Japan’s election: the tides of history

James C Farrer
22 September 2009

The landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in elections to the lower house of Japan's parliament on 30 August 2009 may represent the most significant turning-point in the country's party politics since the founding of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955. The LDP's six decades of nearly unbroken governance have defined the post-war politics not only of Japan but helped shape those of east Asia as a whole; its watershed defeat now opens the prospect of a new era in both. 

James C Farrer is associate professor in sociology at the Graduate School of Global Studies, Sophia University, Tokyo

Also by James C Farrer in openDemocracy:

"China and Japan: from symbolism to politics" (12 May 2008)

Whether this possibility will be realised, in the first instance by practical policy changes that match the scale of the LDP's rejection by the electorate, is as yet unclear. The new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama is a scion of one of Japan's leading political dynasties, and the government he leads is full of other establishment figures. Yet both the current regional context and Japan's domestic economic and social trends are such that this landmark election may indeed create the momentum for some degree of change.

The Tokyo-Beijing-Washington triangle

Even in advance of the election, it was becoming clear that a change of government in Japan could turn the country's strategic alliance with the United States into a political minefield. The DPJ pledged to review a wide range of bilateral issues in pursuit of its declared aim of a more equal partnership with the US, including plans for relocating American bases within Okinawa, secret treaties allowing US ships carrying nuclear weapons to enter Japan and Japanese refuelling of US navy ships in the Indian Ocean.

Yukio Hatoyama also published a controversial essay in the New York Times in which he bluntly announced an end to US hegemony in the region, decried the US-led neo-liberal model of globalisation and advocated greater integration within Asia (see "A New Path for Japan", New York Times, 27 August 2009). The DPJ was quick to deny that this article signalled a distancing from the alliance with the US. Indeed the prime minister himself is unlikely to pursue a confrontational relationship with Washington; after all, he has personal ties to the US (including a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University) and ideological affinities to the Barack Obama administration. But there are left-leaning factions within the DPJ urging more fundamental changes in the US-Japan alliance. In many ways too, Hatoyama's stance in the article simply reflects an emerging consensus within Japan on how power relations in the region are shifting.

Also on Japan's politics in openDemocracy:

Takashi Inoguchi, "The Japanese decision" (7 August 2003)

Takashi Inoguchi, "An ordinary power, Japanese-style" (26 February 2004)

John Dower & Yoshio Okawara, "America and Japan: the next century and a half" (25 October 2004)

Noriko Hama, "Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains" (12 September 2005)

Noriko Hama, "How not to build an East Asian Community" (9 December 2005)

Andrew Stevens, "The Koizumi legacy and Japan's future" (21 September 2006)

Noriko Hama, "Shinzo Abe: riding high on ambiguity" (18 October 2006)

Noriko Hama, "The China-Japan spring romance: thus far, how much farther?" (17 April 2007)

Noriko Hama, "Shinzo Abe: out of time" (24 August 2007)

Noriko Hama, "Yasuo Fukuda's exit strategy: suicide by drowning" (5 September 2008)

China might on the surface be seen as the beneficiary of any talk of strategic realignment, a view reflected in the Chinese media's broad welcome to Hatoyama's new government and his calls for greater Asian integration. But the downfall of its cold-war-era political nemesis in the form of Japan's LDP has - as Asahi Shimbun's China bureau chief Hayami Ishikawa has pointed out - ambiguous implications for China's ruling Communist Party. 

Indeed, the most important outcome of the election for east Asian democracy may be less the rise of the DPJ than the fall of yet another "one-party state" in the immediate neighbourhood. With lively multi-party competition institutionalised in South Korea, Taiwan and now in Japan, the Chinese Communist Party is left only with North Korea to cite as a model of continuous one-party rule. The discomforting reality for the CCP, Ishikawa points out, is that many observers within China also interpret the fall of the LDP as a referendum on the corruption and stagnation associated with one-party rule, a verdict with clear implications for China itself. As United States influence wanes in the region, such nearby models of pluralist democracy may have growing influence on internal Chinese political discourse.

A political hunger

Japan's internal democratic developments in the coming period will also have a great influence on whether the potential of the election is realised. The initial signs are mixed. Yukio Hatoyama is a fourth-generation politician whose grandfather was a founder of the Liberal Democratic Party and father was a foreign minister; he seems an unlikely revolutionary. Several other leading LDP figures have similar establishment roots.

The new cabinet looks much like the LDP cabinet it replaces: it consists mostly of establishment figures, including former bureaucrats, and over half its members are graduates of Tokyo University. Its average age is even higher that the outgoing LDP cabinet, and there are only two women. Its composition is thus disappointing those who expected more diversity - particularly gender diversity - from a DPJ government.

Yet the selection of experienced technocrats - reflecting Hatoyama's somewhat wonkish slogan of "scientific politics" - also conforms to the larger DPJ goal of putting politicians rather than non-elected bureaucrats in control of policy-making. If successful, the reforms could lead to more substantive political debate in Japan and strengthen the accountability of politicians over policy decisions and outcomes.

A move in this direction is much desired and needed. But if the election reflects an overwhelming desire for political change in Japan, the dissatisfaction with the LDP that led many voters to opt for the DPJ was rooted not in ideological conviction but in the profound social forces that are shaking Japan.

Two of these are worthy of note. First, the dependence of Japanese families on a single (male) income has serious social effects, such as lowering birthrates and depressing household consumption. This is a source of tremendous anxiety in Japanese society. The DPJ's most popular proposal here is the creation of a childrearing allowance intended to help families, to be accompanied by the ending of allowances going to dependent spouses.

The other reforms the DPJ has promised are meant to increase the availability of resources for public childcare and education, on which Japan spends a far smaller portion of its gross domestic product (GDP) than do other wealthy nations. These too would in principle address the limited chances for women to contribute to family income, a serious underlying problem in Japan's economy and society. A greater state-led investment in children, particularly in childcare facilities, would allow more women both to work and to have more children - interlinked issues that pose the greatest opportunities and challenges for the new government.

Second, the election revealed that the growing gap between rich and poor, and increasing poverty and economic uncertainty for Japanese working people, has become a burning issue for Japanese voters. The DPJ seems to be committed to limiting the effects of the economic crisis by actively promoting employment and creating a European-style safety net. The biggest domestic test it faces will be paying for these reforms after two decades of massive deficit spending when LDP governments allowed trillions of yen to be spent on what have proven to be unproductive infrastructure projects.

In short, the election represents a massive step forward for democratic political processes within Japan and carries great potential benefits for Japanese working families, especially working women.  The emergence of multiparty democracy within Japan may also be exemplary for the rest of Asia at a time when American influence is waning.

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