On 14 December 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won what appeared to be a resounding victory in Lower House elections for the second time in two years. But a closer look reveals that these ‘victories’ were rather odd. The ldp could not secure even 20 per cent of the votes of Japan’s total electorate in either contest. The party had actually commanded a higher share back in 2009, when it lost control of the Lower House and was obliged to turn over the reins of government to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. That was the only time voters had ever interrupted Japan’s so-called one-party democracy, known locally as the 1955 system for the year in which the ldp was founded. (The ldp had also briefly been forced into opposition in 1993 because of defections from the ranks of its own legislators.) The ldp’s return to power in 2012, with a lower share of the electorate than that which got it kicked out in the first place, is generally ascribed in Tokyo to a boycott by the dpj’s erstwhile supporters, an abstention repeated last December.

The dpj had been swept into government in 2009 on the hopes of millions of Japanese voters for real political change. But the demise of the first dpj cabinet under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in 2010 demonstrated that those hopes had been misplaced. Hatoyama was sabotaged by parts of the bureaucracy and by a concerted campaign in the serious newspapers. Such attacks dog all ambitious reformist politicians in Japan, appearing with the predictability of flies buzzing around farm animals on hot days. But in Hatoyama’s case, the bureaucrats and pundits who brought him down were able to enlist the crucial help of the American foreign-policy establishment, dismayed by the dpj’s promise to overhaul Japan’s security set-up and foreign relations.

Since the end of the us Occupation in 1951, Japan has functioned effectively as an American protectorate rather than an ally. The 1951 us–Japan Security Treaty, amended in 1960, is effectively a base-leasing agreement, allowing the Pentagon to maintain a large network of military bases throughout Japan, with much of the cost borne by the Japanese taxpayer. For practical purposes, Washington has enjoyed veto power over Japan’s foreign and defence policies. The dpj leaders had talked of reducing the American military presence and negotiating improved relations with Beijing. Japan’s spokesmen in the United States—ldp partisans almost to a man—used such talk to convince Washington that the dpj was anti-American and threatened the status quo in the region. Officials in charge of Japan at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, mostly Pentagon alumni, fretted over the effects on the much-heralded ‘pivot’ towards Asia and the White House aligned itself with the ldp opposition. The Obama Administration proceeded to deal with Hatoyama in a manner so insulting that, had it been directed at the leader of almost any other country, millions would have poured into the streets demonstrating against the United States. In Japan, by contrast, this contemptuous treatment of a sitting government gave the ldp and its mouthpieces in the Tokyo media the ammunition they needed to demonstrate that the dpj was damaging Japan’s most important foreign relationship.footnote1

Hatoyama’s two dpj successors, fearful of a similar fate, steered clear of controversial foreign-policy initiatives, and a rift developed in the reformist party that became its undoing. Its last Prime Minister, the technocrat Yoshihiko Noda, betrayed his party with a call for an early election in 2012 to secure the Ministry of Finance dream of higher taxes. Bereft of all credibility, the dpj was punished by the boycott of millions of its former supporters. Together with the disproportionate weight of more conservative and rural constituencies in Japan’s electoral set-up, plus the country’s unique system of candidate-based first-past-the-post balloting and party-based proportional voting, the boycott has allowed the ldp to translate its base of less than 20 per cent of Japan’s electorate into commanding Lower House majorities. Its leader, Abe, had served once before as Prime Minister, having taken over in 2006 from the show-bizzy Junichiro Koizumi. Abe thought that enough had been done in liberalizing the Japanese economy during the Koizumi years to allow him to turn to what was really important to him: the long-cherished right-wing agenda of tearing up Japan’s postwar arrangements, with their supposedly alien notions of democracy and constitutional government. The public greeted these earlier efforts with a long yawn. Beset by a series of scandals and pilloried in the press as tone deaf—kuuki yomenai, or ‘can’t read the air’, is the Japanese term—Abe resigned after less than a year in office.

Six years later, in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the Fukushima disaster, Abe appeared to have learned the lesson that if a government appears unresponsive to people’s economic fears and aspirations, little else can be accomplished. On taking office for the second time in December 2012, he announced ‘three arrows’ to transform the Japanese economy. He put a new man in charge of the Bank of Japan to shoot the first arrow, a round of quantitative monetary easing to rival Ben Bernanke’s: some ¥65 trillion ($350bn) in 2013, rising to ¥80 trillion ($450bn) in 2014. A ¥10.3 trillion ($116bn) binge of spending constituted the second arrow; Abe could rely on a legislature that would do what it was told in matters of fiscal stimulus. The third arrow was an ill-defined package of ‘structural reforms’. But the lack of concrete detail really didn’t matter since the first two arrows accomplished what Abe wanted: goosing the stock market and trashing the yen. Corporate Japan was ecstatic as its profits and export receipts surged in the wake of the sharp currency weakening, although the quantities of exports barely increased. The economic sugar-high lasted long enough for the ldp to win Upper House elections in July 2013.

That gave Abe the freedom to do what he and the people around him really wanted: set about restoring the openly authoritarian government of the inter-war years. The ldp didn’t have quite the super-majority it needed to tear up the 1947 Constitution, which much of the party had long pegged as an alien document imposed on Japan.footnote2 So Abe acted as if it were nothing but a piece of scrap paper, ramming a blatantly unconstitutional act governing the treatment of confidential information through the Diet late in 2013 that gave the government the power to label anything it wanted ‘classified’ and to prosecute anyone who attempted, even unwittingly, to find out what might actually be going on. Then on 1 July 2014 the Cabinet announced, at Washington’s urging—and without legislative approval—that Japan would henceforth engage in ‘collective self-defence’—meaning that Tokyo could dispatch troops to take part in conflicts that did not threaten Japan itself. Since Article 9 of the Constitution ‘renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation’, specifies that ‘land, sea and air forces will never be maintained’ and states that ‘the right of belligerency’ will ‘not be recognized’, the Cabinet’s announcement was tantamount to a declaration that Japan had become a lawless state, governed by executive decree.

Meanwhile, Abe had also stacked the management of nhk, the state-run television network, with far-right appointees, led by the conservative businessman Katsuto Momii, and began worshipping at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. This former spiritual centre of Japan’s wartime nationalist cult not only memorializes the souls of millions of Japan’s war dead, but also those of convicted war criminals who were enshrined there in 1979 by rightist priests—the reason why official visits to Yasukuni have, since then, provoked fury in China and South Korea, and why Japan’s emperors stopped going to the shrine.