TWQ: Japan's Confused Revolution - Winter 2010
January 1, 2010
Japan has a fundamentally conservative political culture—it does not do bottom-up revolutions. Even the greatest internal regime change in Japanese modern history—the 1868 Meiji Restoration—represented the return of Imperial power after a struggle of one group of elites against another, rather than a popular rebellion from below. Yet, on August 30 it was the Japanese voters who gave the DPJ the biggest landslide in Japanese political history, with the party’s ranks swelling from 115 to 308 of the 480 seats in the powerful Lower House of the Diet and the LDP collapsing from 300 seats to 119.
In their phone call, Obama congratulated Hatoyama on his historic victory and pledged to work closely with the new Japanese government. Senior staff on both sides, however, urged the two leaders to avoid specifics, and for good reason. The DPJ had made a number of contentious campaign pledges about blocking agreements on realignment of U.S. bases in Japan and unilaterally withdrawing Japanese naval forces refueling coalition vessels under U.S.-led counterterrorism operations in the Indian Ocean. The Obama administration’s experienced Asia hands knew that the DPJ was internally divided over these pledges and therefore might be coaxed away from the most problematic ones after settling into power. For its part, the DPJ leadership was aware that the election had not been about foreign policy, that 75 percent of the public supported the U.S.-Japan alliance, and that an open fight with Obama could backfire domestically against the untested government.
One thing is clear from this seismic occurrence in Japanese political history: the structure of Japanese politics and policymaking will change. That is what exit polls showed the Japanese people voted for, and it is what they will receive. The public polling, however, suggests that the new DPJ government does not have a clear mandate on foreign and economic policy, nor is there cohesion on these issues even within the party leadership. How Hatoyama and the DPJ leadership negotiate these issues over the coming months, and probably years, will matter. Japan is still the second largest economy in the world and the second largest financial contributor to most international institutions including the UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. Japan’s alliance with the United States is indispensable to the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and to Japan’s security, and stands as the cornerstone for peace and stability in a region witnessing enormous shifts in the balance of power.