September 2, 2009
By Bruce Klingner
Japan's opposition Democratic Party of Japan fulfilled
predictions by winning a landslide victory over the moribund ruling
party. The change in government is historic: It is only the second
time in 50 years that the Liberal Democratic Party has been out of
power. A disgruntled and angry electorate threw the LDP out of
office for not only failing to fix Japan's long-standing economic
problems but seeming incapable of offering any hope for future
The degree of change that the DPJ victory will bring to Japan's
foreign policy remains in doubt. DPJ security policy pronouncements
were vague and contradictory as the party toned down its earlier
positions in the run-up to the election. Japan's inherent political
constraints, anemic defense funding, and societal apathy will
continue to hinder any prime minister's ability to significantly
Electorate eager for change
The electorate's primary concern was curing Japan's economic
woes. The public was determined to drive out incumbents in favor of
change, a case of "better the devil you don't know than the devil
you do." Advocacy for economic reform, prevalent in previous
elections, was abandoned in favor of promises of new government
programs to increase household income.
The DPJ tripled its previous number of legislative seats in the
lower house. The depth of the LDP's defeat is shown by the ouster
of half of the powerful faction heads and party stalwarts Finance
Minister Kaoru Yosano, former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, former
Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, and former defense
Minister Yuriko Koike.
Despite the groundswell of support for the opposition, an Asahi
Shimbun survey noted that only 54 percent of respondents believed
that the DPJ would actually bring economic and political
improvement to Japan, reflecting low expectations for the new
Japanese politics are now entering uncharted waters and
tumultuous times lie ahead. The DPJ will be hard-pressed to secure
immediate achievements to better position itself for the 2010 upper
house elections. DPJ coalitions with other parties will strengthen
or weaken depending on initial policy choices. Veering to the
political right will strain relations with its socialist partners,
while adopting policies weakening the alliance with the United
States could drive conservative members toward accommodation with
counterparts in the LDP.
The DPJ's clouded strategic vision
Although Tokyo's foreign and security policies loom large in
Washington's view of Japan, these issues were unimportant for
Japanese voters. The reality is that the DPJ does not yet know what
its foreign policy will be due to the diverse ideological spectrum
of its factions. The DPJ selection of its ministers of defense and
foreign affairs will be an important initial signal of which
faction's views are predominant. But it will take time for a
comprehensive DPJ strategy to become evident.
The DPJ has long advocated a Japanese foreign policy more
independent of Washington and based on a more equal relationship.
But the party shied away from its more strident positions as its
chances of winning the election grew. The DPJ's election policy
manifesto was a consensus document designed to gain favor with the
electorate and reassure the United States.
Yet there is much in previous and current DPJ policy statements
that should be of concern to Washington, since they advocate
positions inimical to U.S. interests. For example, DPJ leader Yukio
Hatoyama emphasizes that the U.S.-Japanese alliance would "continue
to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy" but describes
Japan as "caught" between the United States and China. He promotes
a more Asian-centric strategy for Japan that incorporates long-term
economic and political integration of Asian countries. He calls for
an Asian economic bloc using a common regional currency and a
permanent framework for collective security similar to the European
On near-term security issues, Hatoyama declared that he would
not renew the anti-terrorism refueling mission by Japanese maritime
self-defense forces when the law expires in January.  The DPJ
vehemently opposed previous renewals of the legislation. The DPJ
also opposes the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps air station on
Okinawa from Futenma to Nago--preferring that the air units depart
the island entirely--and disagrees with the cost-sharing agreement
for redeploying 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
Furthermore, the DPJ has called for a review of the existing Status
of Forces Agreement.
A bumpy road ahead for the alliance
Washington will nervously watch for clues as the DPJ struggles
to overcome internal divisions and achieve policy consensus.
Uncertainty begets suspicion and misinterpretation, and the
potential for diplomatic faux pas by the new U.S. and Japanese
administrations is high.
The Obama Administration must balance achieving its security
objectives with maintaining strong relations with critical ally
Japan. At times, these goals will be in contradiction with each
other, necessitating a delicate balance and deft management of the
alliance by both nations.
To a greater degree than ever before, the United States' ability
to influence Japanese policy will be hindered by a ruling party
that is skeptical--if not suspicious -- of Washington's intentions.
The way ahead will require subtle sophisticated interaction, even
as both sides write the terms of a new relationship.
Washington should expect and accept a certain degree of change
in tone from the new DPJ government. An overly heavy-handed U.S.
approach could irritate or even alienate a critical partner. The
United States should refrain from responding to every policy
pronouncement by the DPJ members, particularly those advocating
dramatic security policy changes.
Additionally, Washington should quietly counsel the new
leadership to moderate its campaign rhetoric lest it weaken
perceptions of the importance of the alliance and the need to
transform it to better address a rapidly changing threat
environment. The DPJ party leader and future Prime Minister Yukio
Hatoyama should realize that governing is different from
At the same time, however, the Obama Administration should call
for the DPJ to affirm the existing alliance relationship and
bilateral policies. The United States must press for a continuation
of Japanese commitments, particularly to U.S. force realignment
agreements, refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, and missile
U.S. patience will be tested, however, by Japan's lingering
reluctance to alter the comfortable status quo in which Tokyo
emphasizes economic solutions to security challenges and provides
minimal military resources to defend its national interests
Washington can take some comfort from knowing that dire
predictions of a dramatic leftward lurch in Japan are wrong. But
even minor policy changes or alterations in tone will have
far-reaching implications and strain the alliance.
Washington should also be concerned that perhaps the best it can
hope for is maintaining the bilateral status quo. However, the
current state of affairs is becoming increasingly inadequate to
address either Asian or global security challenges. The Obama
Administration should make it clear that a slow transformation of
the alliance is incompatible with the rapid pace of global
Bruce Klingner, is senior research
fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the
First Appeared in Korea Herald
Japan's opposition Democratic Party of Japan fulfilled predictions by winning a landslide victory over the moribund ruling party. The change in government is historic: It is only the second time in 50 years that the Liberal Democratic Party has been out of power. A disgruntled and angry electorate threw the LDP out of office for not only failing to fix Japan's long-standing economic problems but seeming incapable of offering any hope for future improvement.
Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
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