October 8, 2005


We're turning Japanese - so Labour could have 30 more years in power (Niall Ferguson, 09/10/2005, Sunday Telegraph)

We in the English-speaking world still tend to expect the major parties to take fairly regular turns at running the country. Power in Britain has changed hands seven times since the Second World War - in 1945, 1951, 1964, 1970, 1974, 1979 and 1997. In the United States during the same period the White House has been home to six Republicans and five Democrats. But consider the cases of Germany and Japan, where democracy has also been functioning smoothly since it was restored after the Second World War. The German Christian Democrats have lost power only twice since 1949 and are on the brink of regaining it as I write.

In Japan, voters swing even less. Last month Prime Minister Junichoro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party won a decisive election victory. This means that, apart from a brief ten-month interlude in 1993-94, the LDP has now been in power for more than half a century.

With its elaborate code of politeness and its intricate social hierarchies, Japan is the nearest thing to another planet you are ever likely to visit. Things work with an efficiency that irresistibly reminds the Western visitor of Star Trek's Mr Spock (a perfect example being the automated toilets that wash and dry your backside for you). Yet in some ways Japan is not Vulcan at all. It is simply the future of planet Earth. Ahead of the curve in so many ways, Japan may also be showing us where 21st century Western politics is heading: forward to the new one-party state.

The phrase "one-party state" is usually associated with undemocratic regimes. Fascists and Communists alike were always attracted to the forms of popular rule - speeches, rallies, campaigns and even votes - while dispensing with the essential ingredient of choice. Yet one-party states can also arise in free societies.

The Japanese case is, in fact, far from unique. The Social Democratic Party governed Sweden without interruption from 1932 until 1976. The Christian Democratic Party occupied a position of similar dominance in Italy from 1945 until 1980. The Labour Party ran Israel from independence until 1977.

It has happened in the English-speaking world too. Apart from Peel's government in the mid-1840s and a handful of short-lived minority ministries on either side of it, the Whigs were in office from 1830 until 1874. The Tories were in power (albeit sometimes in coalitions) from the First World War until the end of the Second, with only the briefest of Labour interludes in 1924 and 1931.

In the United States, the Democrats had a virtual stranglehold on Congress from the 1930s until the 1960s. My colleague at Stanford's Hoover Institution, Marty Anderson, points out that since 1968, the Republicans have been quietly building up a position in all the key institutions of US government that could prove equally enduring.

To be sure, in every case apart from Japan, all these near-monopolies on power have expired after around 40 years - slightly less than a generation. But if a week is a long time in politics, a generation is an eternity. Just ask any of today's Tory wannabes how they fancy shadowing their Labour counterparts for, say, another 32 years.

Is it conceivable that this is not the beginning of the end of Labour rule, but only the end of the beginning? Is Britain turning Japanese? I can think of four good reasons why it might be.

The truly frightening thing for Republicans to consider is: what if Bill Clinton had been serious about making Democrats a Third Way party and beaten W to it?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 8, 2005 11:12 PM

That article is just warmed over Kojeve, who was in his turn warmed over Hegel. More End of History nonsense. The dialectic is far from done. The Japanese have just managed to sit the last few decades out because of our generosity.

Posted by: Pepys at October 9, 2005 2:45 AM

More "Rising Sun" blathering.

With its elaborate code of politeness and its intricate social hierarchies, Japan is the nearest thing to another planet you are ever likely to visit. Things work with an efficiency that irresistibly reminds the Western visitor of Star Trek's Mr Spock [...] Yet in some ways Japan is not Vulcan at all. It is simply the future of planet Earth. Ahead of the curve in so many ways...

Also, behind the curve in so many ways.

The Star Trek reference is particularly apt, although not in the way that Niall Ferguson means.

When Vulcans and humans first meet, the efficient and emotionless Vulcans are far superior to humans, technologically - but by the 24th century, the setting for the original series, the humans control a vast area of space, with a central government headquartered on Earth, and the Vulcans are only a junior partner in the whole organization.

So too are the Japanese destined to play only a small role in the 21st century.
The elaborate code of politeness and intricate social hierarchies lead to rigidity and poor adaptibility.
In Japan, asking for help apparently means a loss of face, so during the Sarin attacks on the Tokyo subways, victims were staggering out of the subway and collapsing on the sidewalk, but most of them didn't ask anyone to help them, and passers-by just stepped around them.
The Japanese are just coming out of a FIFTEEN YEAR recession, seven years longer than the U.S.' own Great Depression, one that was prolonged by the central government's inability to rapidly effect banking reforms, and by the society's inability to quickly and deeply cut the number of available jobs.

Japan ain't goin' to the Super Bowl, although they will continue to have winning seasons.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 9, 2005 4:12 AM


If given a choice I would prefer the 15 year Japanese Recession (not really recession for that time span) to the 7 year US Depression.

Real GDP in Japan grew at an average of roughly 1% yearly since 1990.(1960's 10%, 1970's and 80's at 5%) Not comparable at all to the 1930's depression in the US (Real economic output (real GDP) fell by 29% from 1929 to 1933) Compared on the basis of unemployment the Japanese unemployment rate has peaked at roughly 5%, while the 1930's US unemployment rate peaked nearer 25%.

Posted by: h-man at October 9, 2005 6:45 AM

At the end of the American Great Depression it was the most powerful nation oin Earth and has dominated the world for the sixty years since. Japan is dying.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2005 7:46 AM


Where's the functioning alternative to liberal democracy?

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2005 7:52 AM

Yeah, that was a rough time, but it was over fairly quickly.

1934 saw real GDP growth of 10.8%, 1935 saw 8.9%, and 1936 an astounding 13% - which is why some people, even today, revere FDR.


Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 9, 2005 8:01 AM

Those numbers are a function of how much damage he and Hoover had already done. Unemployment was 15% even as late as '39 when the War began pulling us out of the Depression despite FDR.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2005 8:59 AM

The highlight of Al Gore's political career was bringing the pictures of Mr. Smoot and Mr. Hawley onto the debate with Ross Perot on Larry King Live.

As for Japan, their efforts over the years to freeze out foreign imports captured far more attention than their efforts to freeze out foreigners, in an effort to maintain their homogenity and, with the advantages of being an island nation, it's concensus. America's mix of nationalities doesn't restrict the same type of thinking -- every group has its people who want to keep the next group out after they've gotten in -- but it does make it far more difficult to push that argument and expect it to go anywhere.

Posted by: John at October 9, 2005 11:29 AM


Of course he's opposed every trade treaty since.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2005 11:38 AM

OJ: What's the alternative to liberal democracy?

It's too early to say. A concept first has to settle in as accepted truth before its antagonist will arise. And, I don't know even we Americans REALLY ACCEPT liberal democracy as the end of political history yet.

Posted by: Pepys at October 9, 2005 12:01 PM


Four hundred years seems to make it a pretty settled issue.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2005 12:11 PM

OJ: Our only real difference is whether or not your "Third Way" is the end of history or if it is just another thesis awaiting its antithesis. I think we both agree that liberal democracy is the dominant concept on the stage. For my part, I think there will be a challenge some time in the next 100 years. I do admit that I have no idea what form it will take.

Posted by: pepys at October 9, 2005 12:56 PM

Of course there will be more challenges, but they'll likewise fail.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2005 1:07 PM

Surprised no one has mentioned Canada as another of these one-party states.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 9, 2005 5:48 PM