Shockwaves From Japan's Election

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Japan's voters have thrust power on an incoherent coalition of hungry politicians distinguished only by their willingness to promise anything to anybody anytime. Good for them. In many ways we should applaud the Japanese who voted for what is being described as "change they can't believe in."

The distorted echo of President Obama's campaign slogan is hardly accidental. Japan's Aug. 30 national election may turn out to be the first of many examples of the Obama factor reshaping politics in other countries. The victorious Democratic Party of Japan skillfully linked its opponents to George W. Bush and free-for-all, destructive capitalism while identifying themselves with the new U.S. president's push for economic recovery and social transformation through government spending.

Similar campaign dynamics could come into play over the next few weeks in Greece, which is now committed to early parliamentary elections, and next spring in Britain, where change at almost any price seems the mood. Like the Democrats in Japan, the outs of the world will cite the American audacity in electing the young, relatively untried Obama as the path to follow in hard times.

But Japan's upheaval also presents Obama with a significant challenge in Asia. The president will have to walk a fine line in correctly identifying and strengthening the moderates in the new government while containing the coalition's left- and right-wing extremists.

And the president has done himself no favor at this moment by choosing John Roos, a California lawyer and a mega-fundraiser for Obama in 2008, as his ambassador to Tokyo. Over time, Obama's complicity with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in stuffing the most important U.S. embassies with campaign bagmen instead of experienced foreign policy professionals will come back to haunt this White House -- nowhere more so than in Japan.

So what's to applaud? Primarily, the alternation of power, missing in Japan's democratic but closed-system politics of the past half-century. Japan has been ruled almost continuously since 1955 by a triumvirate of often weak and greedy Liberal Democratic Party politicians; usually strong and competent civil servants; and a cohesive, disciplined business elite.

The Liberal Democrats became insular, scandal-prone and tone-deaf. They slipped into habitually insulting or ignoring women, the young, farmers and the growing ranks of the unemployed. Even well-intentioned reforms set in motion by Junichiro Koizumi eight years ago punished farmers and other parts of the basic LDP constituencies, and the wrath of those scorned was evident in last weekend's election.

The "Japanese have voted for change they don't believe in and for a DPJ leader, Yukio Hatoyama, they aren't all that crazy about," Jeff Kingston of Temple University wrote on the Foreign Policy Web site last week. Worse, he added, "a mere 25 percent of voters think the DPJ will head Japan in the right direction." So the LDP deserved to lose this election that Hatoyama and the Democrats' kingmaker, Ichiro Ozawa, were clever enough to win. They now stand in the footsteps of Francois Mitterrand in France in 1981, Kim Dae-jung in South Korea in 1998 and other former "radicals" who had to prove that their parties could govern responsibly and alternate power peacefully with conservatives.

The Obama administration expects a similar leveling process to kick in for Tokyo. "We're assuming a relatively placid period ahead," said one State Department official while studiously playing down the coalition's promises to distance Japan from U.S. policies.

But that assumption neglects political reality: Elections for the Diet's upper house are only a year away. The Democrats need to win a clear majority to consolidate their power, and they are unlikely to risk being caught abandoning campaign promises before then.

Chances are slim to none of the Diet renewing Japanese refueling operations that support U.S. forces in Afghanistan. That decision, due in January, could open a difficult passage in America's most important bilateral relationship in Asia. Let's hope that Ambassador Roos is wise enough to let the experienced Asia team Obama has assembled in Washington steer the policy ship.

Finally, don't toss the good out with the dirty LDP bathwater.

The temptation for Washington is to ingratiate itself with the new government. But Obama should temper the victors' virulent demonization of Japan's bureaucrats and outgoing politicians.

Among them are individuals who have served their country honorably while being faithful U.S. friends. For official American words or acts to undercut or discredit them would diminish one of the great diplomatic successes of the 20th century and gain Obama nothing lasting with the new bosses in Tokyo.

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