Japan Breaks From the Past

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), at the Laforet Museum Roppongi in Tokyo where the party follows election results, August 30, 2009. (Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

by Mike Kulma

On Sunday, Japanese voters took to the polls and voted for change. In an overwhelming victory, the Democratic Party of Japan is poised to control Japan’s powerful lower house of parliament, giving them the ability to appoint the next Prime Minister. While official results were still being counted on Monday, from all accounts, it appears that the DPJ won over 300 of the 480 seats, thereby displacing the almost uninterrupted hold on power by the Liberal Democratic Party since World War II. While numbers don’t tell the complete story, the numbers are quite dramatic. Prior to the election, the DPJ and LDP held 112 and 200 seats in the lower house of parliament, respectively. Current projections suggest an almost complete reversal of fortunes with the DPJ carrying 308 seats and the LDP 119.

Whether this was a vote for change, or a vote against the establishment, to stay in power the DPJ will have to deliver on the promises it made during the campaign. These promises include free secondary schools, stipends for unemployed workers who are actively seeking jobs, tax cuts, a higher minimum wage, toll-free highways, and a monthly allowance to families per child through junior high school. In addition, the DPJ has promised policies that would move Japan away from an export-dependent economy, toward one more dependent on domestic spending.

Perhaps most importantly, they have promised to reform the Japanese bureaucracy, putting more power into the hands of elected politicians. This will be an interesting balancing act, as the relatively inexperienced (freshman make up half of the DPJ candidate list) will need to rely on the bureaucracy to make things happen. Turning all of these promises into reality will be made all the more difficult for a party whose unity is often called into question.

There are also significant challenges the DPJ will face on its first day in office. The Japanese economy remains weakened by the global economic downturn. Unemployment has risen to a record 5.7 percent, consumer prices have dipped, there are concerns over growing inequality, and anger over the recent loss of more than 50 million pension records.

Against this backdrop, some worry that the DPJ’s campaign promises, if put into effect, will worsen an already bad deficit. And that’s just in the short term. Over the long-term, Japan faces both an aging and shrinking population. Solutions to these problems have yet to move forward in any significant way.

On the foreign policy front, Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the DPJ and likely the next Prime Minister of Japan suggests a break from the past. For over half a century the LDP supported U.S. political and economic goals around the world. Mr. Hatoyama has suggested a foreign policy more independent of the U.S., though he has stressed wanting to maintain good relations. At the same time, the DPJ has expressed a desire to build better relations with its Asian neighbors. Mr. Hatoyama has also recently suggested that globalization ignores human dignity, while DPJ policies will focus on people-oriented policies.  More will be known of the directions to be taken by the DPJ at the upcoming G20 meetings in Pittsburgh.

From 1993-1994, a coalition of 8 parties took power in Japan, but the coalition proved ineffective and quickly fell apart. Will this election mark the beginning of a true two-party system in Japan? While the DPJ election victory is far more decisive (along with two allied parties it will likely have the 2/3 majority needed in the lower house to pass bills), it will need to govern effectively to maintain its place. With upper house elections scheduled for next year, the Japanese public will get a chance to let the DPJ know just how well they’re doing.

Mike Kulma is the Director of Policy Initiatives of the Asia Society.