Commentary

New Government In Japan—Implication For US-Japan Relations

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By Yuki Tatsumi – On August 30 2009, Japanese voters overwhelmingly elected the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Its victory, winning 308 seats out of 480 seats in the House of Representatives, is unprecedented in post-World War II Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated Japanese politics for the last sixty years, so Japanese voters’ decision was truly historic.

Yukio Hatoyama, president of the DPJ, is expected to be elected prime minister in a few weeks. While the August 30 election was mainly about domestic issues, how Hatoyama, his cabinet, and the DPJ tackle both domestic and international challenges Japan faces will still have a profound impact on Washington’s dealing with Tokyo.

Challenge One: Unknown players

First, relationships matter. The Obama administration will have to establish good working relations with DPJ figures who may not be unfamiliar to their American counterparts, and the likelihood that the pacifist Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) will join the ruling coalition will compound the problem.

In particular, it will take a while for Washington to gauge two key players in the new DPJ-led government. Yukio Hatoyama is a fourth-generation politician, was trained in engineering at Stanford, but little is known about his personal political philosophy or his stance toward key domestic and foreign policy issues. While he often talks about “friendship and love” (yu-ai) as his basic idea for politics, translating that into specific policy positions may be hard. Hatoyama is generally considered moderate, patient, and one who values consensus-building.

The other key player is Ichiro Ozawa, considered the mastermind of the DPJ victory. 120 out of 308 members who are elected to the House of Representatives from the DPJ on August 30th are either long-time Ozawa loyalists or newly-elected members whose election victories are largely due to Ozawa coaching them on their campaigns. Although it is almost certain that Ozawa will not assume any official role in the new government, his behind-the-scene influence on the overall policy direction of the DPJ-led government will be considerable. While Ozawa was the LDP’s Secretary-General nearly two decades ago, very few in Washington have a good understanding of his personality or his policy principles.

Finally, the DPJ intends to have politicians play greater role in policymaking, which can affect the established policy coordination mechanisms between Tokyo and Washington. Today, US and Japanese governments have agreed upon procedures for every major policy issue of mutual concern. Whether the DPJ’s plan to engage more will lead to a fundamental change in the Japanese policy-making process, including the role of technocrats, remains to be seen. Still, such a change could cause confusion in the established bureaucratic consultative mechanism between Washington and Tokyo.

Challenge Two: Lack of specifics

DPJ’s campaign policy platform requires considerable clarification, particularly with respect to foreign policy. For instance, DPJ touts a “close but equal US-Japan relationship” but what does Hatoyama mean by “equal”? Does it mean when his government challenges Washington, its dissent is based on genuine differences over policy outlook, or will it be seen as posturing?

For instance, DPJ’s campaign platform includes potentially controversial issues including the revision of US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), termination of the Self Defense Forces’ mission in the Indian Ocean, and the revision of the US force realignment plan agreed between the Tokyo and Washington in October 2005. It is too early to know how the DPJ will approach these issues once in power.

There are other examples of vagueness in foreign policy. For instance, the campaign platform advocated “denuclearization of North Korea and resolution of abduction issues”, but mentions no specifics on how DPJ-led government will achieve such a goal. It also proposes that Japan play a leadership role in UN reform, but does explain how its approach would differ from the LDP approach.

In their phone conversation on September 2, Hatoyama reportedly attempted to reassure President Obama that he considers the US-Japan alliance the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy, but how it will play out on specific bilateral or regional issues is unknown.

Challenge Three: DPJ’s preoccupation with domestic issues

The DPJ-led government will be consumed with domestic issues in the first several months of its term. The DPJ’s campaign slogan was “change of government for your better life.” Citizens voted on their frustration about the economy —continued sluggish economic performance, widening income gap, rising unemployment, pension system on the verge of breakdown, insufficient child care support, etc—and the LDP-led government’s inability to effectively address these problems. The DPJ will be focused on showing progress on the issues that the voters care about. Only then, the DPJ can begin to win the confidence of the Japanese public that it does have an ability to govern and therefore can offer a real alternative to the LDP as the party in power.

The DPJ’s decision to create the National Strategy Bureau (Kokka Senryaku Kyoku) will be critical. Hatoyama sees this proposed new institution as a symbol of change for the way the Japanese government makes decisions. The proposed National Strategy Bureau would be an office that reports directly to the prime minister. Cabinet ministers and others who are appointed directly by the prime minister will be the members of the Bureau, and their function would be to discuss and identify strategic priorities for Japan. Coming up with core principles for the budget is expected to be one of its two key functions; how quickly the Bureau can be established will have a big impact on the new government’s ability to prove its effectiveness.

Over the next six to twelve months, Washington will likely find the new political leadership in Tokyo primarily inward-looking, and unwilling to engage in substantive consultation on foreign policy issues. The challenge lies in how to maintain positive momentum between Tokyo and Washington at times when it is difficult to point to concrete signs of new cooperation in that key relationship.

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