With the exception of the period from May 1947 to March 1948, when a socialist, Katayama Tetsu, was prime minister and headed a coalition of socialists and conservatives, opposition parties failed to gain enough national electoral support to participate in forming a cabinet or to form one of their own until Hosokawa Morihiro's minority government was formed in 1993. In 1990 major opposition parties with representation in the Diet consisted of the Japan Socialist Party, the Komeito, the Japan Communist Party, and the Democratic Socialist Party (Minshato). Two smaller opposition parties were the Socialist Democratic League and the Progressive Party (Shimpoto). None had a sufficiently broad base of support to challenge the LDP at the polls, and in the early 1990s, they had not been able to form workable coalitions. An exception occurred in some local elections, where "progressive" coalitions were more effective in electing opposition candidates than on the national level.
The opposition parties were separated by ideology, with the Japan Communist Party and a significant faction of the Japan Socialist Party espousing Marxist revolution; the others were moderate and pragmatic. In many cases, the programs of the Komeito and the Democratic Socialist Party differed little from those of the LDP. Unlike the Japan Socialist Party, smaller opposition parties lacked the resources to run candidates in all the country's constituencies.
On various occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed that the end of conservative power was at hand. One such time was following the Lockheed scandal of the mid-1970s (a journalist at the time described it as "conservative power self-destructs"); another was the combined furor over the 3 percent consumption tax and the Recruit scandal in 1988-89. When the LDP was pushed into the minority in the July 1989 House of Councillors election, many commentators believed that Doi Takako, chairwoman and leader of the Japan Socialist Party, was within striking distance of forming a government, probably in coalition with other opposition groups, in the upcoming, more important general election for the lower house. That this situation failed to materialize suggested not so much popular contentment with the LDP as the opposition's inability to present a viable alternative to voters.
The opposition was important if only because its existence legitimized Japan's claim to be a modern, democratic state. Moreover, the Japan Socialist Party and the Japan Communist Party played a major role in the 1950s and 1960s in protecting the democratic institutions promoted by the United States occupation. The opposition's control of more than one-third of the seats in the Diet meant that amendments revising the constitution (such as the proposed rewording or abolition of Article 9) could not be passed. If conservatives had had their way in the early postwar years, some of Japan's prewar symbols and military power would have been restored, a move that most likely would have greatly affected relations with East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, where bitter memories of Japanese wartime occupation remained fresh.
In a political system where the ruling party habitually swept embarrassing matters under the carpet and the established press club system inhibited investigative reporting, the opposition functioned reasonably well, to use film scholar Donald Richie's phrase, as "carpet picker-uppers." They exposed and demanded parliamentary investigations of scandals like the Recruit affair. Routinely, they used meetings of the Budget Committee and other committees in the Diet to question cabinet ministers and government officials, and these sessions received wide media publicity.
Ideas first proposed by the opposition, such as national health insurance and other social welfare measures, were frequently adopted and implemented by the ruling party. The "Eda Vision" of moderate socialist leader Eda Saburo in the early 1960s--"An American standard of living, Soviet levels of social welfare, a British parliamentary system, and Japan's peace constitution"--were largely realized under LDP auspices.
Although opposition control of the upper house after the July 1989 election represented a change, the opposition had little impact on the legislative process. Regulations in the Diet Law and the rules of the two houses gave presiding House of Representatives officers the power to convene plenary sessions, fix agendas, and limit debates. Because these officers were elected by the LDP majority, they used these powers to constrain opposition party activity. Although the opposition could not filibuster, the lack of a time limit for formal balloting allowed them to use the gyuho senjutsu (cow's pace tactics) to cause excruciating delays in the passage of LDP-sponsored bills, walking so slowly to cast their individual votes that the process took several hours, sorely trying the tempers of LDP Diet members.
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