The Rise of Political Opposition in Japan

Opposition victory in Japan’s 2009 parliamentary election served as a watershed moment in the country’s electoral politics. Analysts say political change in Tokyo could result in a possible shift in its close relationship with the United States, especially in security matters.

Last updated August 31, 2009 8:00 am (EST)

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The Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) landslide victory in August 2009 served as a watershed moment in the country’s electoral politics. Japan, a parliamentary democracy, had been dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), governing by itself or in coalition with others for nearly all of the last half century. But falling popularity of the LDP, an economy in decline, and growing public dissatisfaction with politics, gave a historic opportunity to the opposition. The DPJ had gained a majority in the upper house of the Diet (parliament) in 2007 and since had emerged as a viable alternative to the LDP. This political change in Tokyo could have repercussions for the U.S.-Japan alliance, especially on matters of security. Washington has often stressed that Japan -- a major military, economic, and political ally -- is a cornerstone in U.S. foreign policy in the region. Analysts say Washington will have to change the way it deals with Japan.

Single-Party Dominance- The "1955 System"

Post-World War II Japan experienced a decade of contentious politics. In 1955, amid a society and polity marked by ideological divisions, the conservative liberal and democratic parties united to form the Liberal Democratic Party. This was the emergence of decades-long, single-party dominance and what many Japan specialists call the "1955 system." Gerald L. Curtis, a Columbia University professor in the 1999 book The Logic of Japanese Politics notes that there were four pillars of policymaking supporting the 1955 system. Besides one-party dominance, he says the other pillars were public consensus in support of policies to achieve a catch-up-with-the-West goal, large interest groups with links to the political parties, and a bureaucracy of immense prestige and power.

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The LDP was initially supported by farmers, merchants, and small business owners. But by the end of the 1970s, Curtis writes, it "had successfully transformed itself from a traditional conservative party into a modern catchall party," drawing support from all social strata. He explains the LDP drew popular support from emphasizing themes of economic recovery, rapid industrial growth, and "’GNPism’ -- an ideology that focused on aggregate national indicators of economic progress, on the gross national product."

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"We’re also watching a transformation at a broader social level in Japan and a desire for greater and better types of political participation."     - Sheila Smith, CFR.

In 1993, the LDP lost power to an eight-party coalition, only to return to power less than a year later in coalition with the Japan Socialist Party. Curtis calls this a "definitive end to an era in which political competition pitted conservatives against progressives," another defining feature of the 1955 system. In 1994, the Japanese parliament passed legislation to reform the electoral system. Under the 1955 system, Japan had a proportional-representation system where members of the lower house were elected in multimember districts. The new system that came into force in 1994 provides for 300 lower house members out of a total of 480 to be elected in single-member districts (meaning the candidate securing the majority of votes in each district wins) and the rest in eleven regional proportional -representation districts. The new electoral system created the possibility of a two-party system, says CFR’s Senior Fellow for Japan Studies Sheila A. Smith.

"Consumer Tastes Have Changed"

Fifteen years after electoral reforms were instituted, Japan saw a political changeover when the DPJ, the largest opposition party, led by Yukio Hatoyama, overtook the LDP. The DPJ was formed in 1998 as a merger of four smaller parties and was later joined by the fifth. A mix of both right- and left-leaning members, the DPJ won control of the upper house in 2007. Analysts say the reason the traditionally risk-averse Japanese voters were ready to gamble on the DPJ because the LDP has failed to respond to the fundamental changes in Japanese society. "It’s the same reason General Motors went bankrupt," says Curtis. Both the LDP and GM, he says "didn’t understand consumer tastes had changed, the market had changed, and people wanted something else." Experts say LDP has failed to respond to the changing needs of an aging population that demands access to medical facilities, and social welfare, not more roads. "This is not just about parties (PDF), and not just about political systems," says Smith. "We’re also watching a transformation at a broader social level in Japan and a desire for greater and better types of political participation."

But the DPJ has an uphill task ahead. It remains untested as a party in power.  Plus, being an amalgam of left, centrist, and right-leaning politicians, it is troubled by internal factions primarily between conservative and liberal wings. Richard J. Samuels, director of the Japan program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says "in Japanese politics, factions don’t always represent different policy divisions," but in the DPJ’s case it has major policy divisions on issues of defense forces and U.S.-Japan alliance. In particular, the party has been divided on the issue of revising Article 9 of the constitution that forbids Japan from maintaining a military or from using force internationally for any reason.

Promise of Reform

The Japanese economy has been hit hard by the global economic crisis, suffering a year-long recession. It only began to emerge from the slump with less than one percent growth in its GDP in the second quarter of 2009, but most economists do not see a quick recovery. Unemployment rate rose to 5.4 percent in June, and Japan remains vulnerable to any faltering in export demand.

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"Japan is going to be more willing to say no to the United States [in the future]." - Richard Samuels, MIT

The DPJ advocates economic and administrative reforms, but some experts say the party lacks details on how it will pay for and implement these plans. "The DPJ proposes a reformist, left-of-center domestic agenda for Japan," says Weston S. Konishi, an analyst in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service. One of the main objectives of the DPJ, says Konishi, is to "strengthen Japan’s cabinet’s decision-making authority over the powerful bureaucracy, thus changing the long-held power dynamic in which politicians have less power over policymaking than the bureaucrats." The party hopes this will reduce the influence of vested interests over policymakers, he says.

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Japan’s parliament, compared to most industrialized democracies, is structurally weak (PDF), as is the office of the prime minister and his cabinet. CFR’s Smith says under proposed reforms, the bureaucracy and the politicians will have to craft a new relationship. Also, to reduce bureaucratic control over policymaking, it will require the country to develop alternate centers for policy expertise such as think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, or tap the business sector for fresh ideas, she says.

To fix Japan’s struggling economy, the DPJ has proposed a large-scale stimulus package to increase household disposable income through more tax cuts and direct payment transfers. It’s two-year nearly $218 billion stimulus proposal includes per capita child allowance of nearly $3,300 per child per year. Edward J. Lincoln, director of the Center for Japan-U.S. Business and Economic Studies at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says a DPJ victory may have a positive economic impact. He says the sense of empowerment among Japanese voters, as a result of achieving change in government, may improve consumer confidence in the economy and they may become more willing to spend money.

Many economists in the West, who have been advocating for Japan to move from a more export-oriented economy to a more consumer-driven one, favor such measures to stimulate domestic spending in the hope it might boost imports of U.S. goods and services. The DPJ also has proposed a free trade agreement with the United States. Lincoln sees little hope of that. Agriculture remains the sticking point in the trade relations of the two countries. The DPJ, like the LDP, favors agricultural policies that protect domestic farming interests, while the United States pushes for Tokyo to liberalize its agricultural sector and lower import tariffs.

"A Japan That Can Say No"

The change in political power in Tokyo could have ramifications for its alliance with Washington. Japan, the second-largest economy in the world, is United States’ fourth-largest trade partner with over $205 billion in two-way goods trade. It is also home to more than 50,000 U.S. military forces, and is crucial to U.S. plans for maintaining peace and security in Northeast Asia especially at a time of increasing concern about a nuclear North Korea and a rising China. The DPJ has stressed a foreign policy that’s more independent of Washington and an "equal" alliance relationship with the United States.

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Several experts recommend broadening dimensions of security to include energy efficiency and climate change to play to Japan’s strength and move toward achieving a more symmetrical U.S.-Japan alliance.

The DPJ has sent conflicting signals on its policy toward the U.S.-Japan alliance, as it grapples with intraparty divisions and struggles to differentiate itself from the ruling LDP, says Konishi. While the party has toned down its message on several alliance issues, its 2009 election manifesto proposes the revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, a reexamination of the realignment of the U.S. military forces in Japan, and the role of U.S. military bases there. In the past, it has been opposed to continuing Japanese military support for refueling ships in the Indian Ocean involved in the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan. The party has also opposed the transfer of 8,000 U.S. marines from the Okinawa base to Guam by 2014. According to the 2006 plan (PDF) for realignment of U.S. forces, Japan would shoulder $6.09 billion of the total estimated $10.27 billion costs for the relocation to Guam. The DPJ disagrees with the costs Japan would have to bear. It is also opposed to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station from Futenma to Nago, both in Okinawa prefecture, preferring the base to be relocated outside Okinawa.

MIT’s Samuels says in the future, "Japan is going to be more willing to say no to the United States" on issues not in Japanese interests. But most analysts do not foresee any major changes in the alliance. They also don’t see Japan playing a more active role internationally, despite its status as the second-biggest global economy. Analysts, both in Japan and in the West, have often expressed disappointment at Japan’s shrinking role in the world, especially at its reluctance to assume a larger military role in the region and the world.

Japan’s efforts to increase its international stature by becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council have also been futile so far, despite the fact that it is the second-largest contributor to the UN regular budget. In 2004, Japan joined forces with India, Germany, and Brazil to seek expansion of the UN body. But as this CRS report (PDF) notes, though the United States under the Bush administration backed Japan’s bid, it did not support the joint proposal and "opposed taking a vote on expanding the Security Council until a ’broader consensus’ on reforming the entire organization" could be reached. China, meanwhile, has repeatedly opposed Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

However, some Western experts recommend broadening dimensions of security to include energy efficiency and climate change to play to Japan’s strength and move toward achieving a more symmetrical U.S.-Japan alliance. "We should get the public to think about the importance of Japan and Japanese leadership on some of these new dimensions of security," said Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, speaking at a recent Japan-U.S. security seminar (PDF). Japan’s lesser role in the global arena has been accompanied by China’s increased participation, raising concerns in Washington on how to manage China’s rise. Nye says working on tripartite projects involving the United States, Japan, and China that deal with energy, energy security, or climate change would help to "dramatize the fact that Japan is an equal partner."


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