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Japan Begins New Era as Voters Oust Ruling Party

August 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Japan’s voters, struggling under the weight of high unemployment, record deficits and a shrinking work force, went to the polls in record numbers this weekend to upend a political system in place for half-a-century.

REPORTER: The results of exit polls show that there will be a power shift in Japan.

GWEN IFILL: The Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for 53 of the last 54 years, was tossed out in favor of a new and untested group of politicians, the Democratic Party of Japan. Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, has been struggling, and voters went to the polls determined to jolt the status quo.

JAPANESE VOTER (through translator): I saw that there was so much anger towards the dominance for too long by the Liberal Democratic Party. But we will have to wait and see. It will take some time for us to see whether they are capable to make the situation any better.

JAPANESE VOTER: (through translator): We need a change under any form to break the current situation in Japan. Just like in the United States, we need a change.

GWEN IFILL: The face of that call for change, presumptive Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, rushed today to assemble a new Cabinet.

YUKIO HATOYAMA, leader, Democratic Party of Japan (through translator): It took a long time, but I feel that now I stand at the starting line. But this is not our goal. We can now conduct politics for the people of Japan in the way we believe. I feel overwhelmed with emotions for that fact.

GWEN IFILL: The liberal Democrats and outgoing Prime Minister Taro Aso, who yesterday announced his intention to resign, lost nearly two-thirds of the seats they held in Japan’s lower house.

TARO ASO, prime minister, Japan (through translator): The results of this general election are extremely difficult for the Liberal Democratic Party. I deeply apologize to our voters and party members from all over the nation that have supported us. I regret to have lost many of our colleagues. And, as the representative of this party, I am responsible for this. I hereby will resign.

GWEN IFILL: U.S.-educated Hatoyama has promised to jump-start the Japanese economy by increasing domestic spending and to reverse the country’s declining birth rate by offering couples more money to have children.

He has also signaled that he may pursue a new assertiveness in U.S.- Japanese relations. Just before the election, Hatoyama wrote in an opinion piece published in The International Herald Tribune that the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end.

He also campaigned on a promise to reconsider the 60-year-plus presence of thousands of American troops stationed in Japan, including 50,000 Marines in Okinawa.

In a White House statement, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the U.S. remains “confident that the strong U.S.-Japan alliance and the close partnership between our two countries will continue to flourish under the leadership of the next government.”

The first test of that partnership could come if the new prime minister meets President Obama and other world leaders at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh next month.