History: The earliest recorded history of Japan dates back to the reign of the emperor Jimmu during the sixth century BC. Japan was subject to strong Chinese and Korean influence thereafter, but was unable to develop a strong centralised State based on the Chinese model. Political and economic power was in the hands of a group of noble dynasties which operated on a largely feudal basis. The 12th century AD saw the emergence of the shogun, a military governor drawn from one of the great families, who ruled with the consent of the others, although most of their energies were devoted to internecine warfare. Only an external threat such as the attempted Mongol invasions in the late 13th century would unite the various families against the common enemy. This helped create a latent national consciousness which slowly developed over the next 300 years.
The actual unification of Japan began during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), during which a national administrative hierarchy was forged from the family structures of the ruling class. During this period the shogun retained supreme executive power. One of the hallmarks of this period from an outsider’s perspective was Japan’s unyielding resistance to foreign influence; despite its powerful position in the region, which brought it into contact with the European imperial powers, Japan conducted a kind of anti-foreign policy. In the late 19th century, as the Tokugawa regime eventually declined into inertia and profligacy, a new breed of rulers took control and embarked on a programme of rapid industrialisation, establishing a Western-style system of administration in the process.
The military was the main driving force behind this process. However, formal executive power was in the hands of the Emperor, who inherited his position and was treated by most of his subjects as a demi-god – all-powerful and remote. Japan’s imperial ambitions in the Far East developed during this period, exemplified by the occupation of Korea in 1905 after the defeat of its main imperial rival, Russia, in a war that had begun the previous year. The Japanese took little active part in World War I, despite a formal declaration of war on Germany, but Japanese factories produced munitions and supplies for the Allies throughout. In the 1920s and 1930s, Japan resumed its expansionist regional policies (despite economic difficulties caused by the global recession) with China as the main target. Japan’s subsequent collision with the British, who had substantial political and economic interests in China, contributed to her alliance with Germany in World War II.
Between 1938 and 1941, Japan’s forces occupied China and South-East Asia and expelled the British from Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. At its zenith, the Japanese empire, which carried the Orwellian title ‘Co-Prosperity Zone’, stretched as far south as Indonesia and eastwards far into the Pacific. The American entry into the war in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor turned the balance against the Japanese, who were slowly pushed back over the following four years, finally surrendering after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan was occupied by American troops, and in 1946, the Americans imposed the constitution that governs Japan today.
The years from 1950 to 1990 were a period of exceptional economic growth which took Japan from the brink of annihilation to the world’s second most powerful economy (see Business Profile section). This remarkable achievement was not matched, however, in the political arena, where the government’s domestic policies were frequently self-serving and bordering on the corrupt. Foreign policy, meanwhile, was all but non-existent until the demands of international trade forced the government to address the outside world. Throughout the East Asian region – most of which had been occupied by the Japanese during the 1930s and 40s – there was still strong resentment, especially in China and the Koreas, of Japan’s brutal treatment of its subject populations. This was compounded by the fact that, in stark contrast to the de-nazification process which transformed post-war Germany, Japan was (and, to some extent, still is) in a state of denial about this period of its history.
Japan’s main postwar political party has been the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, or Jiyu Minshu-to), which was formed in 1955 from a coalition of centre-right groups. It held a continuous grip on political power from then until 1993. The defining feature of the LDP is its factional make-up. Most modern political parties are broad alliances of groups which may differ on specific policies or methods but subscribe to the overall objectives articulated by the party leadership. In the LDP, by contrast, the greater interests of the party were subordinate to the interests of the factions. Thus the factional leaders of the LDP have often enjoyed even more power than senior ministers. Successive Japanese governments have frequently been beholden to the whims of these faction leaders.
The latest phase of Japan’s political development dates roughly from 1989. In that year, Japan acquired a new Emperor when Akihito succeeded his father, Hirohito. The role and status of the Emperor remains a sensitive issue. While Hirohito was never fully rehabilitated because of his knowledge of Japanese war crimes, Akihito represents a new generation of Emperor because he has adopted the more personable style of European monarchs, rather than taken on the inaccessible demi-god status of his predecessors.
The accession of Akihito coincided with the first indications that the Japanese economic expansion was stalling (see Business Profile section). The 1990s brought other important changes as Japan was adopting a more substantial foreign policy consistent with its economic muscle. A modification to the constitution in 1992 allowed Japanese troops to be posted overseas, albeit in a peacekeeping role only. A decade later, this is still a controversial subject: the Koizumi government (see below) plan to send Japanese peacekeepers to Iraq sparked furious national debate. In February 2004, Japanese troops finally entered Iraq for humanitarian work, and they look set to remain indefinitely, although a rough deadline is sketched in for December 2004. There are still many, however, who contend that this very act undermines their pacifist constitution.
More generally, Japan now enjoys substantial influence throughout Asia and Australasia through its investments and aid programmes. As a member of the G8 group of the world’s most powerful states, Japan started to exert substantial influence on the world stage. Relations with most of its neighbours and trading partners have undergone some degree of improvement, although there have been regular trade disputes, particularly with the USA and the European Union. The only major territorial dispute is with the Russian Federation over the Kurile Islands off the coast of Hokkaido: this has yet to be resolved.
In July 1993, the LDP lost control of the Diet for the first time since 1955. It found itself in opposition to a seven-party coalition comprised of leftists, centrists and LDP defectors under the leadership of Morihiro Hosakawa, head of the Nihon Shinto (New Japan Party). The unwieldy coalition collapsed after a year, allowing the LDP to recover power. The LDP was now led by ex-finance minister Ryutaro Hashimoto who had made his name as a tough and effective trade negotiator. At the next general election in October 1996, the LDP was reconfirmed as the party of government.
The 1997 Asian currency crisis exposed deep structural and administrative problems in Japan. Six years later, despite the abundant evidence of Japan’s continuing financial malaise, the problems have still not been properly fully addressed by successive governments. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, LDP faction leaders turned on the incumbent Hashimoto (who was also deeply unpopular in the country) and he was ignominiously turfed out of office. Two transitional leaders, ex-Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi and faction leader Yoshiro Mori, then held the premiership in quick succession. After scraping through the November 2000 general election, the LDP was about to recall Hashimoto when an unlikely would-be saviour appeared in the form of Junichiro Koizumi, a former minister with a huge popular following by virtue of his flamboyant personal style and evident determination to break with the past. The LDP’s overwhelming victory in upper house parliamentary elections in July 2001 secured his position.
In October 2002, the Koizumi government finally unveiled plans to tackle the country’s financial crisis. Barring unemployment, which has reached an unprecedented 6 per cent, the programme had begun to show results by late 2003 as government measures began to take effect. This was the main reason for Koizumi’s successful re-election campaign that saw the LDP returned as the largest party.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won an overwhelming victory in lower house elections in Septemebr 2005, giving his party and its coalition ally a key two-thirds majority in the new Parliament. Mr Koizumi promised to push on with post office reform, which he had put at the heart of his campaign. He said he still intended to step down in September 2006, when his term as President of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ends; resigning from that post would see him giving up as Prime Minister as well.
Government: The Japanese parliament is the bicameral Kokkai (or Diet). The upper house (Sangi-in) has 252 members directly elected from constituencies for six-year terms (half of which are renewed every three years). The lower house (Shugi-in) has 500 members elected for four-year terms partly by single-seat constituencies, partly by proportional representation. The Diet approves the appointment of a prime minister who holds executive power with the assistance of a cabinet of ministers. The appointment of the prime minister is formally entrusted to the Emperor who is head of State but has negligible constitutional powers.