Six months have passed since the Democratic Party of Japan ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party from power. But whether there will be a fundamental change to the nation’s political system will depend not just on the lawmakers but on the behavior of voters.
Tensions remain between the DPJ-led coalition and the United States over relocation of a U.S. Marine base in Okinawa. Does the dispute reflect the new government’s policy of reviewing the alliance with Washington?
Veteran journalists from Britain discussed these and other issues, looking at parallels and differences between Japanese and British experiences during a symposium organized by Keizai Koho Center in Tokyo on March 5. Tetsuro Kikuchi, the editor and managing director of the Mainichi Shimbun daily, served as moderator of the discussions.
Last September, the DPJ, led by Yukio Hatoyama, swept to power, ending more than 50 years of nearly unbroken rule by the LDP. Britain also faces the possibility of its first change of power in 13 years, with the Conservative Party leading the Labour Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in opinion polls as the country heads toward a general election — likely to be held in May.
“The government appears exhausted and lacking in new ideas,” said Brian Groom, U.K. business and employment editor of the Financial Times. However, recent polls show the Conservative Party’s lead has narrowed and the election would likely be a close race, raising the possibility that neither of the two parties may win a majority, he added.
Are there going to be parallels drawn between the British and Japanese political situations? “Japan is emerging from a long period of one-party (dominance of power) into one in which voters may be willing to vote the government out of office more often. That would make it more like the system in the U.K. and that of most other Western democracies,” Groom said.
“It requires a big readjustment by politicians, bureaucrats and the public. It will no longer be enough for politicians to rely on their own managerial competence or factions as the root of power. Parties need a convincing rationale on how they can change the country for the better,” he said.
Even though elections are often decided by negative factors, “a compelling vision remains essential” for a party to win, Groom said. In British politics this is called a “narrative — a kind of story that encapsulates the party’s hopes for the future and is in tune with the public’s mood,” he said.
The Hatoyama government “seems to have such a narrative — at least at a theoretical level,” touting a reduced reliance on government bureaucracy, more family-friendly lifestyles and greater business innovation, he said.
“Achieving it, of course, is difficult,” he noted. The government and the DPJ have suffered sharp declines in popular approval ratings, hit by political funding scandals, and questions have been raised over Hatoyama’s leadership ability, he said.
However, it is still too early to judge after such a big change, he pointed out.
“If Japan is to achieve long-term change, it requires a new behavior not just by politicians but by individuals, by companies and by other organizations in society,” he noted. “U.K. voters in recent years have generally been prepared to give political parties quite a long period in power if they think they are doing a reasonable job.”
When power does change hands, how big a change does it represent?
“It is not always as dramatic as one might think. In the U.K., I can think of only two really radical shifts since the end of Word War II — Clement Attlee’s Labour government of 1945 to 1951, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration from 1979 to 1990,” Groom said.
With the Conservatives out of power for 13 years now, party leader David Cameron has sought to soften the party’s image, calling himself “a modern compassionate Conservative, a liberal Conservative,” Groom said.
Such tactics have helped change the popular perception of his party and the Conservatives have led in opinion polls for most of the time since he became his party’s leader, Groom said. But there are questions about whether Cameron’s policies translate to a well-developed program for government — and whether he really stands for any principles, he noted.
Whoever wins the election, the early months of the new government will be dominated by decisions on public spending cuts and tax hikes — issues that will make it difficult for the new leader to be popular, he noted. “Some people say we may revert to a period of relatively short governments” as in the 1970s, Groom said.
“Change of government is not a panacea,” he noted.
“Japan, it seems, is at a point where its whole system of government could be changing fundamentally if the people are prepared to vote out of office any government that does not deliver the changes the society needs. That will force important changes in political behavior,” Groom said. “It will be far from easy. Sometimes governments change, but the public does not see much difference in policies, which tends to reduce their trust in government.”
Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist of the Financial Times, discussed how the change of government in Japan and possibly in Britain as well affects a common factor in each country’s foreign policy — their respective “special” relationship with the U.S.
With the relative decline of the U.S. and global power shifting toward Asia, “I think both Britain and Japan are going through a period when they are rethinking their relationship with the United States — the relationship that has defined our foreign policy” since the end of World War II, Rachman said.
Along with its shared history and culture, Britain’s relationship with the U.S. was given a strategic meaning during the Cold War. But today Britain is “beginning to question whether we really need the strategic relationship with the U.S. in quite the same way as we did before — do we really want to buy into American foreign policy,” in particular after Britain fought alongside the U.S. in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he noted.
The Conservative Party has been known in Britain as the “Euroskeptics party” and one might expect a possible Conservative administration under Cameron would see Britain picking a fight with the EU in favor of closer ties with the U.S., he said. But that has changed after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the British public’s bitter sentiments over ties with Washington under former U.S. President George W. Bush, Rachman said. “I think there will be more continuity than one might expect — Britain will try to maintain close relationships with both the EU and the U.S.,” he said.
In Japan, there is obviously a sense within the DPJ and the Hatoyama administration that the previous LDP government — in particular under the leadership of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — was too close to the U.S. while jeopardizing ties with China, he said.
“Clearly the DPJ government has tried to have warmer relations with the rising China and — deliberately or not — started off on a rather difficult way with the U.S.” over the Okinawa base relocation issue, he pointed out. Hatoyama has also expressed his willingness to pursue an East Asian community, he added.
For Japan and Britain, a possible alternative to a special relationship with the U.S. would be to “look at the continent next door,” Rachman said. But one key difference, he added, is that the European Union is much more deeply integrated and imposes much heavier obligations on member states than prospective members of an East Asian community can perhaps take on.
He also said that if Japan is worried about the security threat from China, “the obvious thing would be to make certain that Americans remain a powerful military force in the Pacific — and that they remain in Okinawa.”