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Political Change in Japan: Implications for Foreign and Defence Policies

Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • August 31, 2009

    The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), an ensemble of liberals and conservatives, has unseated the Liberal Democratic party (LDP) in the general elections held on August 30, ending the LDP’s almost half a century of uninterrupted rule over the country. Though the DPJ has been elected primarily because of people’s dissatisfaction with the LDP’s domestic and economic policies, it is likely to alter Japan’s foreign and defence policies.

    DPJ won 308 seats in the 480 member House, while the LDP managed to get only 119. The result will enable DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama, grandson of former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, assume the Prime Ministership by mid-September in a special session of the Diet.

    The DPJ was formed in 1996 by dissidents from the LDP and the Social Democratic Party of Japan. Since then it has played the role of a constructive opposition, filling a void that had existed for years. In the 2007 upper house election, DPJ gained a majority in the House of Councillors for the first time, giving Japanese voters the hope of an alternative to the LDP.

    During its time on opposition benches, the DPJ had taken policy positions that have appeared pacifist and suspicious of close ties with the United States. It has indicated that it would immediately end the Japanese Navy’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan (which began when Koizumi was Prime Minister), renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to limit the terms and scope of the American military presence in Japan, pursue greater accommodation with China, review the existing secret pact that allows the US to dock its nuclear-armed vessels at Japanese ports in violation of Japan’s stated non-nuclear principles, and structure the Japan-US alliance to make Japan’s foreign and defence policies less subservient to those of the US. The DPJ’s tendency with regard to the above is likely to be reinforced by pressure from its coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDP), which is known for its anti-American stance.

    The world will keenly watch how Yukio Hatoyama acts on some of his personal and party promises during the election campaign. These include efforts to create a single Asian currency, forging greater integration with Asian countries, granting foreigners with permanent residency the right to vote in local elections, and a pledge not to visit the Yasukuni shrine. To capitalize on Okinawa residents’ demand to downsize US military bases, the DPJ in its election manifesto had also promised to propose a revision to the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and seek a review of the positioning of US forces in Japan – so far considered a taboo subject by Japanese policy makers. Seen in this context, it seems the DPJ may try to move Japan away from its diplomatic subservience and attempt to establish “equal” relations with the US.

    Afghanistan would be yet another test case for Japan-US relations under a DPJ government. In the past, the DPJ had blocked for over four months the LDP’s move to continue with the Japanese Navy’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean by scuttling the passage of an anti-Terror Special Measures Law (ATSML) in the Upper House. The LDP government was forced to renew the refueling mission using special rights provided by the Lower House by passing the bill for a second time. As the DPJ had promised during the election campaign to end the refueling mission, and since it enjoys a majority in both the houses, it is likely that it will bring about legislation to prematurely end the mission. However, at the same time, it would have to redouble its efforts to help rebuild war torn Afghanistan economically to stave US criticism.

    During the election campaign, DPJ leaders had promised that none of them will visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Past visits by Japanese leaders have drawn flak from Japan’s neighbours who view the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism. Visits by politicians to the shrine have simply served as irritants in Japan’s diplomatic relations with China and other neighbours who had in the past faced the brunt of Japanese militarism. The DPJ has promised to build a new non-religious site as a memorial to Japan’s war dead. The promise is aimed at removing the decade-old impediment to better relations with Japan’s Asian neighbours. If the DPJ fulfils this promise it will solve half of the burden of history and in a way also snatch the history card that China uses to keep Japan in check.

    Renegotiating a secret pact that allows US warships and aircraft carrying nuclear weapons to stop over in Japan or pass through Japanese airspace or territorial waters without prior consultation, would be a priority issue for the Hatoyama administration. Japanese believe that such a secret agreement violates Japan’s three non-nuclear principles of not producing, possessing and introducing nuclear weapons in Japan. Hatoyama recently said that “Tokyo and Washington will thoroughly discuss the issue if we take the reins of government. It is most desirable to openly abide by the three non-nuclear principles.” The documents on this secret deal were in fact declassified for the public in 1999 and a researcher at a private institute in Washington made a copy of it, before it was reclassified on grounds that they contained classified security information. Japan’s leading newspaper Asahi claimed to have procured a copy of the document and reported about it in August 2001, opening a Pandora’s Box in Japan’s political circles. Asahi’s disclosure validated earlier claims of US ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischuer who told the media about the existence of such a secret pact. The issue was raised again during the election campaign. Katsuya Okada, DPJ’s Secretary General, was quoted by Japanese media as saying that the party will go to every nook and cranny of the Foreign Ministry for the documents which prove that LDP-led governments concealed information from the public. It is to be seen how the relatively inexperienced DPJ will handle this complex issue and whether the issue would result in rough weather between the US and Japan.

    On the issue of granting the right to vote for foreign permanent residents, which has gained momentum in the last few years, the ruling DPJ sounds positive. During the election campaign Hatoyama said that “the time has come to take positive step” for granting the right starting with local elections. He said that “the DPJ is unifying its position right now” and has been weighing the pros and cons. The New Komeito, which has been a junior coalition partner in the LDP government, is in favour of granting this right, while the LDP has maintained that “it is not in agreement with those calling for granting suffrage” to foreigners. Since the New Komeito has emerged as the third largest political group with 21 seats and is in favour of granting the right to foreigners, if the DPJ were to sincerely pursues this idea, it will gain trust from Chinese and South Koreans who constitute the largest majority of the 113,038 permanent foreign residents in Japan.

    Hatoyama has also mooted the idea of a single Asian currency aimed at regional integration. It is to be seen how he unveils the plan during his term in the office.

    As regards implication of the political change in Japan for India, the DPJ government is not expected to change anything drastically in India-Japan relations. But since the DPJ manifesto promises to “strengthen the bonds of solidarity with Asian countries,” India is quite likely figure in its Asian strategy. Japan’s efforts to tap the Indian market potential will also continue since the DPJ has promised to raise the economy out of the ongoing slump.