Japan under DPJ Rule: The Costs of Overemphasizing Political Leadership

By Tatsumi, Yuki | Harvard International Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview
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Japan under DPJ Rule: The Costs of Overemphasizing Political Leadership


Tatsumi, Yuki, Harvard International Review


The ascendance of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) on August 2009 was praised as the first genuine power transition in Japan's postwar history. However, there were just as many--or more--who were anxious about the new DPJ-led Japanese government's capacity to govern. After all, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had dominated most of the five decades of Japan's postwar history as the ruling party. The sole role of the opposition parties, including the DPJ, was to criticize the policies presented by LDP-led governments. It was obvious, therefore, that the DPJ would be inexperienced at ruling. The question was how long it would take before the DPJ grew to become sufficiently able to play the role of a ruling party.

Almost three years after the transition, many feel that they are still waiting for the DPJ to "grow up" and gain the ability to govern. The public dismay at the DPJ is apparent--the opinion polls conducted by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun between July 28th and 29th of 2012 showed the approval rating of the incumbent Yoshihiko Noda's cabinet at 28 percent, with the support for the DPJ plummeting to 18 percent. The poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun pointed to a still more frightening trend, with Noda's approval rating at 23 percent and the support for DPJ at an abysmal 8 percent.

During the three years that it has been in power, the DPJ has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to effectively handle national security issues. The blunders made by DPJ's first two prime ministers contributed to the voters' loss of confidence in the party. The first prime minister of the DPJ, Yukio Hatoyama, mishandled the relocation of Futenma Marines Air Station in Okinawa. His successor, Naoto Kan, mishandled the tension over the skirmish between a Japanese Coast Guard's vessel and a Chinese fishing trawler. In addition, Kan failed to effectively respond to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and particularly the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Station, cementing the perception that his government is incapable of managing crisis. Now, the Noda government is heavily criticized for its handling of the decision to restart the Oi Nuclear Power Station and its acceptance of the US deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircrafts.

This article examines why the DPJ has repeatedly stumbled when making decisions on national security issues and considers the potential impact of its incompetence on the US-Japan alliance. I will begin with an analysis of DPJ's structure to determine whether it contributes to its incapacity to govern. I will then draw on two reports--one by the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), and the other by Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident--that discussed the "lessons learned" from the Japanese government's response to the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011, as their findings illustrate why the DPJ has not been able to govern effectively. Finally, I will compare the incumbent Noda government to its predecessors and discuss the possible impact of "governance deficit" on the US-Japan alliance.

DPJ's Structural Challenges

The dominant characteristic of today's DPJ is its diversity. DPJ's founding concept is yu-ai (friendship and love), a notion Hatoyama first proposed. This, along with the public impressions of some of its longtime leaders such as Kan (a former prime minister), Katsuya Okada (the incumbent Vice Prime Minister), and Yoshito Sengoku (a former Chief Cabinet Secretary) gives the perception that the DPJ is ideologically positioned at the "center-left" in contrast to the LDP, which is usually considered "center-right." In reality, however, today's DPJ is neither leftist nor particularly liberal. In fact, the most noticeable (and one might argue the only) common platform among DPJ members is their desire to present a credible opposition to the LDP.

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