Japan LDP PoliticsAfter decades of one-party rule, the Liberal Democratic Party falters

In the United States last year, “change we can believe in” became a national catchphrase. In Japan this past August, the slogan of the victorious opposition party was seiken kotai, meaning “political change.” The triumph of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which won 308 of 480 seats in the powerful lower house of Parliament, marked the end of over 50 years of nearly uninterrupted rule by the center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Observers in the West heralded the change as a landmark in Japanese politics, but were skeptical about the DPJ’s commitment to reform. The Washington Post, for instance, applauded the end of one-party domination while lamenting that the DPJ had “bought the votes of farmers with money and protection.” In addition to ushering in an era of increased political competition, however, the party has begun to push for substantial, long-awaited reforms in the Japanese political system and a new, more independent approach in relations with the United States, promising signs that the DPJ may substantiate its promises.

Bureaucracy, Technocracy, and One-Party Rule

Japanese politics has historically been dominated by a massive civil service bureaucracy, with over a million employees in various government ministries today. The bureaucrats gained increasing influence over the political decision-making process following World War II, in part due to Japan’s technocratic, government-managed model of economic development. By 1975, the power of the civil servants had grown so much that one minister in Parliament griped that the legislative branch was “an extension of the bureaucracy.”

But in a country known for its conservative political culture, the LDP remained in power even as the bureaucracy mushroomed and the country slogged through the “lost decade” of economic stagnation in the 1990s. During his tenure in the early 2000s, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi battled many of his fellow Liberal Democrats to shrink and privatize the 400,000-member government-run postal, insurance, and financial conglomerate known as “Japan Post.” Although the initiative was ultimately successful, it took years of political maneuvering and intense infighting to pass the legislation.

After Koizumi’s departure in 2006, the LDP was unable to produce another popular candidate. The party replaced its prime minister three times in three years, foreshadowing its landslide defeat at the hands of the DPJ in this year’s elections. The new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, appears to have a mandate for change with an approval rating hovering around 70 percent.

The DPJ includes many former LDP members, but the parties diverge in their governing style and foreign policy orientation. Gerald Curtis, professor of political science at Columbia University, said in an interview with HPR, “the differences are very coherent and dramatic. It is the biggest change in more than half a century in Japan. The two parties have totally different views on how to govern.” Although the DPJ has center-left roots, it has taken a hard line on taming the bloated bureaucracy and crafting an Asia-centered foreign policy.

Taming the Bureaucratic Monster

In its first months in power, the DPJ has faced the challenge of reforming the Japanese civil service head on. The party leadership has focused on increasing accountability and transparency in the government by restoring power to appointed ministers. Michael Green, Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the HPR that the DPJ “has been trying to give politicians more control, and leave the bureaucrats in a more implementing role.” Whereas the LDP lacked the political will to confront its allies in the bureaucracy, the DPJ’s plan has achieved considerable success in a short period of time. “The DPJ has managed in only a month in office to fundamentally change this system … . In today’s climate, if bureaucrats actively oppose a policy, they will lose their jobs,” Curtis explained.

With the influence of the bureaucracy in check, policymaking has become less opaque. Prior to the recent elections, top civil servants in each ministry were allowed to hold weekly decision-making meetings without the participation of politicians. The DPJ quickly banned those meetings, to the acclaim of most of the Japanese public.

The Beginning of a “Different” Friendship

The DPJ has also gained popularity for its new approach to foreign policy, which many Japanese had perceived as too dependent on the United States. Hatoyama has repeatedly declared that he will pursue a “more equal relationship” with America. This attitude stems in part from a sense among left-leaning politicians in the DPJ that close ties with the U.S. have not sufficiently benefited Japan. In particular, they point to Japan’s extensive cooperation with the Pentagon and the establishment of dozens of American military bases on the Japanese islands. The largest set of bases, in Okinawa, occupies 18 percent of the island’s territory. Located close to residential areas, they are unpopular among the public. The DPJ’s vision of an “equal relationship” with the United States entails the removal of many of these bases. In another sign of the new order it wishes to establish, the DPJ has reduced Japan’s involvement in Afghanistan. The DPJ recently ended the controversial refueling of NATO ships in the Indian Ocean.

Japan’s consul general in New England, Masaru Tsuji, downplayed the changes in an interview with the HPR. “Although American relations remain a cornerstone for the country, the new regime wants to emphasize equal partnership. Both countries have a new administration and thus require a new type of cooperation,” Tsuji argued, noting that Japan remains the third largest contributor to economic reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Yet there is little doubt that there has been a shift in rhetoric and policy. Shoichi Itoh, an expert in U.S.-Japan relations at the Brookings Institution, told the HPR that the DPJ “desires a more independent foreign policy,” and would be less deferential to Washington than its predecessor. 

 

In a pre-election op-ed in the New York Times, Hatoyama called for a “new path for Japan” and the creation of an “East Asian community” for collective security. “We must not forget our identity as a nation located in Asia,” Hatoyama wrote. “I believe that the East Asian region, which is showing increasing vitality, must be recognized as Japan’s basic sphere of being. … The financial crisis has suggested to many that the era of U.S. unilateralism may come to an end.”

Hope and Change

The DPJ has thus begun to give seiken kotai concrete meaning at home and abroad. Its victory portends not only an era of increased competitiveness and accountability in Japanese politics, but also a significant departure from the LDP’s domestic and foreign policy. Prime Minister Hatoyama seems set to pursue many long-anticipated changes as a reformer. But the real test for his party may be whether reform produces renewed economic growth and a new model of capitalism for Japan. If he is successful, the Japanese may soon see the benefits of their more competitive democracy in a tangible way.

Image Credit: m-louis (Flickr)

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