The question that remains to be answered is whether this is a one-time protest vote or call for systematic change. History is not encouraging. After a scandal in 1976, a reform-minded group broke away from the LDP to form the New Liberal Club. The new party had little effect on Japanese politics and was reabsorbed into the LDP within 10 years.
So what comes next? Americans will be able to detect little immediate change.
First, the new leaders are the same old leaders with the same long-standing attitudes on trade and other issues. Only their party affiliation may have changed.
Second, in trade matters, the United States government conducts trade negotiations with Japanese bureaucrats who will remain at the table no matter what party or parties control the next government. Moreover, Japanese politicians traditionally have had little, if any, impact on the bureaucracy.
With a weaker than usual political leadership, the Japanese bureaucracy can be expected to fill the resulting vacuum, and resist American demands for meaningful trade liberalization progress in the upcoming framework talks. Indeed, the bureaucrats have already tried to back away from the initial framework declaration signed earlier this month in Tokyo.
A weak central government will also enable the Japanese bureaucracy to gain strength in other areas. Several parties have called for an income tax cut as a way to help consumers and stimulate economic growth. The Ministry of Finance, however, is expected to fight these efforts tooth and nail. As former United States trade representative William Brock recently noted, "in [political] situations like this, the bureaucracy tends to gain power."
The Japanese can expect to see few real immediate changes either. The Japanese political system still remains biased toward rural districts, where one vote carries five times the weight of a vote in an urban district in Tokyo or Osaka.
At the same time, Japan's corruption-ridden election financing system remains intact, almost guaranteeing endless new rounds scandals and preventing elected political leaders from yielding decisive power. And as the Diet's largest party, the LDP will continue to have an overwhelming interest in blunting reform efforts.
As the Japanese politicians attempt to form a government, anyone expecting immediate change in Japanese politics or policies will be disappointed. The LDP and the Japanese bureaucracy are clearly down now. But they are hardly out, and )) have shown surprising resilience over the years. The emergence of several new parties marks only the beginning of the overhaul of Japanese politics -- and a very tentative one at that.
Clyde Prestowitz, author of "Trading Places" and a former U.S. trade negotiator, is the president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. Gregory Stanko is a research associate at the institute.