The temptation to exoticise foreign places always wars against the drive to look for (and find) the familiar. Give in too much to the first and we neglect underlying similarities between different systems and cultures; go too far with the second and we risk ignoring real differences and being misled by false analogies.

Both effects are at work in trying to understand Japanese politics. The differences are real: Japan does not work the same way that a Western democracy does, despite the superficial likeness. But the similarities are real and important as well.

Let’s start with the similarities. A long-ruling conservative party, relying especially on rural support, is seen to have become stale and out-of-touch, with a leader pushing retirement age. Finally, it goes down to heavy defeat at the hands of its centre-left opposition and its younger, newly installed leader.

It could easily be Australia in 2007, but it’s also Japan in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan under Yukio Hatoyama defeated the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party of prime minister Taro Aso.

There were similarities in the aftermath as well. Like Kevin Rudd, Hatoyama was not granted quiet enjoyment of his victory. Unable to meet the high expectations he had generated, he was eased out by his party’s powerbrokers in June last year. Now his successor, Naoto Kan, also plagued by poor opinion polls and factional warfare, has announced his resignation, and the DJP yesterday chose finance minister Yoshihiko Noda to replace him.

In Australia, this would suggest a degree of panic that not even the Labor Party has succumbed to. Not so in Japan, where mid-term changes of prime minister are much more common, although in the past they have been associated more with the LDP.

The entrenched factional system in the LDP became notorious for making and unmaking prime ministers. Time and again, relative unknowns were elevated to the top job, only to fail to capture the public imagination and to be dispatched in their turn after a year or two — of the past seven LDP prime ministers, only Junichiro Koizumi managed to last more than three years. Now the DJP seems to have caught the same disease.

The problem, and the most important thing marking out its system as different, is that Japan is still feeling its way towards a two-party system. The LDP governed with only one short break in 54 years; in the Cold War era its opponents, with their scepticism about the American alliance, were seen as too dangerous to be permitted power, so, as with the similar case of Italy, it became a de facto one-party system.

The DJP was only created in 1998 in an attempt to unify the scattered opposition forces. In Japanese terms it is positioned on the centre-left, but although it supports a strong welfare system it also stands for greater reliance on the market as against the ossified bureaucracies that characterised the LDP’s rule. In office, however, reform has been slow and difficult, hampered first by the global financial crisis and this year by the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent problems with the Fukushima nuclear plant.

None of yesterday’s five leadership contenders stood out as likely to make a dramatic difference. Before the vote, trade minister Banri Kaieda was regarded as the front-runner, with the backing of the most powerful factional chief, Ichiro Ozawa (who had previously supported Hatoyama).

But after no candidate won a majority in the first round, supporters of former foreign minister Seiji Maehara —  at age 49 the youngest in the field — rallied to Noda, his factional colleague. (Maehara was said to be the public’s preferred choice, but the factional system rarely seems to treat that as the main consideration.) In the final ballot Noda defeated Kaieda by 215 to 177.

Noda now has two years to build public support before the next election — by no means a hopeless task, since the DJP’s record is disappointing rather than awful and there seems little enthusiasm for the opposition LDP. But what the government needs most is some stability at the top.

Peter Fray

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