Change Comes to Japan

, Brittany Fortier, Leave a comment

Change has come to Japan, according to a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on September 2, 2009. On August 30, 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was elected to an overwhelming margin, giving them 308 out of 480 seats in the Japanese House of Representatives. The DPJ and its allies, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People’s New Party (PNP) have a combined total of 318 out of 480 seats, giving them a solid two-thirds majority in the House.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) now has a mere 119 seats. Nick Szechenyi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) argued at AEI that the results were “clearly a referendum” against the more conservative LDP, which ran alongside the centre-right Komeito Party. The Komeito Party, backed by the Soka Gakkai religious group, has 21 seats, giving Japan’s conservative coalition a total of only 140 seats.

The LDP dominated Japanese politics for almost 54 years. This historic upset has given the DPJ a mandate for setting a new political agenda in Japan.

Len Schoppa, a professor at the University of Virginia, said that winning a majority of seats does not mean that the DPJ can just “do whatever it wants.” Instead, the DPJ will be “depending on” the SDP to have a majority in the Upper House because the Japanese legislature system is bicameral.

“The LDP has been hampered by a lack of a majority in the Upper House for the last two years, and the DPJ is also potentially vulnerable. They [the DPJ] don’t have a majority by themselves in the Upper House. They have just 117 seats when you need about 121 to have a majority,” he said.

In the regions of Kyushu and Tohoku—historically-conservative areas once “considered impregnable”—the DPJ picked up 31 new seats. According to Schoppa, the DPJ did so well in these areas because of “floating voters,” or independent voters who “don’t feel attached to any party.”

Schoppa argued that the DPJ took a page from former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s “playbook” and advocated for “change.” This all-important concept of “change” was “excit[ing]” to the Japanese people, who were disillusioned by Koizumi’s capitalist reforms and the “inequality” that was perceived to be the main cause of economic recession.

Kevin Maher, director of the Japan desk at the State Department, said he “look[s] forward to a very close and continued alliance relationship under the new Japanese government” and remains “confident” that the national interests of the United States and Japan will continue to “overlap” and “coincide” as the transition moves forward.

“The DPJ membership is not some unknown new group of people that just popped up in Japan all of a sudden,” he said, adding that for those who follow Japanese politics, the outcome of the election was “not a great surprise.”

Consequently, Maher said that he did not want to go into “speculative proposals” as to how those issues would affect U.S.-Japan relations. “This was not an election about foreign policy. This was not an election about policy with the United States. This was a real domestic election,” he argued.

While Szechenyi agreed that this was a “domestic” election, he questioned what DPJ policies (such as their “short-term stimulus plan”) will do for Japan’s long-term productivity.

“How is Japan going to sustain growth and remain an economic power? That’s a question that this new government is probably going to have to grapple with relatively quickly,” he said.

Although Szechenyi described the election results as a “new era” in Japanese politics, he expressed “high expectations” for the LDP as a minority party.

“The LDP now has a responsibility both to reflect on what happened, why it lost, why [it has] lost touch with the public, and also not just to complain about government policy but to offer alternative ideas,” he said.

Szechenyi added that “public perceptions” will play an important part in future diplomatic relations with the new Japanese government. He said that “negative” perceptions were being fueled by the new government, specifically referring to an August 26, 2009, New York Times op-ed piece written by Japan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Kunio Hatoyama.

“[Hatoyama] basically argued that Japan needs to focus on Asia, that this is a Pacific century and that his vision and his dream Japan should help form an East-Asian Community,” Szechenyi said.

Szechenyi added that Hatoyama’s message that the U.S. was a declining power and that Japan needs to shield itself from the excesses of capitalism was not the kind of “message that the American public needed to hear from Japan’s new leader.”
Maher acknowledged that there has been much “speculation” about various issues concerning the DPJ that could prove to be “troublesome” for the United States, but in spite of these potential setbacks he remains “optimistic” about the new government and argued that it just needs time to ease into the transition.

Szechenyi said that the burden is on the new DPJ government to show that it “can deliver” upon the promises that it has made to the Japanese people.

“The people want change. They also want results,” he said.

Brittany Fortier is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.