Japan under DPJ Rule

in Program

The ascendance of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) on August 2009 was praised as the first genuine power transition in Japan’s postwar history. However, there were just as many—or more—who were anxious about the new DPJ-led Japanese government’s capacity to govern. After all, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had dominated most of the five decades of Japan’s postwar history as the ruling party. The sole role of the opposition parties, including the DPJ, was to criticize the policies presented by LDP-led governments. It was obvious, therefore, that the DPJ would be inexperienced at ruling. The question was how long it would take before the DPJ grew to become sufficiently able to play the role of a ruling party.

Almost three years after the transition, many feel that they are still waiting for the DPJ to “grow up” and gain the ability to govern. The public dismay at the DPJ is apparent—the opinion polls conducted by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun between July 28th and 29th of 2012 showed the approval rating of the incumbent Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet at 28 percent, with the support for the DPJ plummeting to 18 percent. The poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun pointed to a still more frightening trend, with Noda’s approval rating at 23 percent and the support for DPJ at an abysmal 8 percent.

During the three years that it has been in power, the DPJ has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to effectively handle national security issues. The blunders made by DPJ’s first two prime ministers contributed to the voters’ loss of confidence in the party. The first prime minister of the DPJ, Yukio Hatoyama, mishandled the relocation of Futenma Marines Air Station in Okinawa. His successor, Naoto Kan, mishandled the tension over the skirmish between a Japanese Coast Guard’s vessel and a Chinese fishing trawler. In addition, Kan failed to effectively respond to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and particularly the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Station, cementing the perception that his government is incapable of managing crisis. Now, the Noda government is heavily criticized for its handling of the decision to restart the Oi Nuclear Power Station and its acceptance of the US deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircrafts.


This article examines why the DPJ has repeatedly stumbled when making decisions on national security issues and considers the potential impact of its incompetence on the US-Japan alliance. I will begin with an analysis of DPJ’s structure to determine whether it contributes to its incapacity to govern. I will then draw on two reports—one by the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), and the other by Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident—that discussed the “lessons learned” from the Japanese government’s response to the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011, as their findings illustrate why the DPJ has not been able to govern effectively. Finally, I will compare the incumbent Noda government to its predecessors and discuss the possible impact of “governance deficit” on the US-Japan alliance.

DPJ’s Structural Challenges

The dominant characteristic of today’s DPJ is its diversity. DPJ’s founding concept is yu-ai (friendship and love), a notion Hatoyama first proposed. This, along with the public impressions of some of its longtime leaders such as Kan (a former prime minister), Katsuya Okada (the incumbent Vice Prime Minister), and Yoshito Sengoku (a former Chief Cabinet Secretary) gives the perception that the DPJ is ideologically positioned at the “center-left” in contrast to the LDP, which is usually considered “center-right.” In reality, however, today’s DPJ is neither leftist nor particularly liberal. In fact, the most noticeable (and one might argue the only) common platform among DPJ members is their desire to present a credible opposition to the LDP. It was this “anti-LDP” self-identification that allowed the DPJ to expand in 1998 and 2003 by absorbing members from across the political spectrum, from former Socialists to extreme conservatives.


DPJ’s “anti-LDP” identity is also reflected in its party structure. The LDP, with over five decades of party history, has established an elaborate and highly respected hierarchy. In contrast to the LDP’s rigid and elaborate party structure, the DPJ keeps its party structure flatter and more egalitarian. The party’s administrative rules identify a “standing council” (jonin kanji-kai) as the most important administrative body within the DPJ. Since some positions have more than one person serving the position, the total number of the standing council members is well over 30. Although the DPJ has three “senior positions” (Secretary-General, Policy Affairs  Research Council [PARC] Chairman, and Chair of the General Affairs Committee) that mirror those of the LDP; these positions, in contrast to those in the LDP, do not carry as much importance or influence within the party, and the relationships among the positions are not as clearly defined.

The comings and goings of the PARC in the DPJ exemplifies the influence (or lack thereof) its chairman has within the party. Criticizing the LDP’s “dual government” (the cabinet on the one hand and the party on the other) system, which prevents timely decision-making by the government, Prime Minister Hatoyama eliminated the PARC. The PARC was restored after Kan succeeded Hatoyama in May 2010, but the ease with which Hatoyama eliminated the PARC spoke loudly about how little influence it (and its chairman) has had within the DPJ.

The DPJ also differentiates itself from the LDP through its relationship with the bureaucracy. The DPJ had previously heavily criticized the LDP as being “too dependent” on the bureaucracy for making and implementing policies. Because it was the opposition throughout its history, the DPJ was also fundamentally distrustful of the bureaucracy. With very few exceptions, most DPJ politicians regard the bureaucracy as an obstacle to rather than a facilitator of their policy goals. As such, when the DPJ under Hatoyama first took the reins of government from the LDP in 2009, it emphasized seiji shudo (politicians’ leadership, generally understood as a greater involvement in the policy-making process by the politicians) as one of the main characteristics of its government.

As a result, once the DPJ took power in 2009, it aggressively institutionalized the alienation of the bureaucracy from the decision-making process. Under then-Prime Minister Hatoyama, the new government tried to consolidate policy- and decision-making authority in Kantei (the Prime Minister’s official residence, which is comparable to the White House in the United States). The new government also eliminated the interagency vice ministers’ meeting (jimu jikan kaigi), a meeting of the most senior bureaucrats in each Japanese government ministry for the purpose of coordinating all policy issues prior to the cabinet meeting, since the DPJ considered this meeting a symbol of politicians’ dependence on the bureaucracy. Finally, the new government established Three Political Appointees Meetings (seimu sanyaku kaigi) within each ministry. These meetings, attended by the minister (daijin), deputy minister (fuku daijin) and parliamentary senior vice ministers (seimu-kan), have become the ultimate decision-making body within each ministry.

The DPJ’s “anti-LDP” self-identity, its structural differences, and its distrust of the bureaucracy served the party well when they were in the opposition. After all, these creeds were what appealed to the voters in 2009. Ironically, the same attributes that ushered the DPJ into power have thus far hindered the DPJ from maturing into a ruling party.

The lack of consensus within the party over its basic policies has prevented the DPJ from unifying its policy positions, rendering it ineffective in advancing legislation needed to achieve its policy goals. In addition, the lack of hierarchy in the DPJ has prevented its members, especially junior members, from planning the advancement of their political careers. The rigid hierarchy within the LDP has its shortcomings; however, it also has functioned as the human resources development system within the party by laying out a relatively clear career path for its members. Under this system, the number of terms the members have served determines their place in the party hierarchy. The more terms they serve, the more seniority they enjoy and the higher priority they are given for party and government positions. Without a comparable hierarchy within the party, DPJ politicians are unsure how they can rise up within the party. This often has caused many of its members, especially first- or second-termers, to feel that they are not well supported by the party, leading them to look out only for their own interests and advancements, sometimes at the party’s expense.


The DPJ has also paid a substantial price for its alienation of the bureaucracy from its policy- and decision-making process. The bureaucracy, responding directly to the skepticism (sometimes outright hostility) displayed by DPJ members, has become unwilling to cooperate with the party. Elimination of the inter-agency vice ministers’ meeting has resulted in the aggravation of bureaucratic sectionalism. Furthermore, concerned about being punished by their political masters in the DPJ, the bureaucrats have grown even more risk-averse and hesitant to break away from precedents and/or the status quo. As a result, DPJ politicians, often poorly informed about policy issues, have behaved erratically; these flukes are often most visible within the realm of national security issues. For instance, the mismanagement of the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, which led to Hatoyama’s resignation in May 2010. Heavy criticism of the response to the Chinese fishing trawler’s incident in September 2010 and to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station accident at the time of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake accelerated Kan’s fall from power. Each case, to a varying degree, illustrates the DPJ government’s inability to handle national security issues due to its skepticism toward the bureaucracy preventing members from working with those bureaucrats to forge a more effective policy response.

Lessons from DPJ’s Fukushima Accident Response

Almost eighteen months after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, Japan is still struggling to recover from the triple disaster. The nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station is in particular considered one of the worst that Japan has ever experienced, with its aftereffects still being felt throughout the country. To date, there are two reports that have examined the “lessons learned” in the Fukushima accident. One, published in February 2012, was the product of the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, hereafter referred to as the Funabashi Commission. The Funabashi Commission was an independent, private committee initiated by Yoichi Funabashi, a highly respected journalist. The other, released in July 2012, was an effort from the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), a commission mandated by the Japanese Diet to assess the response to the accident and identify its shortcomings.

Both reports identified a number of “lessons learned” in relation to the future of Japan’s nuclear energy policy, risk communication from the government, and the legislative framework for responding to complex disasters such as nuclear accidents. These “lessons learned” also include those on the government’s crisis management.

Overall, both reports were critical in their assessment of the Kan government’s response to the Fukushima accident. The NAIIC report determined that the Fukushima accident was a disaster caused by human error, placing the blame on the lack of a sense of responsibility on the part of all stakeholders, especially the government, regulatory authorities, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Power Company (TEPCO). The evaluation of the Funabashi Commission’s report was more specific, describing the government response as comprised of “a small number of politicians who lacked expertise and responded to the situation in an ad hoc manner.”

In particular, both reports identified a number of “contributing factors” that led to the paralysis of the Japanese government, particularly in the initial phase of the accident. It is in this context that the two reports extensively address the problems they identified in the management style of then prime minister Naoto Kan, which may have hindered the government and other relevant parties from responding effectively to the nuclear accident in Fukushima.

Most controversial was Kan’s very hands-on approach throughout the initial critical stages of the Fukushima accident. For instance, the Funabashi Commission report argues that such a intervention by Prime Minister Kan and a small group of his advisors in the Fukushima accident caused confusion in responsibilities among various stakeholders, including: the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry; the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency; TEPCO; and the agencies whose personnel were involved with the efforts to cool the reactors, such as the Ministry of Defense (MOD), and delayed critical information on the evolving ground situation.


In particular, the report is critical of Kan’s appointment and reliance on a number of outside advisors (of which he appointed six within two weeks) for slowing the flow of information. The report also pointed out that Kan’s exclusive focus on the Fukushima nuclear accident resulted in delay of the Japanese government’s assistance to earthquake and tsunami victims. In addition, the Funabashi Commission report identified Kan’s insistence on hispersonal engagement in the response and his reluctance to delegate his authority to appropriate parties as the reason for his continued involvement in the response to the Fukushima accident beyond the initial phase, which was assessed as ineffective. His narrow focus on the Fukushima nuclear accident was assessed to have prevented him from maintaining oversight on other aspects of the GEJE response such as the assistance to those dislocated from their home due to the disaster.

The NAICC report reinforces the Funabashi Commission report’s argument by specifically referring to Kan’s hands-on approach, pointing out that theKantei “held the incorrect understanding of its role in crisis management,” and shares in the Funabashi Commission’s criticism of Kan for causing confusion by getting too personally involved in the details of the response to the accident. Furthermore, the NAICC report shares the Funabashi Commission’s criticism of Kan for his focus on the nuclear accident at the expense of holistically attending to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, including the oversight on the relief activities and the protection of the residents in the vicinity of the nuclear power station.

It is interesting to note that both reports attribute the drivers for Kan’s behavior to his deep suspicion of the bureaucracy (and TEPCO) and the information provided to him through the “line,” or the bureaucratic channels. To be sure, as pointed out by the Funabashi Commission’s report, this is partly due to Kan’s personal inclination to assert his personal opinion and insist on playing a leading role in all decision-making processes. Still, suspicion of the  bureaucracy is one of the major characteristics of the DPJ, which persists although it, as the ruling party, now needs to have a productive relationship with the bureaucracy. In short, the response to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station accident effectively demonstrated the shortcomings in DPJ’s governance style.

Has Noda Learned?

Noda, the DPJ’s third prime minister in three years, seems to have learned from the mistakes of his predecessors. As soon as he became the prime minister, he tried to buttress some of the “senior positions” within the DPJ, namely the PARC. The appointment of Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister considered to be among the prime minister hopefuls, as the PARC Chairman, was interpreted as Noda’s demonstration of intent that the PARC should function as an organization to create party consensus on major policy issues. Noda also seems to be more conciliatory with the bureaucracy. His decision to effectively restore the interagency vice ministers’ meeting, while criticized by the media as “returning to the dependence on the bureaucracy,” is symbolic in this regard.


Nevertheless, the Noda government still suffers from the DPJ’s shortcomings as a ruling party. From Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the consumption tax, the DPJ’s inability to reach a party consensus on its policy has significantly weakened Noda’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the opposition parties. His government also stumbled on the Japan-China territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands when it announced its decision to make the disputed islands government property shortly after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara declared his intention to purchase the islands. While some argued that Noda made the announcement in an attempt to distract the international community away from Ishihara, who often stirs controversy with his nationalistic views, there is no sign that Noda and his advisors consulted with China experts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the potential diplomatic fallout from such an announcement, nor with Ministry of Defense (MOD) about a concrete plan to defend the Senkaku Islands once they became government property. In short, it seems that this incident is  yet another case of the DPJ leader fumbling as a result of trying to take initiative without due input from the bureaucracy.

Impact on the US-Japan Alliance

As observed above, the institutional inclinations of the DPJ have contributed to the mismanagement of its policies time and again during the past three years. Furthermore, with very little discussion of potential institutional reform, these attributes are likely to handicap future DPJ governance. With the need to maintain public support in order to stay in the government, this “governability deficit” drives individual DPJ politicians to pander to public sentiment when forging their positions on the policy issues. This tendency will make the management of the US-Japan alliance under the DPJ government difficult.

Three years ago, Hatoyama called for the relocation of MCAS Futenma “out of Okinawa at minimum” in an attempt to differentiate his party from the LDP and cater to the public opinion that was wary of the existing relocation plan. His action not only set the Futenma relocation issue back by several years but also harmed US-Japan relations. Now, the uncoordinated response by the Noda government and certain DPJ politicians to the deployment of MV-22 Osprey to Japan is ushering in another period of stagnation in the US-Japan alliance. While Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba and Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto struggle to forge a path forward, DPJ PARC Chairman Maehara, responding to an anti-Osprey public sentiment, met with US Ambassador to Japan John Roos to demand that Washington reconsider its deployment plan, adding that his demand was “a collective will of the party.” Maehara’s action was seen largely as his parochial attempt to boost his popularity, but it had considerably undercut the government’s efforts to strike the difficult balance between responding to the host communities’ concern for the safety of MV-22 and ensuring that the United States can appropriately provide a credible deterrent.

One encouraging sign, though, is that the DPJ’s relationship with the bureaucracy seems to be on a solid recovery path. DPJ politicians who participate in foreign and national security policy discourse and MOFA and MOD officials seem to be developing a more collaborative relationship. For much of the history of the US-Japan alliance, foreign policy and national security bureaucracy in Japan have quietly engaged their US counterparts in a wide range of policy dialogue, thereby ensuring that the US-Japan alliance always has a forward-looking agenda, though it is occasionally bogged down by high-profile but micro-level alliance management issues. As long as the foreign and national security policy bureaucracy continue to play such a function, the US-Japan alliance will be able to weather the challenges aggravated by the Japanese political leaders’ inability to govern. But the alliance’s capacity to absorb such a stagnation is not without limits. As the period of stagnation lengthens, the US-Japan alliance will slowly but surely lose its relevance as the stabilizing force in the Asia-Pacific region. One can only hope that the DPJ, as it struggles to stay in the position of the ruling party, will continue to learn what it means to be rulers, and do so sooner than later.

This article originally appeared in Harvard International Review, on January 31, 2013. 

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices