Can the DPJ Change Japan?

by Yoichi Funabashi


The rise to power of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) after half a century of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could bring profound changes to Japan. It now stands a better chance of becoming a two-party system, with real political competition, than at any time since 1890, when it held its first election. A more vibrant democracy at home would allow Japan to become a more active ally to the democracies that have constituted the liberal international order since the end of World War II.

But the road will be long and tortuous. In virtually all sectors of society, the gaps are growing between the urban and the rural, full-time workers and part-time workers, the highly educated and the poorly educated. Japan's once proud middle-class society is now in peril, and citizens know it.

The DPJ's recent rise has coincided with this low point, and the party claims to offer an alternative to the LDP's disappointing record. In order to succeed, the DPJ's strategy will have to redistribute income to the needy and the working poor and broaden opportunities for long-term employment and future growth. Yet so far, it has not mapped out dynamic growth strategies for either.

Despite a general consensus within the DPJ, the party's heavyweights hold diverging views on some important matters. The DPJ is deeply divided over Japan's constitution, for example. Prime Minister Hatoyama firmly believes that it should be revised, and has called for amending Article 9, which prohibits the country's remilitarization. Although many DPJ members agree with Hatoyama, labor unions and the former socialist group are strong dissenters.

Meanwhile, on issues that garner a consensus within the DPJ, the party's views may be more similar to the LDP's than voters realize. Issues such as support for farmers and for child rearing highlight the similarities between the two parties. Both have agreed to increase funding for those areas, and both realize that given Japan's huge public debt, such funding will require increasing the sales tax. Fearing the unpopularity of such a measure, both were playing a game of fiscal hide-and-seek during the campaign.

Likewise, the two parties' bases are more similar than it might appear at first. The DPJ is more socially and ideologically diverse than the LDP, being neither class-based nor ideologically or religiously oriented. The DPJ's supporters have typically been city dwellers and labor unions, whereas the LDP's have traditionally been rural groups, the elderly, and big business. But the DPJ also enjoys a number of supporters in the business world, especially in the information technology industries. And recently, the parties' bases have been shifting. The elderly, who have traditionally supported the LDP, largely abandoned the party in the 2007 election for the House of Councilors in retaliation for a series of pension scandals.

In the meantime, the DPJ's ill-defined nature makes its platform, especially regarding foreign policy, vulnerable to confusion. And the DPJ has also opened itself up to criticism regarding its policies toward the United States. During the campaign, it advocated building a close and equal U.S.-Japanese alliance while developing an autonomous foreign policy strategy for Japan. But it did not define what either would entail.

Still, the DPJ wants closer relations with other Asian countries. Hatoyama has argued for establishing a regional currency union in East Asia, arguing that it is time to get past the Bretton Woods system. Ichiro Ozawa, king maker and the new Secretary-General of the DPJ, has long supported the Chinese-Japanese strategic partnership, and the Chinese leadership has responded well to his overtures.

This is an especially ambitious agenda in a time of especially meager means. Japan has become dangerously marginalized diplomatically. It will soon be replaced by China as the world's second-largest economy. People are afraid that the U.S.-Japanese relationship is becoming less important even as the relationship between the United States and China is growing stronger. Meanwhile, partly because of the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program, the Japanese feel increasingly isolated. If the party is serious about overcoming Japan's loss of diplomatic influence, it will have to regain its confidence, revitalize the Japanese economy, and demonstrate to the public that its "enter Asia, enter the West" strategy is viable. But first, it will have to fully engage in an internal debate about how exactly to go about these tasks.

The DPJ will also have to avoid various pitfalls. It must resist favoring policies that cater to the public. The DPJ has a reputation for speaking boldly about cutting waste in government to pay for new initiatives. But these savings are unlikely to make up for new expenditures, and the global financial market will severely test Japan's fiscal health in the years ahead. Once in government, the DPJ's leaders might find themselves more ready to accommodate the bureaucrats than they had thought. And before they know it, they could become as beholden to the bureaucracy as the LDP was--and then find themselves unpopular with the voters who elected them on the strength of their reform agenda. Instead, the DPJ must display strong and innovative leadership and provide a genuine alternative to the LDP's rule.







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