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BOOK REVIEW | 'Examining Heisei Japan, Volume II: Politics'

Supervisor Shinichi Kitaoka and editor Jun Iio examine the political upheavals of the Heisei era, shedding new light on the past 30 years of Japanese politics.



"Examining Heisei Japan, Volume II: Politics" (2023, Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture) supervised by Shinichi Kitaoka and edited by Jun Iio.

Although this volume is numbered "II," it is the third to be released in the Examining Heisei Japan series sponsored by the Japan Institute for International Affairs. Volumes I and III, published in August 2021 and March 2023 respectively, have been previously reviewed in these pages. 

The timing of this publication, while late, is perfect. It comes in light of the tension among the factions of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), pressure from both coalition and opposition parties, the birth of new conservative parties, and the potential implosion of the LDP. 

Much of this political chaos and intrigue is reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 1990s, ie, the beginning of the Heisei era. If this observation turns out to be true, you better put your seatbelts on.

Structural Overview

This volume is made up of 5 parts, described later, and 22 chapters. As with the other two volumes, this book also includes a preface and helpful chronology. A Foreword, written by Kenichiro Sasae, president of JIIA, was prepared for this volume.

Because of the rapid changes in political realignments, I thought the book could have included a table on which parties comprised which administration. Almost all of them over the thirty years of the Heisei era were made up of coalition governments. Similarly, a chart listing all the political parties and their mergers and divisions would have been helpful. Even the most politically knowledgeable observers have difficulty tracking these changes.

As with Volume III, about the economy, the beginning of each of the five parts includes a short introduction of approximately 300–400 words. It describes the articles found in the section and additional information about the authors. Most of the chapters include endnotes, a bibliography, and in some cases appendices, for further reading and reference. Also, many of the chapters include helpful charts and figures.

In addition to the series supervisor Shinichi Kitaoka and editor Jun Iio, the latter who also contributed a chapter, twenty-three authors from different generations were featured in this book. Three of the authors are now deceased, but their writings represented highly respected analyses from the period.


The Essence of Heisei

The volume certainly captures the essence and structural dynamics of the era it surveys. I arrived in Japan in July 1990 in the early months of the new Heisei era and lived or studied just about every moment. Reading the articles included in this volume brought back both a lot of memories as well as a lot of frustrations about what might have been. For example, the building of a healthy opposition to be able to challenge the near-one-party dominance of the ruling LDP. 

The late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former President Hu Jintao (right) on October 2006, Great Hall of the People, Beijing. (Pool photo)

This is not necessarily an anti-LDP stance. Competition makes one better. The lack of competition is, I believe, as harmful to democracy as any manipulation of the system to favor one party over another.

With this said, while the LDP was in power for about 26 of the 30 years covered in this book, only two of its prime ministers lasted more than five years — Junichiro Koizumi (2001–2006) and Shinzo Abe (2006–2007, 2012–2020). 

Some 18 prime ministers served during the Heisei era. Of them, 13 were from the LDP (Abe served twice, so the number is technically 12). While not absolutely necessary, this volume could have provided a separate list of the prime ministers and a short biography. Eight have since passed away. 


Iio's "Preface" provides a good overview of the period. However, he missed referencing a few key events that shaped both public opinion and Japanese decision-making. These include the 1995 Okinawa rape incident, the September 2011 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the mishandling of the deliberate crash of the Chinese trawler into the Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku Islands in 2010.

Unlike the editor of the volume on the economy, Iio does not really offer his own perspectives on events. From having participated in study groups with him earlier in our careers, I know he possesses them. I would have liked to have read them here in this volume.

Screenshot of a video footage showing the Chinese trawler collision off the Senkaku Islands on September 7, 2010. (Provided by the Japan Coast Guard)

Iio selected articles for this volume from Japan Echo, Asian Journal of Political Science, Asian Survey, Japan Review of International Affairs, Japanese Journal of Social Security Policy, Social Science Japan Journal, and Nippon.com, among other sources. 

He curiously mentions that the selection of articles was limited by the number of English-language articles by Japanese writers. However, he could have expanded his search to include other academic journals as well as the very popular, but now defunct, Japan Quarterly, which included original as well as translated articles by Japanese (and non-Japanese writers).

Book Structure

As mentioned earlier, the volume is divided into five parts, each with 3-7 chapters. 

  1. Political Reform and the Anti-LDP Coalitions
  2. Partisan Realignment and Institutional Reform
  3. Top-Down Leadership and a Nascent Two-Party System
  4. The DPJ at the Helm
  5. "Kantei Leadership" and the Twilight of Heisei

For newcomers to Japanese politics, DPJ is the acronym for the Democratic Party of Japan. It was formed in 1998 and disbanded in 2016. And Kantei is the Japanese term for the Prime Minister's Office and implies centralized, strong political leadership.

Some readers might find the book too academic, but that is in part its value. Commentaries are easier to read but do not always age well. In comparison, academic pieces are generally based on well-researched facts and well-thought-out arguments and thus have a long, or at least longer, shelf-life. For these reasons, I highly recommend this volume to those interested in understanding Japanese politics over the past few decades. It also offers hints as to where Japan's politics may be headed in the future. 


On a final note, I hope the series organizers will consider making other volumes in the future, such as on education, entertainment, media, and other topics of interest. The Heisei era was not just a period we lived in or lived through but has historical, social, and structural implications in and of itself.

About the Book:

Title: Examining Heisei Japan, Volume II: Politics  

Authors: Supervised by Kitaoka Shinichi, edited by Iio Jun  

Publisher: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (2023)

ISBN: 9784866582474

Format: Hardcover and eBook


Reviewed by: Robert D Eldridge

Eldridge is a former associate professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Osaka University, and also the translator of numerous books, including "Watanabe Tsuneo, Japan's Backroom Politics: Factions in a Multiparty Age" (Lexington, 2013). Read his essays and analysis in English on JAPAN Forward.


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