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Posted by on Sep 17, 2009 in Guest Contributor, Politics | 0 comments

Expect Minor Quake (No Tsunami) From Japan’s Elections

Guest post by Devin Stewart

Devin Stewart is Director of the Global Policy Innovations program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. In this capacity, he edits Policy Innovations and directs several projects on business ethics, trade, and media. He is also a Truman National Security Project fellow. Previously, he was Assistant Director of Studies and Japan Studies Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.


The recent lower house national elections in Japan gave the inexperienced Democrats (Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ) a majority, putting an opposition party in power for only the second time since 1955. Does the DPJ victory really spell a “tsunami” for the U.S.-Japan relationship, as some have suggested? My view is that this concern is probably overblown.

Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan. Some generate tsunami, some don’t. During my recent trip there, I experienced three significant quakes, one of which was quite dangerous. Despite a lot of anxiety about what the expected DPJ’s victory in the lower house elections on Aug. 30 will mean for U.S.-Japan relations, I expect only a minor quake in Japan’s foreign relations. The tastelessness of using the cliche “tsunami” to describe the upcoming elections aside, I would argue that there are too many factors weighing against a Japanese foreign policy moving away from the U.S. alliance in any meaningful sense.

First, political opposition in Japan, just like in most places, likes to create rhetoric in all spheres that distinguish it from the ruling party. That doesn’t mean a party will follow through on its campaign or opposition rhetoric. In the United States, one only needs to recall George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign promise to carry out a “humble” foreign policy if elected. Once in power, parties have to come to grips with the realities of governing — or as my colleague David Speedie calls it, the limitations on options and thinking strategically.

In other words, national interest will trump political rhetoric and most Japanese see close ties with the United States as a critical national interest. The DPJ’s secretary-general, Katsuya Okada, recently said in an interview that U.S.-Japan relations are “extremely important for Japan’s national interests. We should consider how we can make US-Japan relations, the US-Japan alliance, more fruitful.”

In fact, as it looked more probable that the Democrats would win in Japan, the DPJ moderated its critiques of the U.S.-Japan relationship. As Dan Okimoto said in an interview, “What I’ve noticed over the past several weeks [before the election] is that the DPJ statements have stepped back from commitments to make immediate and far-reaching changes. They’ve been backtracking from the positions of ending the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean and of moving quickly out of Futenma. What the DPJ leaders appear to be seeking is a smooth, seamless transition, where bilateral issues don’t get entangled with domestic reform priorities.”

Which brings me to another point: The DPJ (and Japan itself) already has a full plate. At the top of the DPJ’s agenda is reviewing budget priorities and eliminating waste, as well as reducing the amount of nepotism in politics and increasing the power of local governments. The DPJ also wants to give more power to politicians in making policy at the expense of the elite bureaucracy. Then there are the long term policy issues, including the aging society and pension burdens on taxpayers. These priorities alone will keep the DPJ busy. It doesn’t need another battle.

Some of what we are hearing from the DPJ is a matter of emphasis and being honest about Japan’s capabilities. People have long advocated for tighter U.S.-Japan economic ties and collaboration in non-military areas such as energy and the environment. “Japan’s relations with the U.S. have been heavily biased toward defense,” DPJ head Yukio Hatoyama recently said. “Now it’s time to shift our focus to economic ties. We will strengthen our economic ties and promote free trade while protecting our national interests.” And above all, the Japanese, like most people, want to feel safe in a region that still looks like a dangerous neighborhood.

The refrain I kept hearing from everyday people in Japan was this: “The DPJ will become the LDP.”

What does this mean? The most obvious interpretation is that it will be business as usual; the DPJ (which in fact has former LDP members in its ranks) will adopt the same policies as the LDP, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that had governed Japan almost continually since 1955. Somewhat darkly, perhaps there is a success strategy in this thinking: For the DPJ to survive as the ruling party, it may be forced to adopt some of the policies and practices of the LDP. The expectations are so low for the DPJ, meanwhile, that if it can govern without being corrupt, it will have a shot at staying in power. Conversely, the phrase may mean that that LDP as the opposition will have to move closer to the DPJ’s anti-corruption and pro-social safety net rhetoric.

But if the DPJ seems to be failing, I doubt the Japanese population will have much patience. Japanese voters love Schadenfreude, and if the party gives them something to complain about, they will. The DPJ must therefore remember that their support from the population comes as a rejection of the LDP, not an explicit endorsement of the DPJ. The DPJ would be unwise to over-interpret their mandate.

But when it comes to the foreign policy differences between the LDP and DPJ, what are we really talking about? A stronger emphasis on the non-military elements of the U.S.-Japan relationship; better relations with Japan’s Asian neighbors; more active involvement with multilateral initiatives through international organizations, like the United Nations. These are precisely the types of foreign policies the Obama administration would welcome. The concern among Japanese about U.S. foreign policy stemmed from Bush’s unilateral action in Iraq, trashing of international treaties, and contempt for international organizations — the very things that concerned the Obama team, too. When you look at it, the Democrats in Japan and the Democratic Party in the United States are quite aligned.

Instead of sounding the tsunami alarm, Americans should be welcoming political change in Japan as a manifestation of a real, healthy democracy. Japan, which has been held up as the shining example of democracy in Asia, can now walk the walk. Small quakes are a fact of life in Japan; a political tsunami in U.S.-Japan relations would be out of character and would probably require a much more dramatic shock to spark it.

(Cross-posted from Fairer Globalization.)

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