Japan's intellectual revolution


The political upheaval in Japan is just one aspect of a bigger revolution going on the way the country thinks and works

``Ozawa is straightforward, and I am roundabout. Ozawa speaks for a short time, and I speak for a long time.'' Thus Tsutomu Hata, Japan's new (and newly weak) prime minister, describing the man who manipulates his coalition, Ichiro Ozawa. Mr Ozawa matters not just because he is the force behind the earthquake in Japanese politics which began last summer; his unJapanese bluntness is also promoting a revolution in thought and debate in Japan. That intellectual upheaval will, in the long run, have greater impact on Japan than the current political reshuffles.

Mr. Ozawa's direct approach is so much at odds with tradition-steeped Japanese politics that it can be counter-productive. His failure to seek consensus this week was responsible for undermining Mr Hata's chances of holding on to power.

Mr Hata's coalition is divided between the Social Democratic Party (former Socialists) on the one hand and Messrs Hata and Ozawa and their allies on the other. Their disagreements, which helped bring down Morihiro Hosokawa, the previous prime minister, have not been resolved. Keen to strengthen his side of the argument, Mr Ozawa has brought together his Japan Renewal Party with three other parties to form a new voting block, which boasts 130 members to the Social Democrats' 70.

In the manner of its execution, this manoeuvre seems to have been deliberately provocative. The name of the new block, Kaishin, literally means ``innovation'', but it harks back to a seventh-century coup in which an anti-reform regent was slashed to death by impatient modernizers. Worse, Kaishin's creation was announced just after the coalition had united to elect Mr Hata prime minister. Neither the Social Democrats nor, by his own account, the prime minister had expected Mr Ozawa to move so suddenly. The Social Democrats walked out of the coalition, leaving it 54 seats short of a lower-house majority. Mr Hata nevertheless formed a government on April 28th. It is unlikely to last long.

Mr Hata may therefore be forced, reluctantly, into a summer election. His image has suffered from the current mess; the main winners from an early vote are likely to be the opposition Liberal Democrats, whose 38-year grip on power was broken nine months ago. New electoral districts, which will weaken them, are due to be drawn up by the autumn. A summer vote, held under the old rules, might return the Liberal Democrats to government.

For the time being, therefore, Mr Ozawa seems to have overdone his bluntness. Kaishin's formation came ``in an extremely appalling way, which would never be accepted in normal society,'' according to a man-in-the-street interviewed by a Japanese newspaper. The Social Democrats pose as the champions of good manners; by stabbing them in the back, Mr Ozawa has infringed on the ideal of loyalty that Japanese traditionally value.

Yet loyalty alone is losing its appeal; younger Japanese want decisions justified by reasoned argument. Bookshops are filled with best-sellers arguing that Japan must become more like the rational West. It is this vast change that Mr Ozawa stands for (and his own pro-reason, pro-individualism book, ``Blueprint for a New Japan,'' has sold 600,000 copies).

Japan's old mistrust of reason owes much to its history. In Europe, as the middle ages ended, feudal loyalties gave ground to reason, and Luther declared that the individual's interpretation of the Bible mattered more than allegiance to the Roman Catholic church's teachings. The triumph of reason over inherited ideas spurred scientific advance, and led to the industrial revolution. Rational individualism plus growing wealth laid the foundation for democracy.

Japan's revolutions have come in a different order. Feudalism lived on into the 19th century, when a nationalist clique imported the technologies necessary to modernize industry. The import of democracy and reason were postponed, with the result that Japan is now a mature industrial power, but immature politically - just look at the current mess - and intellectually.

Soundings without fury

The weakness of reason's hold on the country shows itself in many ways. Schools cram pupils with facts; they do not teach the skills of argument. Unscientific views are widely held: for instance, that Japanese snow and Japanese guts are different from the western sort, making the import of skis [!!!] and beef impossible. Company decisions emerge after exhaustive soundings have established what the majority feels (not thinks), rather than after somebody has analysed the problem (see box). However misguided the boss may be, his subordinates still believe they owe him loyalty.

This culture is strong among Mr Ozawa's political enemies. The Liberal Democrats used to stick together because young politicians were loyal to their faction chiefs, and this loyalty overrode policy. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats rarely had any ideas at all, which is why bureaucrats ran the country. It is no coincidence that Mr Ozawa is often criticized for his style, but rarely for his policies.

This creates a strange lopsidedness in Japan's political debates: the opposition does not tend to put up opposing arguments. When the previous prime minister abruptly announced a plan for tax reform, the Social democrats revolted; they quite understood the need for change, they said, but wanted time to mull it over. When Mr Ozawa calls for deregulation, nobody says he is wrong, but many wish he would be patient. Japan faces a change easily as big as America's NAFTA or health reform. But the anti-change side offers no reasoned line of objection, just vague misgivings.

Similarly, there are many who dislike the new, argumentative style that is transforming debate in Japan. However, since the objectors disapprove of disagreement, they have trouble making their case. Whatever the fate of Mr Ozawa and his allies, in the end his point of view is likely to win.

The Economist, 30 April 1994, p. 35