The DPJ’s sense of duty

by Holger Spamann and Hisahiko Okazaki

Until the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)’s win in Sunday’s election, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had dominated Japanese politics for more than half a century except for short intervals.

The impact on the U.S.-Japan alliance is still not clear. It is hard to divine it from the abstract words of the DPJ’s “manifesto” for the election campaign: “In order to build a close and equal U.S.-Japan alliance, Japan will fulfill her responsibilities by sharing them with the United States, based upon an autonomous Japanese diplomatic strategy.”

The manifesto contains two concrete proposals: to promote a U.S.-Japan free trade agreement (FTA) and to revise the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). An FTA would reflect urban, free-trade thinking in contrast to the LDP’s policy influenced by its strong constituency in the farming districts. But faced with criticism from farmers, the DPJ toned down its FTA stance during the election campaign.

The call for a SOFA revision reflects strong leftist, anti-American thinking. In fact, under the existing SOFA with the U.S., Japan enjoys stronger rights with regard to criminal jurisdiction than do South Korea or Germany. With little room for improvement in this regard, short of abolishing the U.S. bases outright, leftists have pushed for revision as part of an anti-U.S. base campaign.

It is doubtful that the DPJ can deliver on either of its campaign proposals mentioned above. Moreover, the future of political realignment in Japan is unpredictable. Some coalition will be arranged, but nobody knows how long it will last.

It’s quite possible that conservative forces will prevail within the DPJ. In fact, conservatives make up a large majority, including followers of former DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa (former Liberal Party members and “Ozawa children”), moderate conservatives (DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata and former Democratic Socialists), and realists (former DPJ leader Seiji Maehara, Yoshihiko Noda and some younger members).

However, we need to exercise caution. It often happens in history that a leftist minority prevails over a less aggressive majority. The anti-U.S. base campaign is a good example. The legacy of the former Socialist Party still remains strong in the DPJ party secretariat, and the DPJ needs a coalition with leftists in the Upper House to maintain a majority in that chamber.

Sometimes an American ally gets an anti-American leader. South Korea had the Roh Moo Hyun government (2003-2008), yet the U.S.-South Korea alliance, after weathering all manner of friction, remains sanguine today.

I don’t believe the DPJ government of Japan will become as much a source of friction as the Roh government was. I am fairly certain that Americans will be able to conduct business as usual with the new Japanese government.

Behind the changing political landscape, there is an encouraging development for the alliance. In the past, under the LDP absolute majority, the opposition party did not need to present a policy alternative; it was simply engaged in criticizing the government. This time, the DPJ was forced to present a manifesto, and the LDP countered with measures to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. The LDP manifesto proposed strong U.S.-Japan missile defense cooperation, including contingencies for shooting down enemy missiles headed toward the U.S. and assisting U.S. naval vessels engaged in a joint operation.

For Americans or anyone with common sense, these are natural duties toward an ally, but at present the Japanese government is prohibited from carrying them out due to a theological argument against “exercising the right to collective self-defense.”

At present, this is the policy of the LDP, and will be realized under any future LDP government. It may yet be adopted by the new DPJ government. The government- appointed Council on Security and Defense Capability issued a report to this effect in August. The report is to be reflected in the new Defense Outline adopted toward the end of this year. The DPJ government will face a decision on whether to adopt it.

One thing remarkable about the LDP manifesto is that it was not involved in theological polemics; it simply advocated what common sense dictates. This stance might facilitate a bipartisan agreement on the issue.

After all, as the prohibition against a collective defense is the result of a extremely stretched interpretation of the Constitution, it is fair to say it is not really a constitutional issue.

The American side should not hesitate to point out that the issue is a matter of duties toward an ally.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former ambassador to Thailand.