Bureaucrats may fret but DPJ win has world’s attention

by Jun Hongo

Foreign Ministry bureaucrats have yet to fully grasp the policies of the Democratic Party of Japan, but some are welcoming the level of attention the party is generating overseas, especially in the United States, saying there is strong interest in Japan’s diplomacy for the first time in decades.

After the DPJ’s Aug. 30 election win, various symposiums held in Washington on the party’s policies are attracting participants interested in the kind of changes the new administration will bring.

“This is unprecedented,” a Foreign Ministry official said, on condition of anonymity.

“The attention toward Japan is extremely high, and it will be much easier for us to make appointments for bilateral talks during international conferences,” the official said, touching on the series of meetings in the United States that DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama is scheduled to attend later this month, after being voted in as prime minister next week.

The official added that interest in the DPJ offers the government a chance to make a strong policy pitch and take a leading role on areas Japan has tried to champion, including environmental technology and global denuclearization.

While a stronger leader would be a welcome change for diplomats after exiting Prime Minister Taro Aso’s lackluster stint, a DPJ administration may also mean politicians have a stronger say over bureaucrats in decision-making.

One such sign is the phone chat last week between Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama that analysts saw as indicative of how the DPJ plans to carry out its pledge to empower politicians. While the call is believed to have been merely a congratulatory message from Obama to the incoming prime minister, one senior Foreign Ministry official admitted he was not aware of the content of the conversation.

Asked if the ministry had briefed the DPJ on current bilateral issues, the official, who requested to remain anonymous, said there had been no prior consultation.

“I hear that even the translator was prepared by themselves,” the official said.

While the DPJ’s foreign policies remain a question mark as it works on forming a coalition with the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) and allowing their voices to also be heard, the key player will be Katsuya Okada.

Okada, whom Hatoyama has tapped to become foreign minister, has called for an evolution in the Japan-U.S. alliance by building trust between Tokyo and Washington and creating an “equal” partnership. But at the same time, he is an advocate of an Asia-oriented foreign policy and has referred to the 21st century as the “era of Asia.”

The Mie Prefecture native is a firm believer in disclosing government information, and has announced he will ask the Foreign Ministry to reveal a secret bilateral pact that allowed U.S. warships and military aircraft carrying nuclear arms to stop over in Japan. It is likely that as foreign minister, he will personally order the vice foreign minister to release any related documents into the public domain.

Another of Okada’s strengths is his knowledge of environmental conservation issues. The veteran lawmaker has visited Europe to study effective measures against global warming, and has also attended lectures on climate change in Tokyo, including one given by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone’s remarks on his successor were a bit skeptical.

“What I felt through my experience is that the world has high expectations for Japan,” Nakasone said Tuesday in a news conference, adding that the government should be careful not to lose the trust long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party administrations have built up in the international community. “Permanence is key when it comes to diplomacy.”