It looks as if Japan, after fifty years as effectively a one-party state under the LDP, is about to have that tradition shattered by a landslide victory for the Democratic Party of Japan. And it appears that this will not merely be a change of personnel; it might herald a transformation of the governing system.
Japan has operated under a hyper-Whitehall system; the big ministries are largely independent power centers, only very vaguely responsive to political control. Even the Prime Minister’s staff is dominated by career folks, representing their ministries. (At one point it was the case that, before a new law went before the Diet, the civil servants from the affected ministries would work out written, but secret, “treaties” specifying how the laws would be implemented. I don’t know whether that’s still true.) As long as the economic miracle was rolling on, the voters don’t seem to have much minded the lack of democratic accountability. But the real estate bubble was the Katrina of MITI and the Ministry of Finance.
The DPJ is making noises about putting the politicians in charge, not least by expanding the PM staff with non-bureaucrats and creating a National Strategy Bureau that would have some of the functions taken by the Executive Office of the President in the U.S.
Japan and the U.S. have been at the two extremes of the spectrum, with Japan having many of the characteristics of a co-optive oligarchy while the U.S. has political appointees down to the fifth rung (the deputy assistant secretaries). A career-focused set-up provides expertise and continuity, but contributes to rigidity; a hyper-politicized set-up like ours drives good people out of the career service and robs the decision-making process of both expert knowledge and institutional memory.
I’m glad to see Japan moving away from its extreme; it would be too much to hope that the U.S. might move away from ours.