Feature

A political earthquake shakes Japan

Japanese voters turned out in unprecedented numbers to dump the party that has governed Japan nearly uninterrupted for the past half-century.

What happened
Fed up with their sputtering economy and record unemployment, Japanese voters this week turned out in unprecedented numbers to dump the party that has governed Japan nearly uninterrupted for the past half-century. The populist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a landslide victory over the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), whose contingent in the 480-seat House of Representatives plunged from 300 seats to just 119. The victorious DPJ went from 112 seats to 308. “We fought this election for a change in government,” declared Prime Minister-elect Yukio Hatoyama. “But the situation in Japan is not one that allows me to savor my happiness. I have no time to be saying, ‘We did it, we did it.’”

The vanquished LDP was a staunch American ally, while Hatoyama campaigned on a pledge to demand that the U.S. treat Japan as a nation of equal status. He has proposed ending Japanese logistical support for the U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and wants to renegotiate the agreements on U.S. military bases in Japan. On the domestic front, he vowed to raise the minimum wage and invest heavily in social welfare programs.

What the editorials said
“How do you say, ‘throw the bums out’ in Japanese?” asked the Los Angeles Times. The LDP has ruled Japan ever since the party was founded in 1955, save for a blip in 1993. While it did help turn postwar Japan into a “global powerhouse,” it leaves power with the world’s second largest economy in pathetic shape, projected to shrink 6 percent this year as debt balloons. And the two LDP prime ministers who served before outgoing Prime Minister Taro Aso were forced to step down after short, scandal-plagued terms. “A one-party state is bound to grow stale,” and that’s exactly what happened.

This rout was a protest vote, said the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, but it also reflected widespread anxieties. The “radical changes in society symbolized by the aging and shrinking population” and the ravages that globalization wreaked on our economy have caused “a sense of hopelessness about the future.” But while voters definitively rejected the LDP, they are also leery of the DPJ. Polls show “surprisingly low public support for many of the DPJ’s policy proposals.” More than 80 percent of voters surveyed expressed doubt that the DPJ will manage to pay for all the programs it has promised.

What the columnists said

This is Japan’s “Obama moment,” said Michael Auslin in Forbes. If the DPJ can revive the moribund economy, “then a true two-party system may finally take root in Japan, and the country may be transformed.” But the task is daunting. Many newly elected lawmakers have no political experience, and Hatoyama has just three months to produce a $2 trillion budget. One of his main campaign pledges was to “wrest control of policymaking from Japan’s powerful bureaucrats.” But if he alienates the bureaucracy, “backstage obstruction” could cripple his agenda.

He’s already trying to alienate the U.S., said Mary Kissel in The Wall Street Journal. An immensely wealthy man from one of Japan’s most prominent political families, Hatoyama “is intent on scoring populist points at home” by denouncing American-style capitalism. Most troubling, his campaign platform suggests he will not be a reliable U.S. ally, especially in the war on terror. Yet “the Obama administration seems almost wholly unaware of this anti-capitalist, anti-U.S. turn of events.”

The new government may not be around long enough to significantly alter foreign policy, said Takashi Yokota in Newsweek. Many people worry that a “shadow shogun” could take over Japan, in the person of Ichiro Ozawa, who resigned as DPJ party leader in May amid a fundraising scandal but remains influential. With many of his protégés now in office, he could “regain enormous political clout and leverage over the prime minister.” But Ozawa is known as “the destroyer” of parties; he founded three parties in the past two decades, “and all have disintegrated.” For that reason, many analysts are not convinced the DPJ is here for the long haul.

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