win control of the Diet. While it took a few elections, and another decade of disappointing economic stagnation, the left wing of the former LDP has overtaken the right wing of the former LDP, and a former member of the LDP is going to be Prime Minister.4

Is this “historic“? Well, it depends, of course. If the DP turns out to be more or less just like the LDP, then it’s no more historic than Pepsi™ overtaking Coca-Cola™. If the DP turns out to be a genuinely center-left party which reduces international entanglements while successfully fostering economic development, it could actually be a revival of the Yoshida Doctrine. That might actually be interesting, especially since it could mean a shift away from the normalization discourses we’ve been hearing so much of. I guess it’s a bit too soon to write the new narrative.

1. This is a rough approximation. The faction politics of the LDP did not neatly divide along ideological lines, but some sense of policy alignment was starting to become clearer when the split happened
2. Actually, I bought two: one for me and one for my parents.
3. I want to thank Adam Richards for his tireless political blogging during this election, possibly the best reportage in English this time around.
4. I don’t think anyone’s going to make plush toys out of Hatoyama Yukio, though he’d make a credible daruma.


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