Roadblocks Faced by Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party

From the Lecture Series: The Rise of Modern Japan

By Mark J. Ravina, The University Of Texas At Austin

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ruled over Japan almost exclusively for a long time. However, it failed twice during the period since Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1990. It lost the 1993 election, and then returned as a member of a coalition government in 1994, and won the 1996 election. More recently, it lost decisively to the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009. Let’s explore its fall and rise, and also the reasons for its failures.

Japan's Parliament house
With the rising number of opponents, the LDP’s share of votes decreased gradually. (Image: CAPTAINHOOK/Shutterstock)

Emergence of Third Parties

There were some long-term trends that looked problematic for the LDP. One challenge was the steady growth of third parties. The opposition was fragmented, but its total share of the vote was growing.

In 1960, the right-wing of the socialist party broke away to form a separate party, the Democratic Socialist Party. When they did, they lured away some socialist votes, but also some moderate LDP votes. A big threat was the Kōmeitō party, usually translated as the Clean Government Party, but also sometimes as the Justice Party.

Strong Opposition From Kōmeitō

The Kōmeitō was created in 1962 by the Sōka Gakkai religious group. The Sōka Gakkai appealed to those who thought of the LDP as corrupt and didn’t feel that the LDPs version of capitalism was working for them. Still, those voters were completely uninterested in the socialists’ prattle about the revolutionary struggle.

The Kōmeitō opposes the LDP’s goal of revising the constitution to create a Japanese military. The Kōmeitō is also powerfully anti-Marxist. By the 1980s, the Kōmeitō, the Democratic Socialist Party, and other minority parties were getting a combined 30% vote. That trend seemed to spell big trouble for the LDP.

The LDP also began to show signs of splintering along both ideological and personal lines. In 1976, a group of disaffected members created a new party called the New Liberal Club. Other centrists ran as independents.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern Japan. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Asset Bubble and the Recruit Scandal

The trend towards splintering the LDP was catalyzed by a 1988 corruption scandal in 1988 called the Recruit Scandal. The Recruit was, and is, a human resource company—a staffing service. It specialized in getting job notices to recent college graduates. It wanted special access to government data about high school and college students.

In 1986, just before the company went public, it sold of its stock to key politicians at below the initial public offering price. Afterward, the stock price soared, and the politicians got rich. It was a wonderful combination of insider trading and bribery.

Businessman handing out money to bribe
Corrupted and weak leaders of LDP failed to uphold their power and supremacy. (Image: Atstock Productions/Shutterstock)

The Recruit Scandal was uniquely toxic. First, a lot of people were bribed—almost the entire LDP elite. The prime minister had to resign, and many potential successors were tainted. More serious for the LDP was that the Recruit Scandal had legs. Because it involved insider trading, its impact was magnified when the bubble burst and the Japanese stock market collapsed.

Voters were angry and grew angrier as their own real estate and stock assets dropped in value. Some people wondered if the whole asset bubble was an insider trading scam with the possibility that the LDP had duped them all.

A Sex Scandal

The Recruit scandal was followed by a second incident. In 1989, the LDP chose Uno Sōsuke as prime minister, mainly because he appeared to be untainted. But he was promptly toppled by a sex scandal.

The details offer a wonderful insight into Japanese culture. Uno’s geisha broke the profession’s code of silence and talked to the press about their affair. She did so because Uno had broken the equally long-standing tradition of men ending such a relationship with a lavish gift. Uno was stingy.

Once the scandal broke, the tabloids went crazy publicizing the affairs of other major politicians. The press had a third unspoken rule of not publicizing the romantic affairs of powerful men, and that ended with Uno.

So, the LDP had to find a leader who was powerful enough to lead the party, not targeted by Recruit, and was without a mistress. That really narrowed the field. The party settled on a man named Kaifu Toshiki. And the joke at the time was that his major qualification as prime minister was his affection for his wife.

Dwindling Votes in 1993

All of these long- and short-term factors came together in the 1993 general election. A bunch of major LDP figures had broken from the party to form their own small spinoffs. As a result, the LDP got only 36% of the popular vote.

Hosokawa Morihiro, a former LDP politician, also did something unprecedented. Rather than rejoin the LDP to form a majority, he pulled together a sprawling coalition of non-LDP parties. It included his own spinoff, the Japan New Party, and two other LDP splinter parties, along with the older opposition parties: the socialists, the social democrats, and the Kōmeitō. Basically, everybody but the communists.

Failure of LDP and the Socialist Coalition

Following the loss of 1993, the LDP returned as a member of a coalition government in 1994, and won the 1996 election. That strange alliance of the LDP with its former enemies, the socialists, ended in 1996 after two disasters.

The first was a huge earthquake that hit the Osaka area in January 1995. The government response was terrible, and the press highlighted how victims relied on aid from non-government groups, including the yakuza crime syndicate. The second event was a domestic terrorist attack in March 1995.

LDP’s Second Loss in 2009

The LDP enjoyed a resurgence from 1996 until 2009 when it was replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

In many ways, 2009 was like 1993. The LDP was damaged by a corruption scandal, and it lacked a strong leader. And the public was angry about the still-sluggish economy now almost two decades after the bursting of the asset bubble. And because of the 1994 electoral reforms, couldn’t get a majority of the seats with a minority of the vote. However, the winning party, DPJ, had even more serious challenges to face and couldn’t survive them, and the LDP once again came to power in 2012.

Common Questions about the Roadblocks Faced by Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party

Q: When did the LDP lose elections?

The LDP lost elections twice: once in 1993 and then again in 2009.

Q: What were the primary reasons for LDP’s losses?

LDP‘s losses were largely governed by the party’s scandalous corruption, weak leaders, and reformed electoral policies.

Q: Who did the LDP lose to in the 2009 elections?

The LDP lost to the Democratic Party of Japan or DPJ in the elections of 2009.

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