On June 5, 1999, a junior high school principal in Osaka was stabbed and seriously injured by a member of the yakuza, Japan’s mafia. He had refused to raise the hinomaru—the Rising Sun flag—or allow the kimigayo anthem (‘Let the Emperor Rule Forever’) to be sung at the graduation ceremony. In February, the principal of a high school near Hiroshima had been driven to suicide: conflicting pressures from the Ministry of Education, ordering the use of song and flag, and from his own teachers, urging him to stand firm, had proved unendurable. A show of respect for the national symbols was made mandatory in Japanese schools in 1989, but it is only in the last two years that it has been seriously enforced. What is going on here? And why has a seemingly minor cultural dispute blown up into such a major political controversy, with such dire, even fatal, consequences for some of its participants?

It is an odd controversy, for while those who oppose the compulsory use of flag and anthem have not hesitated to give their reasons—chiefly, their close association with pre-1945 militarism and imperialism—the government, though responding to most criticisms, has been strangely silent about what led them to precipitate this crisis in the first place. What did they hope to achieve? Why is it so important to them? And why now? The one-sided character of this exchange, and its overheated style, have led many foreign observers to put it all down to Japanese exoticism. But mysteries, even Japanese ones, generally have explanations. My attempt to unravel this political mystery will seek an explanation for the government’s actions in a Marxist analysis of the distinctive requirements of Japan’s capitalist state.

The Japanese state has never been easy to understand. In the thirteenth century, for example, Japan was ruled by an emperor who was, in reality, the puppet of a retired emperor and his courtiers, who in turn responded to the orders of a military dictator, or shogun, who was himself completely under the control of his regent. Even today, the play of mirrors continues to deflect direct empirical inquiry. Can the Marxist theory of the state help to elucidate what one of the best books on this subject has reluctantly come to view as the ‘enigma’ of Japanese power?footnote1

The typical Marxist critique of the state in capitalist democracies plays down the role of the bureaucracy, treating the government as the chief instrument of the capitalist class. It generally considers only overtly political institutions to be parts of the state, and views demo­cratic forms and practices, such as constitutions and free elections, as the main sources of legitimation. This approach serves quite well for most capitalist democracies, but in the case of Japan it is grossly inadequate in five important respects. Firstly, the elected government here is extremely weak. Secondly, the higher state bureaucracy dominates both the elected government and the corporate sector. Third, a large number of top positions in government and business are held by retired bureaucrats. Fourthly, many essential state-political functions are performed by what appear to be non-state bodies; and finally, the main legitimating agent for the state, for its form and for its actions, is the emperor system—a hangover from Japan’s feudal past.

There is no dispute on the first point, though the weakness of the elected government never ceases to shock on first encounter. As Walter Mondale noted, shortly after assuming his post as US Ambassador to Japan, ‘In the Diet, when you see bureaucrats also participating in the debates, answering questions, preparing amendments, preparing the budgets, you realize that this is a society in which the publicly elected side is very limited’.footnote2 As a US Senator, Mondale had had a personal staff fifty-strong to provide him with the information and expertise he needed to be an effective legislator; a member of the House of Representatives would have about twenty-five. His equivalent in Japan has a staff of one or two, Cabinet ministers only a few more. Where an incoming American president appoints several hundred high-ranking civil servants, owing their first loyalty to him, an incoming Japanese prime minister appoints a few dozen. Lacking the means to arrive at well-informed positions, it is not surprising that weekly Cabinet meetings last scarcely fifteen minutes and consist mainly of rubber-stamping what in-house bureaucrats have already decreed. Only once since 1955 has the Diet amended the budget the civil service presents, while the rapid prime ministerial turnover (on average, one every two years; ministers, one per year) also contributes to an elected government that is more shadow than substance. In the crisis following Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo’s stroke in early April 2000, it was a civil servant, Chief Cabinet Secretary Aoki Mikio, who stepped into the breach as acting prime minister—and who seems to have played a decisive role in choosing Mori Yoshiro to succeed.

In the past, teaching courses on the Soviet Union, I devoted a whole month to the Communist Party and just a week to the Supreme Soviet and Council of Ministers (who may not have deserved even that). The case of Japan is not so different, although here the ultimate source of power is the higher state bureaucracy: the upper echelons of the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) and the State Bank. Some have questioned how this could be, given the fact that the civil service in Japan is less than half the size of its counterparts in Western capitalist countries, but this only shows that its considerable power is more concentrated, less diluted by checks and balances of various sorts. The Ministry of Finance’s zaito—a separate fund, made up from the Post Office savings deposits and public pension assets—for example, is two-thirds the size of the official government budget, and is used solely at the Ministry’s discretion.

A comparison might be useful: Japanese bureaucrats are not formal advisors to top politicians, don’t move freely between administration and politics, or run for elected office while retaining their posts, as in France. They do not sit in Parliament, as they do in Germany, or serve on presidential commissions, as in the US. Japan’s leading bureaucrats don’t need to do these things to influence the government because, in effect, they are the government.