Japan’s Electoral Tsunami

Tokyo's new government may have a lot more trouble on the economic front -- and a lot more success in foreign policy -- than most pundits think.


Japanese voters in Japan have handed the Democratic Party of Japan a landslide victory, sweeping the ruling Liberal Democratic Party out of power the LDP has held almost continuously since it was established in 1955. The remarkable aspect about this election is that Japanese have voted for change they don’t believe in and for a DPJ leader, Yukio Hatoyama, they aren’t all that crazy about. Polls show that most voters do not support key provisions of the DPJ’s platform and only about one third want Hatoyama as the next prime minister. It is even more astonishing that a mere 25 percent of voters think the DPJ will head Japan in the right direction. Clearly this was a repudiation of the LDP and its dead-end policies more than a vote of confidence in the DPJ.

Now we get to find out if the untested DPJ is ready for prime time. Hatoyama needs to demonstrate leadership skills that he has kept carefully hidden until now and clarify what the DPJ wants to do with its political power. During the campaign, the DPJ sent mixed signals on a variety of key issues and was vague about its plans on resolving the current economic crisis and how it plans to rein in the soaring misery index of rising joblessness, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and suicides coupled with declining wages, bonuses, and job security.

Only three days before the elections, unemployment spiked to a record 5.7 percent, hammering in the last nail of the LDP’s coffin. With the economy on the skids, the DPJ has seized the poisoned chalice. Having pledged not to raise taxes for four years, while promising various tax cuts, subsidies and hand-outs, the DPJ will be adding to Japan’s record high public debt-to-GDP ratio, already closing in on 200 percent, by far the highest among advanced industrialized nations.

The DPJ can no longer duck the hard choices or take both sides of an issue as it did in the campaign. It faces a very tough challenge in turning the corner on the economy. The DPJ will shift spending from public-works projects to social welfare spending, a priority that resonates with Japan’s rapidly aging population. It also seeks to reduce dependence on export-led growth by putting more money into consumers’ pockets — not a bad idea, but not one that will promote recovery anytime soon. Clearly, prioritizing budget allocations, creating jobs and economic growth, improving the safety net, and rebuilding trust in government are the main concerns of the DPJ government, but it also has lots to prove on the foreign-policy front.

Uncharted Waters

The DPJ has roiled the waters in the U.S.-Japan relationship, calling for a review of the two countries’ Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – there are still some 40,000 U.S. troops based in Japan — a more equal alliance, and an end to the Japanese Navy’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean supporting NATO forces in Afghanistan. But it would be a mistake to pay too much attention to the campaign rhetoric and political posturing; the DPJ has done enough backtracking and zig-zagging to confuse anyone about its real intentions.

Concerns that the DPJ will derail bilateral relations with the United States, though, appear grossly exaggerated. The DPJ has promised to release documents the LDP denies exist that show the government had a secret agreement with the United States allowing it to systematically violate Japan’s non-nuclear principles, but this commitment to transparency puts it on the same page as the Obama administration and won’t anger Washington, where the documents have already been released.

SOFA took a long time to negotiate and left some hard feelings. Reopening negotiations would certainly postpone relocation of U.S. military forces, raise the price tag, and strain bilateral relations. The DPJ has signaled that it may seek to tweak the agreement, adding a provision about the United States taking responsibility for environmental cleanup in areas it vacates. It also will want to shift more of the financial burden onto the Americans, again not a deal-breaker, but an important face-saver. Washington can also live with Tokyo pulling the plug on the refueling mission, but by the same token, the Obama administration wants to see Japan take more initiative generally. In a multipolar world, Washington is open to more assertive allies, but also wants to see them ante up. For too long, Japan has been reactive, responding only reluctantly and minimally under pressure. More equality carries more responsibility, requiring Japan’s new government to decide not only what it does not want to do, but also what it will do.

Nobody in NATO wants Japanese soldiers’ boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Coalition forces are way too busy to babysit the Self-Defense Forces, with their highly restrictive rules of engagement, as they did in Iraq. Japan can best contribute to the process of nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan by drawing on its expertise as an ODA (official development assistance) superpower. The most useful boots will be those of engineers, educators, agricultural experts, development specialists, economists, etc. Given the Japanese public’s dim view of the war in Afghanistan, reinforced by the recent election fiasco, the DPJ will have to tread carefully between the expectations of its allies and domestic constraints. But that should not translate into inaction or half-hearted measures if the DPJ wants to be taken seriously in Washington as an equal partner.

Some observers suggest that the DPJ intends to tilt toward China as part of its distancing strategy vis-à-vis the United States, a gambit that would weaken the U.S.-Japan alliance. But it’s a mistake to assume that Washington somehow opposes better relations between Tokyo and Beijing. The United States is cultivating China as a stakeholder in the international system and welcomes Japan building better diplomatic relations with China, now its biggest trading partner.

Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister from 2001-2006, sent bilateral relations with China into a deep freeze due to his six visits to Yasukuni Shrine. But since then, both countries have realized that far too much is at stake to hold the bilateral relationship hostage to history. Fence-mending remains a work in progress and the DPJ is well-suited to the task.

The DPJ understands that Yasukuni is a talismanic ground zero for an unrepentant take on Japan’s invasion of China, and is proposing a new secular war memorial without the historical baggage. This will not solve the history problem, but will allow politicians the opportunity of paying respects to the war dead without seeming to exonerate Japan of the torments it inflicted throughout the region. Reconciliation is overdue and depends very much on such symbolic gestures and concrete actions to move beyond platitudes of "mutual understanding."

The DPJ has also indicated that it may grasp the nettle on compensation for Japan’s WWII-era use of forced labor from Korea and China. Japanese courts have expressed sympathy for the victims, but insist that the statute of limitations prevents legal redress. Effectively, the courts are saying politicians need to resolve this issue. With the conservative LDP in power, there has been little hope of a breakthrough, but this could change under the more liberal DPJ. In China, such a move would greatly improve Japan’s image, which has suffered a great deal from the Communist Party’s post-Tiananmen emphasis on how it saved the nation from Japanese depredations. By stirring up anti-Japanese sentiments among the Chinese people to strengthen its own legitimacy, Beijing has let the genie out of the bottle and now finds it hard to get it back in. So even if there is desire at the top to promote reconciliation with Japan, there is still anger and resentment at the grassroots level. Moves on Yasukuni and compensation could defuse some of that tension and give Beijing more leeway to reciprocate and build a better relationship with Japan.

Improved relations between the two East Asian giants can only have a positive impact on trilateral relations involving the United States. Bickering over history has been counterproductive, and it’s in none of the three countries’ interests to see it continue.

The stakes for the DPJ are also high in dealing with North Korea. Under the LDP, by demanding that Kim Jong Il first address the abduction of dozens of Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Japan marginalized itself in the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program. Japanese intransigence on this issue has frustrated Washington and Beijing, ensuring that Japan yet again was punching below its weight on an issue critical to its national interests. LDP politicians and their right-wing backers orchestrated a national hysteria about the fate of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea agents, exploiting the very real pain of families to score political points and block Koizumi’s efforts to normalize relations. The DPJ has an opportunity to demonstrate that playing a constructive role in negotiations with North Korea and clarifying the fate of the abductees need not be an either/or scenario. The LDP fully explored the possibilities of demonizing and isolating North Korea. Navigating the domestic political minefield on this issue will be tricky for Hatoyama, especially since he has been unfairly branded as a Pyongyang sympathizer. Here again he will have a chance to disprove criticism that he lacks the guts for political infighting and is better at wavering than leading.
Bloodied but unbowed, an opposition LDP unconstrained by the burdens of power can now take the gloves off and make life difficult for Hatoyama on foreign policy and reconciliation initiatives. It will portray the DPJ as irresponsible on U.S. ties and craven on both history and the abductions. It is no secret that many members of the LDP favor Yasukuni visits, support exonerating history textbooks, and want to keep the abduction issue on the front burner.

The DPJ faces a steep learning curve, but does have a number of experienced hands and campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, will work closely with the bureaucracy as it puts a fresh stamp on diplomacy, one that might impress the neighbors and the United States. As on the economic front, the DPJ and Hatoyama have a lot to prove and much is at stake. My guess is that the DPJ will do better on foreign policy than many commentators expect, but faces an economic quagmire that will test voters’ patience.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo and author of Nationalism in Asia: A History Since 1945.