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After Election, Japan Braces for New Political Landscape

August 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A day after a historic election in Japan that saw the nation's ruling party removed from power for just the second time in postwar history, the newly elected majority began planning for the creation of a new government. Regional experts discuss what the political sea change will mean for Japan, the U.S., and the whole of Asia.
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TRANSCRIPT

For more on the impact of the Japanese elections, we’re joined by Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Daniel Sneider. A former Tokyo-based journalist, he’s now at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Welcome to you both.

Sheila Smith, it felt like this election was basically a crisis of confidence in the way things had been done before.

SHEILA SMITH, Council on Foreign Relations: Absolutely.

And this is a system that’s been trying to change now for over a decade. So, I think the Japanese public continue to try to find an answer with the L.D.P., but it just got to the point where they lost confidence completely in their leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Was this a vote for the newcomers or a vote just to get rid of the old — old-timers?

SHEILA SMITH: I think it was a little bit of both.

You know, Japanese voters tended to punish the L.D.P. in that long 50-year tenure of their rule in upper house elections. And they did that in 2007. But this is the first time they have really given the L.D.P. a route or they have really given them a hard time in the lower house.

The other side of the story, though, is that Japanese voters have never really had a choice. They have never had a viable alternative, a full political challenge to the L.D.P.’s rule, someone they could vote into office.

GWEN IFILL: So, Daniel Sneider, what does this bode for the post-war alliance with the United States after all these years, that new faces are in charge?

DANIEL SNEIDER, Stanford University: Well, I think the alliance itself is not in question.

And the new party, the Democratic Party of Japan, supports the alliance. But they clearly want to have Japan play a more assertive role. They — they talk about a more equal relationship. They want to emphasize Japan’s ties with Asia neighbors a little bit more, sort of balance out the relationship with the U.S. with relations with Asia.

So, there’s — there’s some differences. And I think we could see some tensions over some issues, as — particularly as the new government takes power. There is going to be a transition. There are new people in office who have never been there before. So — but I don’t see this as a threat to the — to the alliance itself.

GWEN IFILL: Even though, in his op-ed piece that we mentioned, the new leader said, you know, this is — these American-style market — free market economies are what lead us to the problem we are in now, and we need to distance ourselves from that? That didn’t feel like a rebuke at all to the U.S. relationship to you?

DANIEL SNEIDER: Well, I have — I have heard the same things in the United States.

I mean, the Japanese critique of what they call market fundamentalism comes out of the financial crisis and a feeling that the U.S. system of sort of high finance and sort of hot money capitalism has been discredited. I don’t think that is unique to the Japanese. I think there are other people who have the same critique.

I think Japanese are feeling the impact of globalization the same way Americans are. They see jobs, manufacturing jobs in particular, being lost, going off to China. They have shrinking opportunities for new generations of people entering the work force. They have got an aging population.

So, they’re trying to cope with all of those stresses. And, sure, there’s some discrediting, if you will, of the American model of capitalism. But, as I said, I think you could hear the same things right here.

U.S.-Japan relations

Sheila Smith
Council on Foreign Relations
This is a government that really wants to renegotiate some of the -- the past practices of managing issues. Such as in your intro -- introductory piece, they want to change the way they manage the U.S. military presence on the ground in Japan.

GWEN IFILL: So, Sheila Bair (sic), what does Hatoyama mean when he says he calls on -- he says we should create an equal partnership, a more equal partnership, with the U.S.? What does that mean?

SHEILA SMITH: It's not really clear. And we will -- we will find out in the months and the year ahead, I think.

I think, basically, what Dan pointed out is true. This is a government that really wants to renegotiate some of the -- the past practices of managing issues. Such as in your intro -- introductory piece, they want to change the way they manage the U.S. military presence on the ground in Japan.

I think they want also to -- to come at this relationship in a position of being able to articulate Japan's interests and to prove to the -- Japanese citizenry that they are a government capable of doing this.

GWEN IFILL: When you say change the military relationship, there are 50,000 American troops in Japan, most of them at Okinawa. Are we talking about just removing them, moving them somewhere else?

SHEILA SMITH: I think that they are -- they are very focused on Okinawa. And, as you know, for the last decade-and-a-half, it has been a very contentious place for the U.S. military.

The two governments have been working on a realignment plan that hopes to shut down one of the major bases on -- on Okinawa. The D.P.J. would like to move that base, remove the facility off of the Okinawan Islands. And the Okinawa governor is considering that option as well.

Regional repositioning

Daniel Sneider
Stanford University
The biggest question in Japanese foreign policy is how to cope with the rise of China.

GWEN IFILL: And, Daniel Sneider, what about the regional repositioning which might happen here with this new leadership, that is to say, Japan's relationship with China, which is breathing down its back, as this -- maybe trying to take over its role as the second largest economy, its relationship perhaps in trying to negotiate some sort of greater openness with North Korea?

DANIEL SNEIDER: Well, the -- the biggest question in Japanese foreign policy is how to cope with the rise of China.

And it's a -- there are sort of two basic camps on this. There's a, I would say, the China threat camp, which exists here in the United States, as well as in Japan, which says, well, you know, we're faced with an aggressive China, one that is engaged in military buildup, and we have to confront them in some way or contain them.

But I think the other camp is sort of the engagement camp. And that is where the D.P.J. firmly sits. They believe in -- that confronting China is really not a -- a fruitful course to take. Japan is too integrated economically with China -- and the same thing can be said of the United States -- that you can't afford to engage in that kind of confrontation. You need to take the Chinese on in certain issues, but the main thing you have to do is engage them.

And I think one of the big changes we're going to see from -- from this government is that they're much more willing and able to deal with the problems of Japan's wartime past, how Japan conducted itself during the invasion of China in the 1930s, its colonization of Korea.

They are more forthright about Japan's history of aggression. They want to remove the issue of the shrine to Japan's war dead, which has been an irritant in the relationship. And, really, only non-L.D.P. governments have made much progress in sort of dealing with this issue of the past. And I expect that will give them a really good tool in which to ease tensions with China and with Korea, their neighbor, and open up some new avenues for actually moving towards maybe some kind of regional integration in Northeast Asia.

GWEN IFILL: So the L.D.P., the Liberal Democratic Party, is out of power. The Democratic Party of Japan is in power, still 5.7 percent unemployment in Japan. Two hundred percent of GDP -- the debt is 200 percent of GDP, declining population.

What does new leadership do to address those kinds of problems?

Task ahead

Sheila Smith
Council on Foreign Relations
This is a government that wants to give the Japanese consumer much more latitude, much more of a role in the engine of Japanese growth.

SHEILA SMITH: I think this is the significant task ahead for the DPJ government. They came into power. When they were -- when they were campaigning during this election, they talked very much about an additional stimulus. They wanted to put more money back into Japanese households.

They were going to do this through tax cuts and transfer payments. One of their most famous pledges is to give families who are rearing young children more money in their -- in their pockets.

So, I think this is a government that wants to give the Japanese consumer much more latitude, much more of a role in the engine of Japanese growth. But the long-term strategy is to transform the Japanese economy from export-driven economy into this domestic demand-driven economy.

And that requires a fairly significant growth strategy. It's not clear yet which way they want to go. But, in that piece that Hatoyama-san wrote, he did suggest that Japan's economic future is better located now in the vibrant economic climate of East Asia and in this East Asian community than it is -- than it has been in the past.

A new prime minister

Daniel Sneider
Stanford University
In many ways, the top leadership of the D.P.J., including Mr. Hatoyama, but others as well, they are very senior, schooled politicians.

GWEN IFILL: Daniel Sneider, tell us what you can about Yukio Hatoyama. He is not a completely fresh face, not completely new to this game. But what can America expect as it begins to engage with Japan with him as prime minister?

DANIEL SNEIDER: Well, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that he's a graduate of my university, of Stanford University.

He's a -- you know, in many ways...

GWEN IFILL: His graduate -- his graduate degree, that's correct, yes.

DANIEL SNEIDER: Yes. He has an engineering degree from here.

And, in many ways, the top leadership of the D.P.J., including Mr. Hatoyama, but others as well, they are very senior, schooled politicians. They all came out of actually the L.D.P. Hatoyama is the grandson of a Japanese prime minister from the 1950s. He comes from an old, very important political family in Japan.

So, these are not fresh faces in that sense. They're not radicals. They really come out of the mainstream of -- of Japanese politics, although, on the other hand, if you look at the new members of the parliament that have been elected, a third of them are brand new to the party. And almost all of those are D.P.J. members.

So, we're going to have a lot of new faces, a lot of new blood, but at the bottom, not at the top.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Daniel Sneider out there at Stanford, and Sheila Smith here with me, thank you both very much.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you, Gwen.

DANIEL SNEIDER: Thank you.