Japanese Politics: More Drift

in Program

By Yuki Tatsumi – Almost a month has passed since Japan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) suffered a defeat in the House of Councillors (Upper House) election. The DPJ gained only 44 seats, and was thus unable to gain a single-party majority in the Upper House; political instability in Tokyo will continue at least until the next House of Representatives (Lower House) election, which is unlikely to be held before the summer of 2013. The alliance managers in the United States now must face Tokyo’s inability to make difficult decisions for foreseeable future.

The DPJ’s defeat has weakened Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s ability to lead the government. In his policy speech to the Diet on June 11,Kan proposed to press on a wide range of reforms that his predecessor began. He also proposed that his government would work to achieve: (1) a strong economy, (2) strong national finances, and (3) reliable social security. He even reached out to the opposition party to discuss how to bring Japan’s deficit-heavy national finances back in order, including potentially raising the consumption tax. With the DPJ’s weak election performance under Kan’s leadership, it is now extremely difficult for Kan to pursue any of this agenda.

Public approval for Kan continues to slip. This became clear in the latest opinion poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, which indicated that only 44 percent of the survey respondents support the Kan government. However, the same poll also indicates that the majority (57 percent) of the respondents believe that Kan should stay in the office after the DPJ’s party presidential election in September. These results show that the voter’s wariness of another short-lived government is keeping the Kan government afloat for the time being.

The DPJ’s setback should concern the United States. After the confusion of nine months under the former Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, Washington had hoped that Kan would be able to create a stable government, allowing the two countries to proceed with implementation of the existing bilateral commitments, most notably the relocation of the US Marines Corps Air Station in Futenma, Okinawa. In fact, under the agreement that was reached in May 2010, the two governments are expected to determine the exact location and construction method of the Futenma replacement facility. However, the political atmosphere in Okinawa—feeling betrayed by Hatoyama government’s unfulfilled promise to relocate Futenma Air Station out of Okinawa—has considerably hardened against accepting the facility’s relocation within Okinawa. In the upcoming gubernatorial election in Okinawa in November 2010, the anti-US airbase candidate is anticipated to win. It will require considerable political will and prowess of the leadership in Tokyo to implement the May 2010 agreement. Already politically weakened from the July election, Kan will have no such political capital to spend. For Washington, this means that the Futenma issue could, once again, overshadow discussions on broader common security concerns, and hinder the effort to create a joint document to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan alliance in preparation for President Barack Obama’s trip to Japan in November.

Since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down from the premiership in September 2006, Japan’s international profile has continued to decline. The US-Japan alliance also had suffered a considerable sense of drift. The nine months of Yukio Hatoyama’s government aggravated this sense by raising questions in Washington about Japan’s willingness to remain a key ally of the United States in East Asia. Now, with the DPJ’s weak performance in last month’s election, Japan’s inability to make difficult decisions will likely continue. The world needs an economically and politically strong Japan to work with the United States to address a wide range of global challenges. Japan’s prolonged drifting is bad news, not only for Japan and the United States, but also for the international community writ large.

Photo Credit: Japan Cabinet Secretariat, Cabinet Public Relations Office, Prime Minister Kan at Press Conference, August 10, 2010:

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