TODAY Japan can be called a one and one-half party state. The weak and divided Japanese Socialists cannot seriously challenge the massive Liberal-Democratic Party. In large measure, this has always been true. Even when the Japanese conservatives were divided, prior to 1955, they consistently polled close to two-thirds of the vote in national elections and a considerably higher percentage in most local contests. Until recently, however, the Japanese Socialist Party was filled with hope for the future. Its position was much stronger than in the prewar era; after a sharp setback in the 1949 election, the party had made moderate but steady gains. In spite of vexing internal problems and a period of open cleavage, it had edged upward in each successive election, both in percentage of votes and number of seats in the Diet. The increases were attributed largely to voting trends among the postwar generation and the recently emerged labor class. Some saw in these trends the approach of a Socialist era. At least Japan seemed to be moving in the direction of a genuine two-party system.

Any such trend, however, has been reversed. Optimism in Socialist ranks has been replaced by gloom. The Japanese Socialist Party has been stopped in its tracks and now faces another internal crisis of major proportions. New clouds first appeared in the election for the House of Representatives in May 1958, when the Socialist rate of growth declined, and a serious question was raised as to whether the party could ever attain power under its current organization, leadership and policies. This issue became more critical after the House of Councillor election of June 1959. While the Socialists managed to increase their membership in the upper house slightly, their percentage of the vote declined. Local elections also continued to go very badly for them. The party could not seem to rise above the tremendous barrier that separated it from some two-thirds of the Japanese voters.

Failure produced increasing self-criticism and vigorous internal debate. This exacerbated the personal and ideological cleavages long existing in the party. Finally a new explosion occurred. The immediate issue was the "Nishio problem;" the occasion was the party's general convention held in Tokyo last September. Certain militant groups within the dominant left-wing of the party demanded the ouster of the veteran right-wing leader, Suehiro Nishio, head of one of the seven factions composing the Socialist Party. The drive was spearheaded by the Socialist Party Youth Division; Sohyo, the powerful General Council of the Japanese Trade Unions; and such allies as the Wada and Matsumoto factions of the party. Nishio was charged with committing "anti-party action." Specifically he was accused of failure to support party policy on the issues of the Mutual Security Treaty and China.

For five stormy days, the Socialist convention fought over the Nishio issue to the exclusion of almost all other questions, though perhaps all other questions were in some measure contained in this issue. A recess was finally taken, and a month later the convention reconvened for two days. When the smoke of battle had cleared, the precarious unity established among Socialist factions in October 1955 had once again been broken. Although he had not been ousted, Nishio and his faction decided to walk out of the party in protest against its "anti-democratic" tendencies and "pro-Communist" elements. They established a Reconstruction Council which proclaimed its support for "democratic socialism," and promised to seek support from "the whole nation, not merely the labor unions and farmers' organizations." The other part of the Socialist right-wing, the Kawakami faction, decided to remain in the party, at least temporarily, but constituted itself an "internal opposition." It refused to accept positions on the Central Executive Committee except for the post of Secretary-General, already held by one of its members, Inejiro Asanuma.

Once again the Japanese Socialist Party appears to have moved to the left, but the situation is both fluid and complex. The left-wing itself is divided into numerous factions. The largest and most moderate group on the left is the faction headed by Mosaburo Suzuki, aging party chairman. His "main stream" faction faces strong opposition from some of the more doctrinaire leftist elements. In reality Socialist Party unity has rested for a considerable period upon an alliance of the "center" between the right-wing Kawakami and the left-wing Suzuki factions. In the past few months, these two groups have struggled desperately to preserve party unity. They successfully opposed the resolution ousting Nishio. And when the Kawakami group decided upon "internal opposition," the Suzuki group moved to take almost all of the Executive Committee posts to prevent any further right-wing slippage. Thus such militant left-wing factions as those of Wada and Matsumoto were not given representation on the new Committee although an ally, the Nomizo faction, received two appointments.

The Suzuki faction hopes to preserve the status quo by this means until next spring when it expects to call a special convention to consider "suitable party reorganization." Clearly the fate of the Japanese Socialist Party hangs in the balance. Is it doomed to a series of disastrous splinterings and long-range impotence, or will it discover some route to renovation? The answer to this question, together with the determination of basic Socialist ideology, will have a decisive effect upon the future of Japanese democracy.

The difficulties faced by Japanese Socialism are due to a variety of causes, some specifically related to the movement itself or to the society in which it operates, others revealing a common bond with Western Socialism and its contemporary dilemma. To explore the problems, let us begin by examining briefly the organization and leadership of the Japanese Socialist Party. While the Socialist slogan has long been "to the masses," these masses have usually been a mirage, seen dimly on the horizon, but rarely approached in the flesh. Like most Japanese organizations, the Socialist Party has been an exclusive, semi-closed association. Its foundations at the grass-roots level are extremely weak.

At the time of the 1958 elections, the party had only 60,000 members although it polled over 13,000,000 votes.[i] It was reported at the 1958 general convention of the party that there were 1,320 party branches, including some special district and factory branches, scattered among the 4,104 political subdivisions of Japan. Thus the party has an organization in less than one-third of the cities, towns and rural hamlets although such an organization requires only 30 members in the case of cities and 20 in the towns.

In 1957 the party adopted a cadre system in the hope of expanding its organization. The Central Executive Committee was authorized to appoint central and local organizers in order to recruit members and affiliated organizations. The Socialist Party accepts as an affiliate any organization that supports the platform and policy of the party and where one-third or more of the officials are party members. By 1959 eight central organizers and 158 local organizers had been appointed. There are also provisions for district organizers to be appointed by the prefectural party federations. Eventually the party hopes to have five organizers in each prefecture.

Up to the present, however, this new system has not accomplished spectacular results, and other organizational plans are now being discussed. Party membership at the time of the 1959 convention was only 65,000, and the number of branches remained approximately the same. The Japanese people still look at the Socialist Party from the outside. And perhaps the most distressing fact is that the number of young cadre elements within the party appears to be declining.

The position of the Socialist Party in Japanese politics has sometimes been described by using the symbolism of the inverted pyramid. The party's greatest strength lies at the national level; currently it holds 237 Diet seats or about 30 percent of the total number. Its position at the prefectural level is much weaker; there are 482 Socialists in the prefectural assemblies, representing 18.5 percent of the total number. A further sharp decline takes place at the city and district level; here the Socialists have only 908 assemblymen or a mere 4.6 percent. Finally, the 666 town and rural hamlet assemblymen represent only .6 percent of the officials at this level. This is a reflection both upon the nature of Japanese society and the nature of the Socialist Party.

Japan is still a predominantly conservative society, and the rural population, constituting over 40 percent of the electorate, votes overwhelmingly for the Liberal-Democratic Party. The Socialists receive only about 15-20 percent of the rural vote. Why does the farmer vote so strongly conservative? Tradition provides only a partial answer. It is true that the agrarian vote in most societies tends to be conservative, that the flavor of hierarchy and obedience to authority is declining more slowly in rural than in urban Japan, and that the conservatives have a heritage of local organization which they have maintained in spite of social change. It is also important to note, however, that rural Japan has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity since World War II, and that the reforms most desperately needed were provided not by the Socialists but by the Occupation. The farmer may vote conservative because he is relatively satisfied. In addition, he has no real alternative because the Socialist Party has been unable to formulate a program that would appeal to the rural voter, despite its awareness of the problem. One of the principal reasons, of course, is the dominance in the party of the labor unions.

Under the Japanese system of unionism, the single enterprise or plant is the basic unit of labor union organization. These enterprise unions are then federated into regional and national associations. Union candidates for the Diet may be sponsored at various levels, but in any case, the union (sometimes with help from management in the case of locally-sponsored candidates) contributes the campaign funds. Some indication of the importance of that support can be seen from the following statistics: in recent national elections, 73 percent of all candidates sponsored by Sohyo unions were elected; 68 percent of those sponsored by unions in Zenro, the moderate Japanese Trade Union Congress, were successful; and 84 percent of those jointly sponsored won. When one contrasts this record with the generally dismal results among the non-sponsored Socialist candidates, the rising power of the unions within the Japanese Socialist Party can be understood.

The importance of union sponsorship to Socialist candidates cannot be measured in terms of funds alone. The unions also represent the most logical source of organization. With the Socialist Party generally weak at local levels, only the union can provide the necessary facilities for campaigning in many areas. This is particularly true in the case of Sohyo, which contains many government workers' unions--such as the Railway Workers, Communications Workers, Postal Employees and Teachers--that provide national coverage.

Under these conditions the Japanese Socialist Party has increasingly become a one-pressure-group party. Over 50 percent of the party members are workers, most of them from organized labor. A constantly growing number of Socialist Diet members and party officials have risen via union channels. Naturally they are primarily responsible to their "constituencies," the union which put them in office and must keep them there. Thus the split between the two major labor federations and factionalism within these federations is faithfully reflected in the Socialist Party. This helps to explain why the party has recently seemed to move leftward when by all political rules it should be seeking rural and urban middle class votes through more moderate policies.

Although ideological conflict within the Japanese Socialist movement is sharply modified by personality struggles, it is not rendered meaningless. Marxism continues to have a powerful hold on the left wing of the Socialist Party. The recent controversy over whether the party should be a "class party" or a "national party" symbolizes the deep ideological rifts that exist. The left-wing thesis has been expounded repeatedly by Itsuro Sakisaka, veteran Marxist and Professor at Kyushu University. This thesis rests upon a remarkably old-fashioned, classical Marxist approach, one that seems largely oblivious to major trends in the twentieth century. Sakisaka argues that since a capitalist society is composed of "two basic classes," the capitalists and the proletariat, it is only through a struggle between these two that "the fundamental contradictions in present-day society can be eliminated." Therefore, one must establish a class party to conduct this struggle. The "fundamental contradictions" will not be resolved if the Socialist Party attaches importance to the farmers and small entrepreneurs. It is possible to enter into an alliance with them "if the party has strong foundations among the workers." But only a working-class party can "truly represent" them. Hence the theory of a national party is useless.

Moderate Socialists both within and without the party have sharply challenged the class-warfare theory. They have taken their stand with democratic Socialism and the procedures that it requires. The cleavage between the right and left wings can be revealed by a number of crucial issues. Starting with the basic issue of tactics and strategy, it is not easy for the left wing to abandon the historic Marxist belief in revolution. Perhaps its current position might best be described as "parliamentarianism plus," a willingness to use parliamentary tactics but not to be totally bound by them, feeling some freedom to go beyond these tactics into fields of "direct action" even when this conflicts with the law. The right wing insists that one must abide by the rules of the parliamentary game if chaos or suppression is not to result. To straddle the fence between evolution and revolution is to undermine the democratic movement in Japan, they assert.

The content of a Socialist program is also under strenuous debate, a debate that clearly reveals the Marxist-social democratic divisions. Differences in domestic policy run on a continuum. If the two extremities of the party are compared, these differences seem sufficiently large to be considered differences in kind, both in policies and in terminology. On the left, the emphasis is upon the proletarian state, extensive nationalization and "smashing Fascist oppression." All of these themes are expressed in orthodox Marxist terms. On the right, the goals are popular democracy, a mixed economy with greatly increased social welfare measures, and additional protection for civil liberties and human rights. The underlying tone is that of Christian or Fabian Socialism. These differences are clearly displayed in reactions to current pressure groups also. The left stands for militant, ideological unions going beyond legality if necessary. They also seem anxious to give organized labor the preeminent role in the Socialist Party. The right not only favors a party more accurately reflecting the social balance of Japanese society, but also supports "realistic unionism" attuned to the basic problems of the workers rather than a union movement vying with the party in political activities. Attitudes toward other economic groups can be understood from this position: the left views "the capitalists" as arch-enemies, and sees the farmers and small entrepreneurs as at best appendages to the working class; the right also denounces "monopoly capitalism," but it is unwilling to think in the old, rigid class terms when contemplating party support.

The nature of this issue suggests some of the major problems faced by Japanese democracy. The gap between the two major parties in Japan today is enormous. A shift in power, while not likely under present circumstances, would amount to a revolution. The dominant wing of the Japanese Socialist Party is not fully committed to parliamentarianism, and the dominant wing of the Liberal-Democratic Party is not fully committed to democracy, at least from the standpoint of egalitarianism and social-economic justice. These facts produce mutual distrust. It is not easy to protect minority rights if the minority contemplates--even casually--the subversion of basic institutions. But in contrary fashion, it is more difficult to support majoritarianism if minority rights are not respected.

Perhaps in Japan this problem has been made more complex because of the fact that neither Japanese personal communications nor the decision-making process are adequate to the needs of a modern democratic state. It has been said by Masamichi Royama that the Japanese communicate without really communicating. This is to say that personal exchange in Japan can easily be ritualistic and only with great difficulty can it deal frankly and openly with the central issues at stake. The elaborate protocol involved in such contact serves as a screen, convenient or otherwise, against the transmission of thoughts. Moreover, historically, Japanese decision-making has involved consensus, and this remains the only truly accepted procedure. The parliamentary system depends, at least partially, upon majoritarianism, the moral validity of which is still in doubt in Japan. Thus Socialist distrust of conservative motives is compounded by their antagonism to conservative Diet tactics, an antagonism that contains a strong traditional component.

In foreign policy the left ranges from a position that appears friendly to the Communists to one that stands on a staunchly neutralist base in attempted emulation of the "Nehru line." The latter position is coupled with an intense interest in the concept of an Afro-Asian element in world affairs that would stand outside the two world camps. It should be noted, however, that even among the left-wing Socialists support for a popular front with the Communists is negligible. This is partly because the Japanese Communist Party is weak and unimportant, itself riddled with factionalism. It could scarcely be an important asset. Socialist policy also reflects the recognition that this party is labeled a Russian-dominated party in the Japanese mind, and the Soviet Union is not popular in Japan. Finally some of the left-wing Socialist leaders were once Communists; they are still considered "right-wing deviationists" by the Communists and attacked accordingly. The left-wing Socialists are naturally opposed to the alliance with the United States, and they are especially militant on such issues as American bases in Japan, Japanese rearmament and Okinawa. They will use every possible means to fight the conservative attempt to amend or remove Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution which would make unlimited rearmament possible.

The right-wing Socialist position on foreign policy also has a considerable range. Some would even consider a limited alliance with the United States. Most feel strong cultural and ideological ties with the West, and some regard an American military shield as desirable for Japan under present circumstances. There is little disposition, however, to favor any revision of the "anti-war" clause. Pacifism has deep roots in the Japanese Socialist movement and was reinforced by the devastation of the last war. Many right-wing Socialists, however, would accept the present limited rearmament for defense purposes only. Within the right wing also there are numerous exponents of non-alignment, and considerable sympathy exists for the foreign policy of India. Japanese economic and military vulnerability combine to give neutralism some appeal.

This review of policy differences within Japanese Socialism provides an indication of the continuing strength of Marxism in that movement. The left-wing Socialists, most of whom are strongly under Marxist influence, may now control close to 70 percent of the party. Since Marxism has greatly declined in most Socialist movements of the world, why does it remain strong in Japan? As noted earlier, the Japanese Socialist Party is largely a one-pressure-group party, but behind labor stands the intellectual, and the strength of Japanese Marxism is largely attributable to the intellectual class.

There can be little doubt that Japanese intellectuals have had a penchant for theory and a certain contempt for empiricism. This taste was fortified and possibly induced by the needs of the times. A desire on the part of the modern Japanese existed to catch up intellectually as well as technologically with the West. It could be argued that there was no time for empiricism--and no need. One had only to borrow the latest Western theory and thereby ride the wave of the future. The intellectual climate of modern Japan has also been strongly imbued with historicism. Once again the interest in catching up contributed to this fact. A comparison of the Japanese position with that of the West inevitably involved an assessment of past, present and future. Theory and historicism combined present a fertile soil for Marxism.

To this can be added another factor: by both definition and proclivity the role of the modern Japanese intellectual has been largely one of non-participation. In Japanese tradition the function of the scholar was to think, not to act; and only if he conformed to this function was he accorded proper recognition. In modern times, although there have been a number of exceptions, the Japanese intellectuals as a group have been social critics rather than policy scientists. This tendency was aided by the fact that Japanese politics in the prewar era were dominated by conservative policies and a nationalist ideology containing certain strongly irrational features. It is not surprising that the intellectual found Marxism an extremely useful tool of social criticism. Moreover, his essentially negative function reinforced his bent toward abstract theory. Experimentation in the real world of politics and empirical research was largely missing.

In a broader sense this signals the crisis confronting Japanese Socialism today. The struggle between conservatism and Socialism in contemporary Japan is partly a struggle between a pragmatic, flexible approach and one that is increasingly rigid, abstract and apolitical. The Japanese Socialists run some risk of being considered by history as the real conservatives of this era, unable to evolve and frozen in impotence. Perhaps there is an element of exaggeration and distortion in this picture. The Liberal-Democrats also have basic problems, some similar, others different from those of the Socialists. There is, however, a suggestion in contemporary Japanese politics that continuity in power gives the conservatives an important advantage in adjusting to the changing requirements of power, and that continuity out of power heightens the Socialists' problem of moving from the world of the past into that of the present and future.

It is easy to say that the Japanese Socialists should become "more responsible," but how? Even apart from the grave problems implicit in their current leadership, organization and social foundations, how does a party become responsible without power, indeed, when it is almost without hope of power? If there is no legacy of policy to defend, irresponsibility is an omnipresent danger; the longer a party is separated from power, the greater the temptations are likely to become. And it must be realized that the Japanese Socialist Party has never truly been in power. It was hoped that when the party moved closer to power, it would also move closer to reality in an effort to hurdle the final gap. Now that it appears to be stagnating at the one-third mark, however, these hopes have faded, at least temporarily. The party cannot seem to break out of a closed circle: in order to attain responsibility, it must acquire power; but in order to acquire power, it must attain responsibility.

The purest, most classical Marxists in Asia today reside in Japan, not in Communist China. The Chinese Communist leaders have been forced into pragmatism by the requirements of power. But the Japanese Marxists have a greater "integrity;" seemingly oblivious to power, they continue their quest for doctrinal "truth," launching polemic attacks upon each other out of their tight little factional fortresses. To be sure, there are signs of a change. A younger generation of Japanese intellectuals is now emerging with much less interest in traditional thought. Many of these young scholars are studying some of the new methodologies and ideas current in the West. But the legacy of the past is still strong, especially in active political circles.

In the largest sense, however, the problem of Japanese Socialism appears to be connected with the problem of Socialism everywhere. Recently the British Socialists met to consider their recent defeat and to determine their future course. Some of the same issues plaguing the Japanese were clearly present. We are at a juncture in history when the "advanced" societies have accomplished, or are en route to accomplishing, many of the initial goals of democratic Socialism, albeit often under different designations. This in itself presents a significant challenge to the Socialist movement. Beyond that, however, an interesting question can be raised. Is it possible that progressive conservatives can conduct a "permanent revolution" with sufficient skill to keep Socialists out of power indefinitely? Needless to say, this would not be Trotsky's permanent revolution, but rather one in which the conservatives adjusted to the importance of the mass man, acknowledged and anticipated his most basic needs, and attuned organizational attention upon him with sufficient skill to put the democratic Socialists indefinitely on the defensive.

Perhaps such a "permanent revolution" is not possible, either in Japan or elsewhere. A sudden depression might easily reverse the picture--if it could not be modified by the government in power. Long continuity in power can lead to corruption, complacency or grievous errors, and thereby produce the mood for change. But there is just enough in the pattern of modern power and in socioeconomic trends in the "advanced" world to suggest a new problem for democracy: the problem of the perennial minority. Democracy is in peril if one party knows only how to govern and the others only how to oppose.

[i]The statistics used in this article are from the following sources: Taguchi Fukuji, "A Discourse on the Japanese Socialist Party," Chuo Koron, September 1958; "Changes in the Political Situation and the Japanese Socialist Party," Chuo Koron, September 1959; Hisayoshi Takeo, "The Organizational Strength of Reformist Parties," Shiso, June 1959; and Shimazaki Yuzuru, "For the Advance of the Japanese Socialist Party," Chuo Koron, February 1959.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ROBERT A. SCALAPINO, Professor of Political Science, University of California; recent holder of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for research in Japan; author of "Democracy and the Party Movement in Prewar Japan."
  • More By Robert A. Scalapino