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Japan's New Guard By: Matt Gurney
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Change does not come easily in conservative Japan, and yet it has come. After 54 almost continuous years in power, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan was defeated in a general election this Sunday by the rival center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The election is not only a historic event inside Japan. It may also augur a dramatic change in America’s relationship with one of its closest allies.


Conceding defeat on August 30, Prime Minister Tara Aso immediately took full personal responsibility for the result, stating that there was obvious widespread dissatisfaction with his party. That is an understatement. His party was crushed, losing almost 180 seats in the 480-seat Japanese Diet (parliament). The losses came at the hands of the DPJ, which won an enormous majority, and will now form a government with more than three-fifth of the seats.


Prime Minister-designate Yukio Hatoyama stands in stark contrast with his LDP predecessors. He considers himself a reformer, views capitalism with skepticism, wants to reform the mighty Japanese civil service, and seeks new relationships with America and Japan's Asian neighbors. During the short campaign, Hatoyama received veritable rock star treatment, and was at times surrounded by cheering supporters, an unheard of phenomenon in staid Japanese politics. With his calls for optimism, change, and reform, he has become something of a Japanese Obama, and young voters have enthusiastically rallied to his side.


That the Obama-esque message of change and reform has found such popular resonance is not surprising. Japan has existed in a state of near-permanent recession since 1989. The collapse of real estate and equities bubbles doomed Japan to spend the final decade of the 20th century propping up its collapsing banks, while housing prices and the stock market crashed. The country has fallen on tough times.


Precisely because of this existing vulnerability, the recent downtown in the global economy has hit Japan harder than many countries. Today, Japan faces an unemployment crisis; young, educated workers simply cannot find work. The available jobs pay too little, and are part-time or contract-only, making it impossible to get ahead. Those who do succeed often do so thanks to the patronage of a more senior supporter. These forces have combined to leave Japanese disenfranchised from their own country, with many lapsing into apathy as to the direction of the country's future.


Enter Hatoyama and the DPJ. With Japanese voters concerned about the stagnating economy, Hatoyama has found a convenient culprit to energize the public: free-market capitalism. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, for instance, Hatoyama railed against “unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism” and blamed the recent economic crisis on “American-style” free-market economics.


If Hatoyama’s indictment of capitalism indicated a new domestic policy course, his Times op-ed also signaled a possible change on foreign policy. In essence, the man soon to become the Japanese prime minister believes that the future economic and military security lies not with America, but with China. Although he has paid lip service to the importance of Japanese’s alliance with America, Hatoyama has also suggested that America is a power in decline and that Japan has to find a place in the new geopolitical system that emerges. That system, according to Hatoyama, will be led by China. Predicting that China will supplant the United States as the global superpower, Hatoyama has called for a common Asian currency and collective security arrangements among East Asian powers as an alternative to the U.S.


The potential policy ramifications of these developments for the United States are extremely serious. Even with its current woes, the Japanese economy is still the world's second largest, and Japan is America's fourth-largest trading partner, after Canada, Mexico, and China. Despite its claims to posses only defensive military forces, moreover, Japan is still a regional superpower, with a large, technologically advanced fleet of warships and a fully modern air force. While Japan rarely sends forces abroad and contributes only infrequently to international peacekeeping and security operations, the aptly named Japanese Self-Defense Forces are a major asset to the United States, providing strategic clout in any potential military engagement with China or North Korea. Any strain to the economic and military trading relationship with Japan would hurt America, all the more so should Japan's assets shift onto China's balance sheet. Hatoyama's prediction of China eclipsing America could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Hatoyama has also threatened to end Japan’s support for the U.S.-led war on terror. Among his campaign promises was a vow to end Japan’s participation in the military campaign in Afghanistan, which the country has been aiding by refueling American ships in the Indian Ocean. Some Israeli analysts, meanwhile, speculate that in the absence of a close alliance with the U.S., Japan, previously muted in its support for the Palestinian cause, may adopt a “more pro-Arab stance, such as…recognizing Hamas and making tougher demands of Israel.”


This is, of course, the worst-case scenario, and may not come to pass. As President Obama is currently discovering in Washington, it is one thing to promise change to the frustrated masses, but quite another to deliver on those promises.


One obstacle to radical change is that Japan remains a deeply troubled country. Its long-term economic distress has left it with debts eclipsing 170 percent of GDP, a crippling burden compounded by the country's bleak demographic situation. It suffers from a chronically low birthrate, and the population is aging rapidly. With rising unemployment, the burden of supporting millions of retirees could soon crush the Japanese fragile economy. Against this background, parts of Hatoyama's winning platform – for instance, free school tuition and direct government subsidies to families with children – may prove unsustainable.


Hatoyama's pledged economic reforms will also prove troublesome to fulfill. Already, there is resistance to his proposed employment reforms, and it is unclear whether his hopes of closer East Asian economic integration will ever come to pass. Japan is notoriously protectionist, and Hatoyama has confirmed his support for protecting Japan's “traditional economic activities.” Whatever wealth he hopes to generate through closer currency and trade links with his East Asian neighbors will be difficult to realize until Japan liberalizes its trade practices and makes itself a truly attractive economic partner for the other efficient Asian economies. While Hatoyama may decry “excessive nationalism,” Japanese protectionism could prove far more harmful to his long-term goals of an economically strong Japan freed from Washington's sphere of influence.


Time will tell whether Hatoyama represents a paradigm-shift in Japanese politics, or if he is merely a protest vote to be swept away at the earliest opportunity. It should be noted, however, that it took 54 years to unseat the LDP, and put the DJP into power. Washington must consider that fact carefully. Should Hatoyama and his successors prove to have similar staying power, the era of close American-Japanese economic and military cooperation, like the era of LDP dominance, may prove another relic of the 20th century.

Matt Gurney is an assistant editor for comment at Canada’s National Post, and writes and speaks on issues of military and geopolitical concern. He can be reached at mgurney.responses@gmail.com

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