'Simple-minded' Americans might want to pay attention to Japan's election

Saturday, September 11, 2010

IT'S NOT ONLY voters in Washington and Maryland who will cast fateful votes on Tuesday. In Japan, a new prime minister could be chosen. If so, Japan, which has gotten into the habit lately of running through one prime minister a year, will toss out the latest incumbent after barely three months.

Americans have reason to care. Japan for decades has been America's most important U.S. ally in Asia, a leading democracy and an economic powerhouse. Its recent political upheavals have limited its global influence and its ability to get its domestic affairs in order. How long Japan continues to punch below its weight could have consequences for both the U.S. and Chinese roles in Asia and beyond.

The choice facing Japan on Tuesday makes the election particularly consequential for the United States. Incumbent Prime Minister Naoto Kan is being challenged by Ichiro Ozawa, a longtime backroom power broker who has dreamed and schemed for decades in hopes of becoming the out-front leader. Exactly what governing philosophy Mr. Ozawa would bring to the job is hard to say, because his professed ideologies have mutated over the years. But in his current incarnation he is less friendly to the U.S.-Japan alliance, and more attracted to China's dictatorship, than most Japanese leaders -- and, according to polls, than most Japanese.

Mr. Ozawa recently referred to Americans as "somewhat monocellular." We couldn't tell you exactly what that means, but we're pretty sure it wasn't a compliment, especially since he added, "When I talk with Americans, I often wonder why they are so simple-minded." Perhaps more important than his prejudices, Mr. Ozawa also said he would reopen negotiations with the United States over realignment of U.S. forces in Okinawa -- an issue that fruitlessly preoccupied and ultimately helped doom Mr. Kan's predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama. Allowing the U.S.-Japanese relationship again to be consumed by the base realignment -- which Japan has now agreed to, twice -- would set back any hopes for the countries to make progress on other important issues.

Public opinion polls show that Mr. Ozawa is out of step with the Japanese majority on these issues of foreign policy. In fact, he is out of step, period: A huge majority would rather see Mr. Kan, who has been prime minister only since June, remain in office.

In this case, however, the Japanese people don't get to decide. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), to which both Mr. Kan and Mr. Ozawa belong, will vote for a party leader on Tuesday, with the winner automatically becoming prime minister. Votes from members of parliament carry the most weight, and many of those politicians were elected with Mr. Ozawa's fundraising and strategic assistance. A survey of party voters in the Yomiuri newspaper on Friday found that the race is too close to call. We hope DPJ officials take a multicellular view as they consider their choice.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company