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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #53: August 15, 2003

Japan's 1993 Regime Change in Retrospect:
Part One The Achievements of the Hosokawa Administration

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

Mr. Hosokawa & Prof. CurtinA turbulent decade has now elapsed since the combined forces of Japan's opposition parties briefly captured the slippery reins of power. On 9 August 1993, the crusading Morihiro Hosokawa became Japan's 35th Prime Minister and the nation's first non-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader in 38-years. As the ten-year anniversary passes, it now seems that this event changed the course of Japanese politics. Its aftershocks are still vigorously reshaping the political landscape.

In August 1993, it felt as if Hosokawa and his comrades-in-arms had finally slain the mighty LDP dragon. In the initial euphoria, legend's warning about the near indestructibility of dragons was ignored. Within a year, the overconfident conquerors once again became the vanquished and their bright visions for a new political order faded like a comet in the firmament. However, in true epic fashion that was not the end of the saga, just its dramatic opening chapter. Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that the legacy of the opposition's solitary battlefield triumph is far more significant than was originally estimated.

Arguably, the most lasting achievement of the Hosokawa premiership was to set a new course for the way Japan is governed. His administration was the genesis for the decade-long pattern of multiparty coalitions. In concrete terms, Hosokawa's eight-month tenure in office is the newest link in the evolutionary chain of Japanese politics. Although it was not realized at the time, the Hosokawa regime also marked the extinction point of LDP dominion.

Indeed, the LDP only sneaked back into power by forming an unholy coalition with its erstwhile sworn enemies in the Socialist Party. To regain office, the LDP was forced to renounce its former self-proclaimed right to rule alone. Since June 1994, it has reluctantly accepted the need to share power with others. At present, it governs in conjunction with two other parties, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party.

The electorate has grown use to this type of arrangement and opinion polls indicated that the public now prefers coalition administrations to the previous form of single-party government. This is a significant shift and means that for the foreseeable future it is unlikely either the LDP or any other party will be able to govern alone. An August 2003 Kyodo News survey illustrates the public mood, revealing that 55 percent of people prefer the LDP to be in a coalition with only a mere 14 percent wanting them at the helm alone.

While the introduction of multiparty government is arguably Hosokawa's foremost accomplishment, it is by no means the only one. His assertive style of premiership has also had an immense impact on the public's perception of leadership, creating a demand for a new brand of dynamic Japanese premier. Hosokawa laid the foundations for the current Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to develop his own highly individualistic style of leadership.

Hosokawa's relaxed people-friendly manner was extremely well received. Today he is still fondly remembered as a popular Prime Minister, while most holders of the office are not remembered at all. Traditionally, a Japanese premier was meant to combine the vagueness of the Delphi oracle with the charisma of a door-to-door shoe-salesman. Both Hosokawa and Koizumi have forever altered this image and in the process greatly enhanced Japan's global profile.

A less quantifiable but equally important aspect of the 1993 regime change was its psychological impact on the politicians. For the LDP, defeat and subsequent coalition-alliances have constrained the powers of the once almighty faction leaders. The emergence of Koizumi as Prime Minister is a further sign of the powerful evolutionary trend sweeping through the LDP. This is threatening the party's many political dinosaurs with extinction.

For the opposition forces, their ten-month stint in office was a tremendous psychological boost. It proved they could be a viable alternative government and gave them a simple "unity is strength" formula for future success. The problem has been that since losing power, unity has been a scare commodity. However, recently things have changed and the opposition is regaining the kind of momentum that once propelled them into office.

In July, the Liberal Party decided to merger into the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). This is a move guaranteed to enhance the DPJ's electoral prospects. Political analysts now predict that the party could pose a serious threat to the current LDP-led coalition, especially if another opposition party, the Social Democratic Party, teams up with the enlarged DPJ.

At recent political rallies, the leader of the Liberal Party leader, Ichiro Ozawa, and his DPJ counterpart, Naoto Kan, have both been invoking the name of Hosokawa and promising to carry on his work if they win the forthcoming election. As the politicians begin to write the next chapter in this unpredictable tale, it seems that Hosokawa is already becoming a figure of legend.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 13 August 2003, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.)

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