“Leadership vacuum” in Japan – What Does it Mean?

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By Yuki Tatsumi – Japan’s new prime minister Taro Aso debuted on the world stage on September 25 at the United Nations General Assembly. He discussed Japan’s efforts to promote peace in the Middle East, emphasized the achievement G-8 countries made at Toyako Summit, expressed Japan’s strong support for war against terrorism, reiterated Tokyo’s commitment to nuclear disarmament, and called for UN Security Council reform. Through the speech, Aso attempted to send a strong message that Japan under his watch will enhance its international engagement.

Whether he can stay in the office to see Japan’s efforts in these areas through remains highly uncertain, however. In order to solidify his domestic power base, it is critical that Aso leads the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and his coalition partner Komeito to victory by winning the majority in the House of Representatives election anticipated in early November. Public opinion suggests, however, that it will not be easy. The Yomiuri Shimbun opinion poll released on September 25 shows that only 49.5% of the respondents support his cabinet (the Fukuda Cabinet had a 57.5% approval rating in the beginning of its term). With the announced retirement of popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi on September 25, it is unclear whether Aso will be able to stay in power after the anticipated election in November.

Since Koizumi left office in September 2005, Japan has been in a period of great political uncertainty. Many observers lament the “leadership vacuum” in Japan. Today’s Japanese political situation has a striking resemblance with the 1990s when Japan had seven prime ministers in ten years. It was also during this time that the LDP experienced its first fall from power for the brief period between 1993-1994. In fact, with the speculation for the large-scale political realignment that involves not only the LDP but the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) after the upcoming election without no single political figure emerging as a future leader of Japan, future of political landscape in Japan looks highly volatile. Recent developments only confirm that the leadership vacuum does exist in Japan, and such a vacuum looks likely to persist for some time.

What does this mean for Japan? First and foremost, it means that Japan will continue to be consumed with domestic politics for some time to come. With votes at stake, all politics are local. Its leaders will remain predominantly focused on domestic issues including pension reform, tax, food and product safety and revitalization of economy. In the area of foreign and security policy, its means that Japan will continue to avoid making politically difficult decisions when no single political party (or politician) enjoys strong enough political clout to exert leadership to do so. For instance, the special measures law that currently authorizes Japan’s refueling operation in Indian Ocean is expiring in January 2009. Despite Aso’s determination to keep the operation going, the prospects for renewing this law look grim; such a legislative proposal will surely be voted down in the House of Councillors where the opposition parties have the majority.

Japan cannot afford a leadership vacuum if it wants to remain a relevant player in the international arena. The international community faces a host of problems that require global solutions, and Japan could play a leading role in many of them. Global climate change and energy security are two such examples. Japan’s active engagement in the global economy and trade is also more than welcome in the face of the financial crisis in US economy. Finally, from Sudan to Afghanistan, there is much Japan can do to support coalition operations, even in rear-area support. Japan will be sidelined in the international discourse if it does not remain engaged.

Japan’s potential retreat from its international engagement cannot be good for US-Japan relations. What if the first image of Japan that a new US president sees is a Japan that is risk-averse and unwilling to play a proactive role in many of the international issues, using its “domestic political situation” as an excuse? Given the political turmoil in Japan, that is, unfortunately, a prospect that we may have to be prepared for.

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