Japan's Change in Leadership Offers New Openings

By Yukio Okamoto
Friday, September 18, 2009

Some revolutions bring about a dramatic change in government without general strikes or fierce street demonstrations. Such a revolution just took place in Japan, where half a century of almost uninterrupted conservative rule under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) abruptly ended with the recent elections. In its place, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will try to establish a European-style labor-party government.

DPJ-led governments will probably be in power for close to a decade, if not longer. It is unlikely that Japan will go socialist under the DPJ, though the party's largest source of support is the 6.8 million-member Rengo labor confederation. Nevertheless, the coming era is likely to bring a paradigm change in how benefits are doled out by the political system.

An op-ed in English by the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, caused a stir with its anti-globalization statements and passages declaring that Japan should pursue political independence in between the United States and China. The column left some wondering what had become of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Hatoyama said Wednesday that he plans to change his country's "somewhat passive" relationship with the United States and would work with President Obama to "create an environment where we can both frankly state our opinions."

There is not yet reason to think the U.S.-Japan relationship is about to be wholly overhauled. Read in Japanese, Hatoyama's column is clearly not meant to provide great insights into his thinking. The whole essay is rather abstract, in effect challenging U.S. power and influence in the world without really meaning it.

Hatoyama is an idealistic and sensible man. As prime minister he needs to remember that his words will now have an international audience and that rhetoric permissible and understandable within the context of Japanese politics is sometimes less clear or even incomprehensible outside it.

When Hatoyama addresses the U.N. General Assembly and participates in the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh next week, he must assure the world that Japan will have continuity in its foreign policy.

Last month's electoral upset was not a DPJ victory. It was an LDP defeat, brought about by the Liberal Democrats' incredible self-destruction. The LDP has been piling up domestic policy failures for years. But the LDP's foreign policy, based on a strong Japan-U.S. alliance, has preserved Japan's security and prosperity for the past half-century.

Hatoyama must realize that he cannot dismiss this policy. Numerous polls show, for one thing, that the Japanese people do not want him to. Second, there is no basis on which to build a collective security arrangement in Asia. Japan cannot choose unarmed neutrality (like Costa Rica) or armed neutrality. The only way to guarantee Japan's security is through the steadfast Japan-U.S. security alliance. Every Japanese leader in the post-World War II era has been confronted by this inescapable truth.

What Japan needs now is for the LDP to become a proper opposition party and revive itself. The LDP has a fundamental faith in markets and emphasizes economic growth. It should return to its conservative roots and emphasize that it is the party with credible policies geared to the establishment of a free, open society. A true conservative party would face the reality that Japan's economic reforms must be extended, not rescinded, without regard to the profits or losses of individual sectors of the economy.

The DPJ, meanwhile, aims to transform Japan into a Fabian socialist society of generous social welfare, with an emphasis on the redistribution of wealth. If there is healthy competition between these views, there is a decent chance that Japan can put an end to its longtime political stagnation.

If competition fails to take root and Japan reverts to its previous inactive politics, then the United States is likely to forgo shared "values" of democracy and instead accelerate the establishment of a "G-2" with China, with the two giants deciding between them the fate of the Asia-Pacific region. Neither Japanese party wants that.

To Japan's benefit, the DPJ has a better chance of improving Tokyo's relations with the rest of Asia than did the LDP. This improvement need not come at the cost of Japan's relations with the United States, a sacrifice that no Asian government wants anyway.

The issue at the heart of the rapprochement will be the history of World War II. Japan should not rely on the judgments of the war's victors at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Reexamination of the past must be done by Japan.

The DPJ, representing the weak, will be well placed to do this job. If Hatoyama is able to lead a reconciliation process, then last month's electoral upset will have opened an uplifting chapter in Japan's history.

The writer, a political analyst, was special adviser to two Japanese prime ministers, Ryutaro Hashimoto and Junichiro Koizumi, both of whom led the Liberal Democratic Party.

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