Divining Japan’s new leadership amid the expectations of change


LONDON — On a recent visit to France, I was frequently asked about the results of the Japanese election. Did the results mean that Japan was really changing? Would the new Japanese government increase Japan’s influence in the world?

I had to hedge my replies with “ifs” and “buts.” The defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been inevitable. It had been in power for too long and had lost touch with Japanese voters. The three Japanese prime ministers since Junichiro Koizumi exited the stage in 2006 had looked like party hacks lacking charisma and leadership qualities. Party factions seemed to have reasserted their influence, and interest groups to have regained their ability to lobby effectively. It was clearly time for a change.

But would the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) be any better for Japan? I was far from certain that they would be. When I learned that Ichiro Ozawa was to be the party secretary general, I feared that in the traditional way he would be the power behind the scenes pulling the strings in the new government. The French adage, which may be translated as “the more things change the more they are the same,” might well apply.

I recalled that Ozawa had been close to the late Kakuei Tanaka, who had been mired in corruption charges, and to the late Shin Kanemaru, who exemplified some of the worst features of factionalism in Japanese politics. Had Ozawa really changed his spots, and could he be trusted to revolutionize Japanese politics and add vitality to Japanese democracy?

Ozawa has long advocated that Japan should become a more “normal” country and not be constrained by provisions like Article 9 of the Constitution. This attitude is understandable, but what will it mean in practice? It won’t be easy to amend Article 9, especially when Japan’s socialists are part of the new Japanese government.

I was also concerned to learn that Shizuka Kamei would hold an important post in the new Japanese government. He had led the opposition to the postal privatization policies of Koizumi, and seemed to be a strong opponent of deregulation when he was an LDP leader.

Will the DPJ halt deregulation, try to re-impose bureaucratic controls and adopt protectionist trade policies? These would not only damage Japanese competitiveness and increase the cost of living but also have a serious impact on Japan’s standing in the world.

The DPJ seems determined to stop companies from taking on temporary workers. This is understandable in a country where the safety net for the unemployed is full of holes. But it could have serious repercussions for Japanese firms competing in world markets.

The DPJ’s tax and spending policies do not seem to add up. Japan’s fiscal deficit is among the highest in the world while the 5 percent consumption tax is out of line with tax rates in other countries.

The DPJ’s determination to destroy the iron triangle of politicians, bureaucrats and business suggests radical change. But the party will need bureaucrats to put policies into effect and industry’s support if the Japanese economy is to recover.

It may be that the bureaucrats and business have had too many “carrots” in the past, but too much of the “stick” will be counterproductive. The DPJ would be wise to eschew confrontation with either the bureaucracy or with industry. It should instead seek their cooperation in effecting the wishes of the electorate as reflected in the election results.

Yukio Hatoyama, the new Japanese prime minister, and Ozawa have called for a more independent Japanese foreign policy. But it is far from clear what this means in practice. If it means trying to improve relations with China and South Korea, it’s all for the good. But is the DPJ really prepared to recognize the facts of Japanese history and part company with Japan’s historical revisionists?

Japan continues to rely on American support in Asia. The Japanese government no longer has to deal with George W. Bush, whose policies in Iraq alienated so many. President Barack Obama has a different and less confrontational view of the world, but faces huge problems in Afghanistan and the Middle East. In both areas, his policies ought to commend themselves to the new Japanese government.

Yet Japan is set to end its support for the war in Afghanistan by withdrawing its refueling ships in the Indian Ocean. This decision inevitably raises questions about Japan’s commitment to Western efforts to combat terrorism.

It is difficult for those not directly involved to comprehend all the issues related to the presence of U.S. forces in Japan. Japanese sensitivity over U.S. bases in Okinawa is understandable, and the problem of finding alternative sites in a country as mountainous and densely populated as Japan is clear. But Japan does not have nuclear weapons and there is, fortunately, no realistic likelihood that Japan will leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to develop its own nuclear arsenal. Japan still needs the American nuclear umbrella.

The new Japanese government would be wise not to antagonize a basically moderate and friendly American government that will, for its part, need to be especially careful about Japanese sensitivities. On the assumption that both the Japanese and the Americans keep their cool, it should be possible for both sides to find a way forward. Japan must, however, clarify that it is not ambivalent about combating international terrorism.

All in all, I am far from certain that the changes implied by the election results will be beneficial for Japan. Yet, I don’t think that they imply the revolutionary change that some commentators wish to see in them. They do at least suggest that Japan is now moving toward a two-party system that should be healthy for Japanese parliamentary democracy.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.