Professor of Industrial Relations
University of Tokyo
The Japan Institute of Labour
1. Election Results Formation of Coalition Government
The outcome of the July 18 Lower House elections marked a historic turning point in Japanese politics. The ensuing political process received extensive media coverage. The election results are shown in Table 1 and their implications are summarized below.
1) With its inability to regain seats lost from the split in the party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost majority control of the all-powerful Lower House, in which the majority holds the right to appoint a prime minister. Although the party avoided a crushing defeat by strong showings in rural areas and local cities, it ended up with only 235 seats, including LDP-affiliated independents. Thus, the party failed to retain control through a simple majority.
2) Three new parties, Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party) and Shinto Sakigake (New Harbinger Party), both formed by LDP defectors, and Nihon Shinto (Japan New Party or JNP), founded in 1992 by Mr. Morihiro Hosokawa, all did well. They obtained a total of 103 seats, up 57 seats from their pre-election strength.
3) The Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) sustained a crushing defeat, barely maintaining half its pre-election strength. It ended up with the smallest number of seats in its history. The party's biggest defeat had previously been in 1986, when it won only 86 seats.
4) All other opposition parties experienced no major changes in strength. Komeito increased its seats slightly and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) also barely managed to maintain its pre-election strength.
Individual parties' intentions expressed before or during the election all indicated that the answer to the following question would produce the next government. Which of the two major forces-the 223-seat LDP or the five-party, 237-seat coalition-Shinseito, the SDPJ, the DSP, Komeito and Shaminren (United Social Democratic Party)-will be able to bring JNP and Sakigake groups (48 seats), into its own camp in order to form the new government? The results were the seven-party, one-Diet group coalition government led by Mr. Hosokawa, thus resulting in the fall of the LDP into an opposition role for the first time since its founding.
2. Roles of Labor Unions in the Political Shake-up
Beneath the political uproar lurked a variety of motives advocating change. Among these was a change in labor unions' political efforts which seemed to play an important role. Let me briefly examine the change in election strategies by labor unions and their involvement in the formation of the coalition.
1) Changes in election strategies
Japan's labor unions had traditionally maintained strong support relationships with social democratic parties (the so-called union-party block). In this election, however, one influential union after another changed its way of dealing with politicians and parties. Specific examples are as follows.
First, unions affiliated with the now-defunct Domei (Japanese Confederation of Labor), such as Zensendomei and Denryokusoren, expressed their intentions to back some rightwing SDPJ candidates, Shaminren and Komeito candidates even some running on the ticket of the JNP, Shinseito and Sakigake, all of whom were conservative in terms of political ideology. Previously, Zensendomei and Denryokusoren had been closely tied to the DSP.
Second, some of the influential unions, aligned with the former Sohyo (General Council of Trade Unions of Japan) and Churitsuroren (Federation of Independent Unions), both of which strongly supported the SDPJ, declared that they would back some candidates of new conservative parties such as Shinseito, the JNP and Sakigake in addition to the DSP, Komeito and Shaminren candidates. Furthermore, they would not support leftwing SDPJ candidates.
Third, Tekkororen (Japanese Federation of Iron and Steel Workers' Union) adopted the same stance as the aforementioned second group. It had traditionally backed both the SDPJ and the DSP. What attracted particularly wide media attention was the fact that the federation failed to support Takako Doi, former chairwoman of the SDPJ, and instead endorsed a JNP candidate in her constituency.
The SDPJ, DSP, Komeito and Shaminren had traditionally extended partial cooperation to each other in elections. Accordingly, the unions in their related constituencies did support a candidate of a political party with which they failed to have a block relationship. But never had they extended their support so widely as they did in this election. Supporting and endorsing conservative candidates in particular was a totally new policy for them.
It is difficult to quantify to what extent the change in influential Rengo-affiliated unions' policy had on the election outcome. The implications of supporting and endorsing candidates of other parties rather than those with traditional close cooperative relations are unclear. But even if the unions simply indicated their moral support, the effects on these parties, and especially on the new conservative parties, could not be ignored and were greater than expected. In addition, failure of the unions, which had traditionally backed the SDPJ, to support leftwing SDPJ candidates, was clearly a factor in the party's defeat in the election.
2) Involvement in establishment of the coalition government
These changes in support relations in the general election were closely related to changes in the unions' political policy. Coalescence of political forces capable of replacing. However, the LDP was essentiallly Rengo's policy since its inauguration. Realignment of the political world with the SDPJ and the DSP as pillars, which was expected by many union leaders, did not progress smoothly.
In this situation, the emerging view among some influential leaders was that Rengo would fail to support some leftwing SDPJ candidates and move toward expanding their support and cooperative relations with non-Communist opposition parties, including the Komeito. A review of the support and cooperation relations, it was predicted to some extent, would take place even if no political turmoil, such as a split in the LDP, took place(1).
However, with the breakup of the LDP, realignment of the political world was suddenly real enough, and many Rengo leaders as well as influential Rengo-affiliated unions departed from their traditional position and openly insisted that a non-LDP, non-Communist coalition government be achieved. Thus, they used their influence to play an important role in establishing the coalition.
Needless to say, the election outcome itself, for which the aforementioned changes in the unions' election strategies were partly responsible, contributed toward formation of the coalition. Not only did the unions favor the establishment of the coalition. The roles played by Rengo and its umbrella unions were never small in bringing together the seven out-of-power parties, whose political policies and ideologies are extremely diverse.
First, Rengo's indication that it would support and cooperate with the JNP and Sakigake, parties holding the swing votes necessary for forming the new government, made its moves toward realization of the coalition government important factors. Take the following note worthy episode, for instance. On the day before the official election campaign started, Rengo held a meeting to map out its election strategy. Rengo successfully invited leaders of the seven out-of-power parties which eventually formed the coalition government and revealed the facts on TV news shows.
Second, to build the coalition government Rengo played an influential role in controlling forces within the SDPJ of which some members strongly opposed the launching of a coalition for ideological and political reasons. For example, Rengo leaders supported the SDPJ leadership led by Mr. Sadao Yamahana, who otherwise might have been forced to resign as a result of a defeat in the elections, and gave supreme priority to the SDPJ's joining in the coalition. The likeliest outcome of Yamahana's immediate resignation after the elections would have been a fierce intraparty confrontation, within the SDPJ, over who the party's next leader would be. Therefore, joining the coalition as a partner would have become very difficult. (Incidentally, Mr. Yamahana announced on September 7 that he will step down and will not seek re-election in the chairmanship race.)
Another important move toward the installation of the coalition government was the following. The Rego leadership expressed its intention to actually reconcile with Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, Shinseito's influential leader, as an ally. The SDPJ, and its leftwingers in particular, strongly opposed Mr. Ozawa, given his hawkish political philosophy. He favors amending Japan's "peace" Constitution to permit Tokyo's troops to join UN peacekeeping missions and has a close connection with former LDP Vice-President Shin Kanemaru. Kanemaru is the central figure in the most recent money politics scandal-the so-called Sagawa Kyubin affair, in which a parcel-delivery firm spread hundreds of millions of yen to top politicians.
Third, immediately after the election and at a time when it was still unclear where the JNP and Sakigake would move, DSP leadership also hinted that it might move toward an alliance with the LDP. Rengo and leading DSP-supporting unions, it was reported, exerted strong influence in upholding a policy of supporting the seven-party coalition.
As we have seen, indeed, the positive involvement in politics of Rengo leadership as well as influential unions under the Rengo banner and their decisive departure from traditional election strategies constitued two of the significant factors behind Japan's recent major political shake-up.
On the other hand, the election results, and the SDPJ's historic electoral setback in particular, cast strong doubts on Rengo leadership-particularly Chairman Akira Yamagishi-even though he played a marvelous role in building the coalition-among the SDPJ and SDPJ-supporting unions, such as Jichiro (All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers' Union), Nikkyoso (Japan Teachers Union) and Shitetsusoren (General Federation of Private Railway Workers' Unions of Japan). What kind of impact this will have on Rengo's future involvement in politics and its affect effects on the Japanese political climate will deserve much attention.
3. "Political Reform" and Rengo's Political Policy
At its annual regular convention to be held in October, Rengo plans to formally decide on its own long-awaited political policy together with other important issues, such as selection of leadership. Rengo's political policy was examined by its Politics Committee, which later published an interim report.
A dispute has since been growing over the interim report, which strongly suggests that Rengo stress establishment of tie-ups between individual politicians and unionists instead of continuing the conventional union-social democratic party block relationship. This, as I already indicated, triggered withering criticism from labor unions, under both old-Domei and old-Sohyo banners, which were eager to support a political party as a group of labor unions.(2)
Moreover, big changes in the political climate, it is predicted, will produce a variety of difficult issues that will impede the establishment and implementation of Rengo's formal political policy.
Clearly, political reform, the current coalition's foremost political issue (the pillars are reform of the electoral system and reform of the political fundraising system), will have a great impact on labor unions' traditional political activities.
First, details aside, the seven-party coalition government and the opposition LDP have already decided to drastically revise the so-called multiseat constituency system and replace it with a combination of single-seat electoral districts and proportional representation. It is predicted that changing constituencies, if realized, could tremendously affect the conventional political party structure. Generally, the single-seat constituency system works against small parties and may result in creating confrontation between two big parties. If one of the two confronting large parties is assumed to be the LDP, the merger on a large scale of many other parties will be necessary to create the other big party. If not the merger of the parties, the all-out cooperation in elections between the parties will be called for. This scenario indicates that the SDPJ and the DSP, to which labor unions have thus far offered cooperation, will find it difficult to remain the way they are today.(3) Thus labor union's involvement in politics would inevitably undergo drastic changes.
Second, to prevent political fundraising scandals, a plan for party subsidies, the other pillar of political reform, is now being studied. This calls for the abolition of political donations by businesses and organizations, including labor unions, and the introduction of a system of personal donations and public subsidies to fund the political activity of parties. This plan, if followed through, will make it impossible for labor unions to act as political funding channels and will probably force them to change their involvement politics.
Of course, it is unpredictable whether these reforms will be translated into action, as Mr. Hosokawa vowed, and it is doubtful that reform of the political system, if implemented, could lead to a total ban on corporate donations, as the activity of political action committees (PAC) in the U.S. political arena shows. However, the political turmoil will certainly continue in the years ahead, and it will surely call for a review of the unions' political activities, which will then be layed out on the table. In light of such circumstances, the fundamental and underlying issue of the nature of political activities in which unions should be involved in order to represent the interests and views of members will arise(4).
1) Michio Nitta, "Probing Rengo's Political Policy", Japan Labor Bulletin, Vol.30-No.3, March 1991.
2) op., cit.
3) Among the Socialists are voices expressing strong concern that a political shake-up, like the one currently underway, will likely lead to disbandment of the SDPJ whose ultimate and foremost raison d'etre is to preserve the ideals of pacifism stated in Article 9 of the Constitution. The impact these voices will have on the future political shake-up has attracted much attention.
4) No detailed sources are given here; however, related articles in the Asahi Shimbun, the Japan Economic Journal, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Shukan Rodo News were principal references.
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