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Japan Modern History

After World War II, Japan has been a peaceful and democratic nation focused on economic development and large trade exchanges with other countries. Politics has almost always been dominated by the Liberal Conservative Party LDP. For several decades, economic growth was so strong that it was described as a "miracle". Since 1990, the economy has been deteriorating, but the standard of living is still high. At the same time, the severe earthquake and tsunami of 2011 have reminded Japan that it is constantly living with the risk of natural disasters.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, the country was occupied for seven years by the United States. The armed forces were discontinued and a new constitution and parliamentary system were introduced in accordance with American patterns. Japan lost all its conquests and also areas that were always seen as Japanese. Several military and civilian leaders were convicted of war crimes and executed.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Japan. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

Only in 1951 did Japan make peace in San Francisco with the United States and other Western allies. However, the Soviet Union, China and many states that occupied Japan did not participate. The same year, a Japanese-American pact was signed that gave the United States the right to have troops on Japanese soil, including an air base on the island of Okinawa (see also Foreign Policy and Defense). On April 28, 1952, Japan again became independent as an East Asian bastion against communism in America's emerging global security system.

In 1955, two Conservative parties, the Democrats and Liberals, joined forces in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that formed government that year. The Tokyo Olympics 1964 became the symbol of the new Japan that rose from the ruins. Aided by the country's strong growth, its ties to the business community and the divide of the opposition, LDP appeared to be steadfast in power.

In 1974, the setbacks began. Then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka resigned after he failed to cope with the high inflation triggered by the international oil crisis (see Economic overview). In 1976, he was jailed for being bribed by aircraft manufacturer Lockheed. In 1986, the next LDP scandal came: high politicians and government officials had enriched themselves on real estate shares and the head of government Noboru Takeshita was allowed to go, but his party retained power.

Contemporary History of JapanIn 1989, Emperor Hirohito died. Crown Prince Akihito took over and a new era, Heisei, began. In the same year, for the first time, the LDP lost its majority in Parliament's upper house. At the same time, the Socialist Party (JSP) had a great election success. The Kuwait crisis in 1990 sparked debate over whether Japan would support the Western powers in the war against Iraq. The critics, especially the JSP, felt that it violated the Constitution. In 1992, however, a law was passed that allowed the Japanese military to participate in peace operations abroad.

After yet another corruption scandal, more and more people demanded an end to the scam. Disgruntled LDP politicians formed the parties Shinseito (Renewal Party) and Sakigake (Pioneer Party), who together with the Social Democrats (SDP, formerly JSP) and the New Japan Party (JNP), were able to add LDP to a historic election defeat in 1993. But the shift was short-lived. The LDP affiliated with the SDP, withdrew the government in 1994 and allowed the SDP's 70-year-old leader Tomiichi Murayama to become prime minister. He broke with several old party dogmas: a military defense would no longer be seen as a constitutional breach and the country's ties to the United States would remain the basis of foreign policy. LDP defender Ichiro Ozawa brought the opposition together in a new major reform party: Shinshinto or the New Progress Party (NFP).

After an earthquake that took several thousand lives in Kobe in 1995, the government was severely criticized for poor preparedness and lame rescue efforts. In March 1995 came the next shock. Thousands of people were poisoned in Tokyo's subway by the nerve gas sarin and twelve of them died. The tracks led to a religious doomsday sect, Aum Shinrikyo, led by blind guru Shoko Asahara. In 2005, Asahara was sentenced to death. A dozen other sect members also received death sentences for the subway council or other serious crimes.

The 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War prompted many in 1995 to demand official prayer for Japan's armed crimes against other peoples. The LDP government went on to express "deep regret" over the suffering Japan caused and Prime Minister Murayama asking the outside world for forgiveness. A series of financial crashes showed that politicians did not cope with the long recession of the 1990s. Old brokerage houses collapsed and several big company executives were arrested for illegal million payments to extortionists.

In April 2001, the LDP appointed 59-year-old reformist Junichiro Koizumi as new party leader. He promised to reduce government spending, the budget deficit and unemployment and quickly appointed five female ministers; more than in any previous government. Koizumi had strong support, but Japan's economy remained shaky and voters' hopes for a turning point faded.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, Japan joined the US war on terrorism with support efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan (see Foreign Policy and Defense).

Despite the country's economic problems and record high unemployment, the opposition found it difficult to win support, but in 2003 the Democratic Party (DPJ), formed in 1996, and the small Liberal Party announced that they would join forces to break LDP's power holdings. The new party was also called the Democratic Party.

Before the 2003 parliamentary elections, the DPJ, among other things, objected to Japanese troops being sent to Iraq, something Koizumi advocated but which was unpopular among voters. Several heavy corporate executives openly supported the opposition. The LDP promised millions of new jobs, remediation of the banking sector, pension reform and tax cuts. But Koizumi's reforms were controversial even within his own party and after the election, the LDP could only maintain its majority in the lower house by merging with a small conservative party. DPJ made a good choice while the left back.

The 2004 general election became another setback for the government, but it retained its control of the House with the help of partner Nya Komeito.

When Koizumi reshaped his LDP-led government, he also raised a heart issue - a privatization of Japan's giant government post office. With multibillion assets, 280,000 employees and central tasks also as a bank and insurance company, the agency was called the world's largest financial institution. In the summer of 2005, the lower house voted for privatization, but the upper house said no. When Koizumi then proclaimed new elections, he described it as an ideological issue; for or against a modernization of the economy. In the September 2005 election, the LDP clearly prevailed, which was interpreted as voters wanting to continue with the reform policy.

In the autumn of 2005, Parliament's two chambers voted to split the post office into four private companies. According to the decision, the savings and insurance companies would have been sold to private interests until 2017 - something that, according to the plan, would stimulate the economy.

In 2006, Koizumi resigned as both party leader and head of government when his term as LDP chairman expired. He was succeeded in both positions by Shinzo Abe who promised to continue the representative's policy and cut government spending rather than raise taxes. Abe also announced a review of the pacifism of the Constitution (see Political system).

Furthermore, Abe pledged to try to improve ties with neighboring countries that have taken bad action by Japanese leaders' annual visit to the Yasukuni Temple ("Peace Land") in Tokyo. The memorial honors Japan's 2.5 million war victims - among them several convicted war criminals. China and South Korea have claimed that the visits give legitimacy to Japan's abuse during the war. In the home country, too, they have been controversial. Businessmen fear they are hurting Japanese business interests, and others claim that they violate the Constitution's injunction to keep state and religion apart. Koizumi and other politicians who pilfered there mean that they did not want to glorify the war but merely honor its victims and pray for peace.

Another debate took off since Crown Princess Masako gave birth to a daughter, her and Crown Prince Naruhito's first child in 2001. That the Crown Prince couple had no son got a government group in 2005 to propose also a female throne in Japan. The idea gained widespread support despite protests from conservatives and the government was preparing a law change. But the question of a woman on the throne was punctured when Princess Kiko, wife of the Emperor's second son Prince Akishino, in 2006 gave birth to a son.

After taking office as Head of Government in 2006, Shinzo Abe broke with the tradition that a Japanese Prime Minister's first official foreign trip should go to the United States. Instead, he traveled to China and South Korea. North Korea's nuclear test in October of that year was condemned jointly by Abe and China's President Hu Jintao. After visiting Yasukuni often, Abe in 2007 refrained from going to the temple himself. Instead, he sent a gift there, in an attempt to appease the nationalists without teasing the neighboring countries.

Prime Minister Abe's popularity fell sharply before the 2007 general election. Several scandals burdened the government, and a minister committed suicide after corruption revelations. But the Japanese were most agitated by reports of serious carelessness in the pension system. Over 50 million pension rights data had been deleted from the system.

It was therefore expected that LDP and its support party New Komeito would lose their majority in the upper house and make it harder to get through new legislative proposals. The opposition's DPJ won a full 60 of the 121 seats that were at stake and took over a majority of the upper house seats.

Despite the defeat, Abe said he would continue in his post Low opinion figures and tough opposition in parliament, however, led him to resign in September 2007. He had put his position at risk by advocating an extension of the military operation in the Afghan war - Japan provided the Western powers naval forces with fuel. Now he stressed that the country needed "a new leader to fight terrorism".

New LDP leader and prime minister became Yasuo Fukuda, who promised to reduce the central government debt, smooth the gaps between rich and poor parts of the country and continue Japan's western support in the war in Afghanistan. When the mandate for the Afghanistan operation was to expire, Parliament's upper house voted for an extension. The government then seized the constitutional opportunity to push through its yes despite the no of the upper house.

In June 2008, the upper house issued a statement of no confidence in Fukuda. The opposition-controlled upper house demanded new elections, which the LDP majority in the lower house quickly voted down. However, a few months later, Fukuda resigned, considering that only a new leadership could break the locked political situation. Dark clouds over Japan's economy contributed to the declining popularity of the government.

LDP's newly elected secretary general Taro Aso took power in September 2008. In October, Aso presented a stimulus package of the equivalent of 5 trillion yen, or about one percent of Japan's GDP, to boost the economy. His politics met opposition from both the opposition and parts of his own party. In early 2009, a party veteran Yoshimi Watanabe decided to leave the LDP and try to form a new grouping. He was against the government's proposal for a supplementary budget for 2009-2010, where an element was to pay citizens money to encourage increased consumption and stimulate the economy out of the recession. After the DPJ-controlled upper house rejected the proposal, the lower house in March said yes to the payments. As the lower house's decision was taken by a two-thirds majority, the upper house, in accordance with the Constitution, was overruled.

Now it was the turn of the opposition to end up in windy weather. This is due to a scandal in which DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa's chief adviser awaited prosecution for violating a campaign support law. Ozawa resigned in May 2009. But the LDP failed to take back the political initiative and suffered a noticeable defeat in the Tokyo local elections in July. Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Aso announced parliamentary elections in August.

The election led to a historic shift in power in Japan. DPJ took a full 42 percent of the vote, against about 27 percent for LDP. For the Liberal Democrats, the result meant the end of over half a century of almost unbroken rule and Taro Aso resigned as party leader.

When the new DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama took office as head of government in September, it was with good prospects to push through the party's politics. Two smaller parties, the New People's Party and the Social Democratic Party, had promised to enter into a coalition with DPJ. In the House of Parliament, Hatoyama pledged efforts to both create new jobs and stop state waste of resources. Special contributions to families with children would encourage increased childbirth.

The social reforms the government parties intended to finance mainly by cutting down on costly infrastructure projects; among other things, several dams would be stopped. The government also initiated measures to circumvent the traditionally large influence of officials on the country's government and state budget. The goal was to crush the "iron triangle"; the power elite of LDP politicians, top officials, and industrial champions that built up after the war and contributed to LDP's long reign.

Soon there were signs of a cautious economic recovery. The government promised to invest even more in boosting the country's economy. The record budget adopted by Parliament in March 2010 included 90 trillion yen (SEK 7,200 billion). However, funding through the issuance of new government securities was expected to dampen the government's already huge debt burden. In June 2010, Finance Minister Naoto Kan took over as Prime Minister and DPJ leader after Hatoyama, who resigned following a tiring battle over the US air base at Okinawa (see Foreign Policy and Defense). May promised to work to limit government debt.

The July 2010 general election was a setback for the government. The Social Democrats had already jumped off the Okinawat dispute. The DPJ and the New People's Party lost their majority in the upper house but could continue in office by virtue of their grip on Parliament's more powerful lower house.

Several embarrassing stories for the government soon fell into the shadows when Japan in the spring of 2011 suffered a severe earthquake. The earthquake triggered a tsunami that claimed over 18,000 lives and caused enormous material devastation. The situation was made worse by the fact that a tsunami wave also hit the nuclear power plant Fukushima Dai-ichi, where three out of six reactors were hit by meltdowns (see also the Triple disaster 2011).

Prime Minister Kan described the disaster as the country's most serious crisis since the Second World War. In July 2011, he said that in the long term, the country must be able to do without nuclear energy.

In August of the same year, Kan resigned as prime minister. He became the fifth head of government in five years to leave his post. The decision was expected. Kan, who was already pressed, had been criticized for lack of leadership during the crisis caused by the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. He was succeeded both as Prime Minister and DPJ leader by Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

 
 

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