New Terasaki Center Director Studies Japan's Changing Political Landscape

New Terasaki Center Director Studies Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in Tokyo on one of the final days of campaigning before the July 2007 upper house election. Less than two months after his party's defeat, Abe announced his resignation. (Photo by brentonhyoshi via Flickr)

Political scientist Michael Thies sets current Japanese politics in context and discusses his plans as director of the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA

It was clear that if I was going to study international trade and international political economy, I should study Japan.

When Michael Thies started college at UC Berkeley, Japan was making headlines around the world.

"Japan was the country that everyone was worried about," says Thies, an associate professor in the UCLA political science department and the new director of the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA. "Japanese companies were buying out American icons—real estate, golf courses, and film studios—and so it was clear that if I was going to study international trade and international political economy, I should study Japan." Thies also became keenly interested in Japanese culture at Berkeley and took several courses in Japanese literature, musciology, and history; his undergraduate minor was in Japanese Studies.

Japan's economic boom of the 1980s raised doubts in the United States about America's economic vigor in the global marketplace. At the time, remarks Thies, there were books being published about the United States' coming economic war with Japan. The mid- to late-1980s in Japan were a time of record real estate and stock prices, but overinvestment had slowed the country's economic growth dramatically by the 1990s.

Michael Thies, the new director of the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. (Photo by Vincent Lim)

By then, Thies was hooked on Japan, and continued researching its economics and politics at UC San Diego, where he earned his doctorate in political science. His dissertation focused on Japan's long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Japanese fiscal policy.

"The one thing that Japan is most famous for since the end of World War II is its so-called 'economic miracle,' and deservedly so. But there's nothing—even in a free-market, capitalist economy—that isn't affected by government policy," Thies says. "You learn pretty quickly that most of what the government does has to do with the economy."

The early 1990s was an apt moment to reassess the LDP. The party's perceived invulnerability lasted until elections on July 18, 1993, when it failed to win a majority in the powerful lower house of parliament. A coalition of new parties and established opposition parties formed a governing majority, elected a new prime minister, and passed landmark political reforms in January 1994 to change the electoral system.

The new system combined first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts—which favors big parties, and, in the short run, the LDP—with proportional voting, which is best for small parties. It also reduced the number of seats in overrepresented rural areas, traditionally strongholds of the LDP, and put tighter restrictions on the use of political money, a perennial LDP trump card. Thies explains that "most seats come from the single-member districts, which political scientists know tend to produce two-party competition, [and so] the eventual emergence of a big opposition to rival the LDP party was expected."

Institutional Memory

One of the ironies of the LDP's defeat in the July 29, 2007, upper house elections was that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won numerous rural constituencies by promising to restore all of the subsidies that the LDP had reduced. The "old LDP," as Thies says, was interested in protecting small farmers from foreign competition, while many in today's LDP are more "liberal" in economic terms and more willing to deregulate industry. Thies says people do not talk much about the changes the LDP has undergone since it was established.

Although the upper-house defeat was historic for the LDP, Thies says that many have seen Japan as moving toward a two-party political system since the electoral reforms of 1993.

"It's not a pure two-party system like the U.S., but there is no other pure two-party system like the U.S. in the world," Thies says.

Thies was suprised that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not resign immediately after the LDP's recent loss. Past Japanese prime ministers whose parties suffered major election defeats have stepped down promptly. Abe delayed his resignation announcement until last week. He belatedly realized that that it would be difficult to push forward with his plans because of DPJ control of the upper house, Thies says.

This year Thies becomes only the second director of the Terasaki Center. Historian Fred G. Notehelfer founded the Center and directed it for 16 years, guiding its growth as it established a community outreach program, an annual colloquium series, graduate student fellowships, faculty grants, and the two Terasaki endowed chair positions. Thies says he intends to continue to nurture these programs.

He also plans to devote resources to the creation of workshops where scholars working on similar research would be able to collaborate and learn from one other. Thies says these workshops would supplement, not replace, the colloquium series created by his predecessor.

"There's no filling Fred's shoes," Thies says. "His success at building up the Center and raising money has just been astounding."

Published: Monday, September 17, 2007