Sunday, September 6, 2009


The outcome of Japan’s Aug. 30 election has surely been good for Japanese democracy. But its effects on Japan’s governance and the nation’s foreign and security policy are open to question.

Democracy in Japan had roots planted during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and flourished in the short-lived Taisho period (1912-26). It was stunted by the militarists who led Japan to defeat in World War II but was revived during the U.S. occupation led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. After the occupational government ended in 1952, Japan was ruled by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with only brief interludes.

This election finished, at least for now, that one-party government. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a decade-old assortment of former LDP and socialist politicians, ousted the LDP by winning 308 of the 480 seats in the lower and more powerful house of the Diet. The DPJ, in a coalition with minor parties, already controls the upper house.

For the first time, Japanese voters have a real alternative in choosing their leaders. Equally important, 69 percent of the voters turned out for the balloting, reversing a trend in the late 20th century when a majority of an apathetic electorate stayed home. Young people in particular voted in large numbers.

Now the DPJ, having wandered in opposition for years, finds itself thrust into governing. The Diet is to convene on Sept. 16 to elect a new prime minister, expected to be Yukio Hatoyama, the president of the DPJ and member of the Diet who has had no experience in governing.

The Japanese press, notably the weekly magazines called “shukan-shi,” have been trying to get a handle on Mr. Hatoyama, who picked up the nickname “alien” somewhere. His wife, Miyuki, who is four years his senior at 66, was quoted that he got the epithet from old-style politicians who don’t understand that her husband is not driven by greed. A former actress, she has attracted attention for her interest in the occult.

Mr. Hatoyama has promised to name his Cabinet immediately. In a Japan in which decisions are made by groups, it is the Cabinet, not the prime minister, which rules. Until now, most Cabinets have reflected a power balance among LDP factions, often with little regard for competence or experience. Whether the DPJ will continue that practice remains to be seen.

A battle royal is shaping up between the Hatoyama Cabinet and the powerful bureaucracy here. Officials who once saw themselves as “servants of the emperor” and later as “servants of the public” have taken pride in governing Japan through the difficult years after World War II and helping to lead it into the prosperity of today.

DPJ leaders have asserted that the party, particularly the Cabinet, will curb the bureaucracy and make officials more responsive to elected politicians. A political scientist at Momoyama Gakuin University in Osaka, Masahiro Matsumura, wrote last week: “The mandarins survived World War II and the postwar American occupation relatively undamaged, and they will strive to survive the DPJ government as well.”

The DPJ’s foreign policy, to put it politely, is a mystery. On the one hand, Mr. Hatoyama has said “the Japan-U.S. security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy.” On the other, he has contended that “the era of U.S. unilateralism” and “the era of U.S.-led globalism” are coming to an end.

He has argued that “regional integration and collective security” would be “the appropriate path for protecting Japan’s political and economic independence and pursuing our interests in our position between the United States and China.”

Contradictory? Maybe President Obama called the prospective prime minister this week to ask him to sort this out.

Richard Halloran is a freelance writer based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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