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opinion

Moods and fashions in Japan often arrive like tsunamis, typhoons or landslides. After more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted power, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been buried in a general election. Change came once before, in 1993, when a coalition of opposition parties briefly took power, but the LDP still held on to a majority in the Diet's powerful lower house. Sunday, even that last bastion fell.

The world, fixated on China's rise, was slow to pay attention to this seismic shift in the politics of the globe's second-largest economy. Japanese politics has a dull image in the world's press. Most editors, when they cover Japan at all, prefer stories about the zaniness of its popular youth culture, or the wilder shores of Japanese sex.

The main reason for this is, of course, that Japanese politics was dull, at least since the mid-1950s, when the LDP consolidated its monopoly on power. Only real aficionados could be bothered to follow the ups and downs of the ruling party's factional bosses, many of whom were from established political families, and most of whom relied on shady financing. Corruption scandals erupted from time to time, but these, too, were usually part of intraparty manoeuvres to rein in those who got too big for their britches.

The system worked in a fashion: Factional bosses took turns as prime minister, palms were greased by various business interests, more or less capable bureaucrats decided on domestic economic policies and the United States took care of Japan's security (and much of its foreign policy).

Some thought this system would last forever. Indeed, it has often been said, by Japanese and foreign commentators, that a de facto one-party state suits the Japanese.

Stability, based on soft authoritarianism, is the Asian way, now followed by China. Asians don't like the messy contentiousness of parliamentary democracy. Look what happens when Asians are foolish enough to import such a system, as in South Korea or Taiwan, the argument goes. Instead of civilized debate, they have filibusters and fisticuffs.

But, notwithstanding the occasional bust-ups, Korean and Taiwanese democracies seem remarkably robust. And the argument that Japanese, or other Asians, are culturally averse to political competition is not historically true.

In fact, Japanese history is full of strife and rebellion, and Japan was the first independent Asian country with a multiparty system. Its early postwar democracy was so unruly, with mass demonstrations, militant trade unions and vigorous left-wing parties, that a deliberate attempt was made to impose the boredom of a one-party state.

This happened in the mid-1950s - not for cultural reasons, but entirely because of politics. Like Italy, a close parallel, Japan was a front-line Cold War state. Domestic conservatives, and the U.S. government, worried about a Communist takeover.

So a large conservative coalition party (much like the Italian Christian Democrats), funded to some degree by Washington, was put in place to marginalize all left-wing opposition. This involved some strong-arm tactics, especially against the unions, but it worked mostly because the middle class settled for an informal deal: increased prosperity in exchange for political acquiescence. The "LDP state" was based on the promise, given by prime minister Ikeda Hayato in 1960, that family incomes would soon be doubled.

Increasingly marginalized, the opposition dwindled into an impotent force, mere window-dressing to a one-party state. But one-party rule breeds complacency, corruption and political sclerosis. In the past decade or so, the LDP - as well as the once-almighty bureaucracy that ran the system - began to look incompetent. Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi gave the party a last breath of life by promising reform in 2001, but it wasn't enough. The patience of Japan's middle class finally cracked.

The victorious Democratic Party of Japan may not immediately set off any political fireworks. Its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, is an uncharismatic scion of yet another established dynasty - his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, took over as prime minister in 1954 from Shigeru Yoshida, who was the grandfather of the last LDP prime minister Taro Aso.

The DPJ's aims are excellent: more authority to elected politicians, less bureaucratic meddling, less dependence on the United States, better relations with Asian neighbours, more power to voters and less to big business. Whether Mr. Hatoyama and his colleagues have the wherewithal to achieve these aims is an open question, but it would be wrong to belittle the importance of what has happened.

Even if the DPJ fails to implement most of its reforms in short order, the fact that Japanese voters opted for change will invigorate their country's democracy. Even if the system were to become like Japan's democracy in the 1920s, with two more or less conservative parties, this would still be preferable to a one-party state. Any opposition is better than none. It keeps the government on its toes.

A firm rejection of the one-party state will also reverberate far beyond Japan's borders. It shows clearly that the desire for political choice is not confined to a few fortunate countries in the West. This is a vital lesson, especially at a time when China's economic success is convincing too many leaders that citizens, especially but not only in Asia, want to be treated like children.

Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. His latest book is The China Lover.