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DPJ wins in Japan. Now what?

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31 August 2009 10:18

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the ADB Institute, Tokyo.

So the unimaginable has happened – the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been swept from office and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has won. What does it all mean?

It isn't clear whether anything much will change. The Japanese political system is not really two competing political parties so much as two motley bands of warring factions. Some factions are grouped into the LDP, while others have banded together to form the DPJ (one well-known quip about the LDP is that it is 'neither liberal, nor democratic, nor a party'). The whole situation is fluid and horse trading is common, so it remains to be seen what the DPJ will look like after a few months in office.

As for policies, the DPJ has been making vaguely anti-capitalist and anti-American noises during the campaign. DPJ leaders argue, for example, that former LDP Prime Minister Koizumi messed things up by being too pro-market in various ways (especially in his determination to privatise the Japanese post office system). They also suggest that Japan is too close to the US in foreign policy. 

But it's hard to know what these noises mean. For one thing, this vaguely leftish strain of policy debate always hangs in the air in Japan but never seems to come to much. Economic policy in Japan is generally rather interventionist and, in any case, there is nothing especially socialist about a preference for economic intervention. Nationalist governments can be just as interventionist as socialist ones. Thus the DPJ's interventionist noises seem to reflect a deep-seated Japanese instinct towards regulation rather than any meaningful tilt to the left. In a sense, DPJ leaders have been saying, 'Things are out of control...and we will put them right.' This is hardly revolutionary.
 
What might these noises mean in practice? Hatoyama, the incoming DPJ Prime Minister, has been quite vague on policy details. One suspects that he doesn't know what it all means himself.

There is a marked strain of Japanese thought that the country has become too pro-US. Former Prime Minister Koizumi certainly went 'all the way with LBJ' in his relations with George W Bush. Koizumi even went so far as to flamboyantly croon Elvis Presley songs in the presence of Bush. And within the Japanese bureaucracy, the line from the top is that Japan must back the US. 

Nevertheless, there are certainly some strains in the US-Japan relationship. The Japanese are understandably nervous about the regional chess board in Northeast Asia. Hardly surprisingly, Japanese policy-makers watch events in Korea, China, and Taiwan closely. On one hand, they are very keen to have strong US backing in dealing with the various difficult international issues in the region. But on the other hand (whisper it) they also know in their hearts that the US is far from completely reliable. From the point of view of many Japanese, the US dealt with Japan very harshly in the decade before the Second World War.

Senior Japanese policy-makers are extremely sensitive to the ebbs and flows of US-Japanese relations. The consequences of getting off-side with the US in the 1930s and 1940s were disastrous for Japan. Even today, this experience hangs heavily over Japanese thinking of how to handle things in Northeast Asia.

But all guesses about what the new DPJ Government might do are complicated by the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats. The way political and bureaucratic power is exercised in Japan is perhaps the single most important challenge the incoming DPJ needs to deal with.

The bureaucrats are powerful and the politicians are weak. For perhaps 1000 years, officials (in their various guises) have been extremely powerful in Japan. It is still true today that officials are very aware of their power (they would say 'responsibility') and will fight tooth and nail to keep politicians in their place. 

Many senior officials deeply believe that Japanese politicians are hopeless at providing leadership. They will certainly resist attempts by the incoming DPJ to exercise increased political power. DPJ politicians, for their part, have said that they will tackle this issue. Essentially, the issue is power: who really runs Japan? Is it the elected government, or will the immensely powerful Japanese bureaucracy, as so often before, deftly side-line the cabinet and parliament in managing the affairs of the nation?

Photo by flickr user nofrills, used under a Creative Commons license.

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