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The Logic of Japanese Politics: Leaders, Institutions, and the Limits of Change

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By Gerald Curtis
New York: COLUMBIA PRESS, 1999, 303 PAGES

Reviewed by David M. Potter

The 1990s were a trying decade for Japanese politicians and the public. It was a trying decade for scholars of Japanese politics, too. They struggled to come to grips with changes that had seemingly undone four decades of political stability, and with it the certainties that framed the teaching and research on the subject. Standing at a remove of five years from the 1994 electoral reforms that mark a watershed in postwar Japanese politics, Gerald Curtis’s book is a welcome overview of what has changed in the government and what has not. His prognosis of future developments in policy and politics, incremental change that may fail to address structural problems in the economy and government, rings true to any scholar who has recently visited Japan.

book cover for the logic of japanese politics: leaders, institutions, and the limits of changeThis book is many things. On one level, it is a defense of what has come to be called derisively the “area studies” approach to Japanese politics. This work is therefore part of an ongoing debate within the discipline of political science and the subfield of Japanese political studies about the proper way to study political institutions and behavior. There is no modeling, little in the way of overt interest in theory building. It is, in short, a highly readable book.

Curtis’s book is a rejoinder to non-Marxian structuralism, rational choice/public choice, and culturalist arguments about Japanese uniqueness. The former he finds overly deterministic, the second too simplistic when it is not tautological. As for the third, and he is in good company,1 the author convincingly demonstrates that there is nothing inherently unique about the conduct of Japanese politics in the 1990s (certainly not in the kind of electoral system the government adopted in 1994). Leaders act in particular ways because they want to effect certain policies within a set of environmental opportunities and constraints. Coalition government in Japan follows much the same logic as coalition government in Europe. Educators who fight the stereotypes about “Japanese culture” will find the author’s tone refreshing.

For Curtis, a fine-grained examination of the interactions between political leaders and the institutions they inhabit reveals that political leaders matter. Their environments do not determine the choices they make. Neither are they as singlemindedly rational in the narrow sense that rational choice theorists tend to assume. Politicians make strategic mistakes, or (in the case of coalition formation in 1993) do nothing until circumstances force them to. Policies are made according to calculations that depend upon how parties and their leaders perceive very different pressures, not all of them electoral. In any case, similar events across time have divergent outcomes because key actors differ. Politics has too many contingencies for rational choice or culturalist generalizations to encompass.

The book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of recent Japanese politics. In particular, Curtis demonstrates how the realignment of the 1990s (my term, not his) has changed institutional arrangements in the government and political parties. Coalition government after 1993 necessitated a new style of policy making in which previously dormant institutions in the parties and Diet became crucial, and in which others became irrelevant. In these discussions one gets a sense of how politics in the last decade fits into the longer span of postwar development.

As a textbook, The Logic of Japanese Politics is not a comprehensive survey of Japanese politics, such as Richardson and Flanagan’s dated but excellent Politics in Japan, 2 or Curtis’s own The Japanese Way of Politics.3 The focus in this volume is almost exclusively on political elites, especially party leaders. The voters get mention, but political movements outside the Diet are hardly even peripheral. For those who prefer to teach more broadly about Japanese politics, or who find that their students require a general overview of postwar politics, using a text such as J. A. A Stockwin’s Governing Japan4 in conjunction with the book under review here is worth considering.

This book is accessible to a wide audience. Undergraduates will like Curtis’s grasp of the details of political events; he has interviewed all of the key political players of the last decade, while instructors will find that enduring issues of political science are addressed. Curtis’s treatment of political reform in 1994, for example, could provide an excellent starting point for a comparative discussion of the real-world impacts of changing electoral rules. The book is a must-read for graduate students, and academics will find much useful synthesis and insight.


1. See, for example, Stephen Reed, Making Common Sense of Japan. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

2. Bradley Richardson and Scott Flanagan, Politics in Japan. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, and Co., 1984.

3. Gerald Curtis, The Japanese Way of Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

4. J. A. A. Stockwin, Governing Japan: Divided Politics in a Major Economy, 3rd ed. London: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.