Japan’s Moment of Choice

Japan’s Moment of Choice

Electoral politics in Japan have been upended with the defeat of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party. CFR’s Sheila Smith says the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan could test the U.S.-Japan alliance and advises U.S. policymakers to focus on economic and energy-related cooperation.

August 26, 2009 1:14 pm (EST)

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On August 30, Japanese voters decided they are ready to entrust their government to an untested political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After being in charge for almost half a century, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faced its first true challenge for power, and lost. But a DPJ victory was years in the making. After dealing a devastating blow to the LDP in the Upper House election in 2007, Japan’s political newcomer set its sights on the prime minister’s office. Opinion polls prior to the August 30 balloting revealed a rising level of support for a DPJ win, and in the cities and towns throughout Japan, an intense electoral battle was in full swing. Talk of this grand drama of postwar Japanese politics foreshadowed the end of an era, and in this narrative, the demise of the 1955 system’s grand old dame is as significant as the emergence of the new ingenue.

The Difficult Task of Political Realignment in Japan

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For much of the last half century, Japan’s voters saw the LDP as a force for stability and growth. Governance was a cooperative project between the LDP and the bureaucrats, an alliance that ensured the technocratic vision of the Japan Inc. model widely credited with Japan’s postwar accomplishments. To its credit, the LDP transformed itself quite neatly to keep pace with a changing Japan. The 1990s "lost decade," during which the economy stagnated, finally revealed the limitations of a bureaucracy long accustomed to single-party rule. Ministry after ministry was wracked with scandal, in many cases revealing a surprising disregard for citizen interests, and the reputation of Japan’s elite bureaucrats was badly tarnished. Today, Japanese voters see an increasingly troubled government with deeply embedded special interests impeding social change rather than helping to manage it.

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Elections and Voting


This moment of choice was far less dramatic, however, than current headlines suggest. A painstakingly slow and confusing process of political realignment has been on Japan’s agenda for more than a decade. The prescription for this process was articulated in the early 1990s. Electoral reforms, including the introduction of single-member districts, brought the opportunity for building a new opposition party to contend with the powerful LDP. Since then, a kaleidoscopic process of alignment and realignment produced myriad new political parties and coalitions, but the lingering role of smaller parties prevented a full and sudden shift to a two-party face-off. Only once have Japanese voters chosen the LDP’s opposition to govern Japan, and then it was an umbrella coalition of eight smaller parties that only lasted for 263 days. Some rather creative alliances facilitated the LDP’s hold on power: In the mid-1990s, it joined with its longtime nemesis, the Japan Socialist Party, and in 1999, it made an even more significant alliance with the New Komeito, a party backed by a populist Buddhist organization, the Sokka Gakkai.

Bashing the bureaucrats and claiming a direct role in representing Japan’s citizens is the new mantra in Japanese politics.

The LDP itself captured the Japanese public’s need for something different when Junichiro Koizumi emerged as party leader in 2001. Koizumi articulated a reform agenda that included cleaning up Japan’s banking system and restructuring the economy to make Japan more globally competitive. Most surprisingly, Koizumi took on his own party, arguing that the first step in transforming Japan was to reform the LDP itself. The Japanese voters rewarded Koizumi’s effort in 2005 with a resounding victory, and the LDP and New Komeito together had a two-thirds majority in Japan’s Lower House.  But the LDP has long since abandoned Koizumi’s strategy, and today it is the DPJ that energizes the debate over how to transform Japan.

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Seiken Kōtai --A Change in Government

The August 30 election, therefore, was the first time that Japan’s voters were presented with a serious contender to the LDP. The Democratic Party of Japan was formed eleven years ago, and includes individuals associated with a broad range of political ideas. Naoto Kan, one of the party’s early leaders, gained fame for confronting malfeasance in the health and welfare ministry, and Yukio Hatoyama, its current leader, is a grandchild of one of Japan’s leading postwar liberals. The DPJ’s electoral strategist is none other than the original instigator of the lengthy process of redrawing Japan’s political map, Ichiro Ozawa. It is his electoral brilliance that has brought the party to center stage. The party’s message was clear and simple: Offer voters a choice. It wants nothing short of systemic change and advocates a program of institutional reorganization that will sever some of the key relationships that sustained the LDP’s postwar dominance. In his stump speeches during the campaign, DPJ President Hatoyama promised "a massive cleanup" and argued the need to put the citizen’s representatives--the elected politicians--in charge.

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Elections and Voting


Both Koizumi and the DPJ focused on the need to loosen the bureaucracy’s grip on the levers of government. In 2005, postal savings reform became the emblem of smaller government for the Koizumi cabinet, and Japanese citizens were asked if they really wanted hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats deciding their lives for them. Likewise, today, the DPJ campaigned on similar premises: Government is too big, and the bureaucrats too unaccountable. Bashing the bureaucrats and claiming a direct role in representing Japan’s citizens is the new mantra in Japanese politics.

[A] longer-term question is how to create the broader institutions that will sustain governance as Japan moves toward alternating political power.

But a longer-term question is how to create the broader institutions that will sustain governance as Japan moves toward alternating political power. The Herculean task of building a serious second party seems to have paid off. A difficult time lies ahead if a more predictable and stable relationship--one that protects the bureaucrats from petty politics and one that empowers the politicians in policymaking--cannot be defined. At the heart of the matter, however, will be the free and open debate of ideas. At all levels of Japanese society, such a debate will sustain Japan’s political transformation.

The Impact on Japan’s Diplomacy

Changes in governance practices will affect Japan’s foreign policy. The DPJ argues for a more "equal" relationship with the United States, and this is a sentiment shared by many in Japan.    More specifically, the DPJ has taken issue with how U.S. forces on Japanese soil are managed. They have called for a review in policies such as host nation support and a review of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States. The DPJ has also suggested it would end the refueling mission that its Maritime Self-Defense Force conducts in the Indian Ocean and amend the current plan to realign U.S. forces in Okinawa. More recently, party leaders have suggested the need to reconsider how U.S. nuclear forces would be allowed to operate in and around Japan.

Another key foreign policy difference from the ruling LDP is the relationship with Japan’s neighbors in Northeast Asia. The DPJ suggests the need to put greater emphasis on these relationships in Japan’s overall diplomatic effort, but the real change suggested by DPJ leaders is in addressing more squarely the legacies of Japan’s WWII history. Finally, the two parties differ in their interpretations of Japan’s constitution and on how that affects Japan’s role in international politics. Although some differences exist within the DPJ, there is less enthusiasm for the use of Japan’s postwar military as an instrument of international cooperation unless explicitly sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

The Obama administration will need to be patient. Political transitions take time, and Washington does not have much experience with the Japanese version.

The Obama administration will need to be patient. Political transitions take time, and Washington does not have much experience with the Japanese version. It will take the new DPJ government time to refine its foreign policy priorities. Likewise, it will be important for the DPJ to articulate the areas in which it wants to work with Washington. To date, it is only the DPJ’s critiques of past alliance management practices that has garnered attention. Several issues will require immediate attention. The first is the ongoing effort to develop a regional approach to containing North Korea’s efforts at nuclear proliferation. UN sanctions continue to put pressure on Pyongyang, but the longer-term task of denuclearization remains. A second ongoing challenge for Tokyo and Washington is the G20 effort to resuscitate the global economy. Japan’s own economic recovery will be indispensable, but its continued activism in the area of global financial reform is also important. Finally, the UN-sponsored climate change summit in September and the Copenhagen convention in December suggest that Tokyo and Washington have much to gain from working more closely on climate change and energy issues. Japan’s own technological advantage in this area, as well as its record of achievement in energy conservation, should provide ample opportunities for collaboration with the Obama administration.

The Challenges Ahead

The outcome of this election will not end Japan’s effort at political reform, but it will usher in a new phase. With its victory at the poll, DPJ’s success or failure at governance will have future electoral consequences. Several more elections will be required if Japan is to have a viable system for the regular transfer of power. Until the next Upper House election in 2010, the DPJ will have to tread carefully to sustain the coalition that allows it to shape that legislative body’s views. Finally, just as the DPJ will need to become accustomed to governing, the LDP will need to become accustomed to being the party out of power.

This may sorely test the Japanese public’s patience, but it will also test the patience of those outside Japan. Japan’s laborious process of political transformation seems out of sync with the increasingly harsh pacing of global events. The ability to generate options for Japan, and the capacity to translate ideas into policy, will be key requirements for Japan’s political leaders in the days and months ahead. But their most difficult challenges may not be found within. Rather, Japan’s new government may find itself severely tested by events abroad, and thus it would do well to work quickly to develop the global and regional relationships that will sustain its vision of Japan’s future.


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