Muddled Dawn: The Implications of the New Administration in Japan

By Hunter-Chester, David | Military Review, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview
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Muddled Dawn: The Implications of the New Administration in Japan


Hunter-Chester, David, Military Review


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ON 16 SEPTEMBER 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a landslide victory in national parliamentary elections. For the first time since its founding in 1996, the DPJ was asked to form a government, having displaced the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as the governing party for only the second time since the LDP was formed in 1955 (the first time, in 1993, the LDP was out of power for only nine months). After the DPJ's victory, much ink was spilled proclaiming, or at least musing about, imminent, significant, even strategic changes to the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Much of the controversy surrounded an agreement between the United States and Japan to remove Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma from its current location in the middle of a crowded urban area in the southern part of the island of Okinawa. In 2006, after years of negotiations, the United States and Japanese governments agreed to replace the MCAS with a new and smaller facility on Camp Schwab, another Marine Corps facility in the northern, less crowded part of Okinawa. Nine months after the DPJ's landslide, the party's first prime minister, Hatoyama Yukio, resigned, largely over a contretemps surrounding the Futenma issue. Japan ushered in its fifth prime minister in less than four years. Soon the ink was spilled again, this time declaring Japan ungovernable. Has there indeed been a new dawn for the Rising Sun? Should Americans be worried, as some pundits seem to be, about the alliance, or more recently, Japan's reliability? Probably the questions most Americans would ask are: Why should we care? Why do we still have troops in peaceful Japan more than 60 years after World War II? Why is Japan important, and why is it unique?

Politics and the Bilateral Alliance

The formation of a DPJ government in September 2009 was a new dawn for Japan, but the anticipated contrasts from previous administrations have not really materialized. Hatoyama Yukio was the fourth prime minister in three years. Of the four--three--including Hatoyama--are the grandsons of former prime ministers and the remaining one was the son of a former premier. Thus, in terms of pedigree, Hatoyama was typical of Japan's political blue bloods, which should have been a clue to what the implications for the future would be. Further, the individual most often credited with engineering the DPJ's landslide victory was political strongman Ozawa Ichiro. Ozawa engineered the first breakup of the LDP, in 1993, when he led a group of lawmakers out of the party. This, in turn, led to the LDP's first loss of power and to several years of political tumult as politicians formed, departed, and reformed new political alliances (one result being the formation of the DPJ itself).

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Shadow Shogun. The archetypal backroom political fixer in Japan, Ozawa had been the president of the DPJ, and thus in line to become prime minister himself, but he had been forced to resign due to a misuse-of-funds scandal. Such scandals are an all too typical feature of Japanese politics (Hatoyama himself was under investigation for possibly misreporting campaign contributions, while Ozawa was being investigated for other suspected abuses). Widely considered the real power behind the prime minister, Ozawa belongs to a long tradition of what some have called the "shadow shoguns." This appellation remains another status quo feature of the DPJ's ostensibly "revolutionary" administration, though the shadow shogun stepped into the light and ran against the current prime minister, Kan Naoto, to try to regain the presidency of the DPJ. Had Ozawa won, he would have replaced Kan as premier.

Aside from the appearances of traditional political features, the DPJ's policies would likewise hardly suggest a revolutionary stance. Since its founding in 1996, the party has had little if anything in the way of an ideology. Its constituent politicians run the gamut from fairly conservative, former LDP members to leftist, unreconstructed refugees from the defunct Socialist Party.

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