The drubbing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party received in last Sunday's election in Japan was not only a setback for them, but also meant that an opportunity for leadership in Asia has faded.
A chance to overcome the "demons of history" left from World War II has slipped away. The time to revise Japan's pacifist Constitution has been delayed and Japan's negotiating position has been weakened in talks intended to foil North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
In Tokyo, the prime minister has been severely censured by his voters and now confronts a legislature in which his party controls the lower House of Representatives, while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan controls the upper House of Councilors -- a divided government, it might be said, not unlike that in Washington.
A leading newspaper, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, referring to Abe and US President George W. Bush, said in a midweek editorial: "Having lost their political momentum, both the Abe and Bush administrations are finding it increasingly difficult to resolve problems."
Abe, having taken office last September with a head of steam inherited from his remarkably successful predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, has experienced repeated breakdowns that led voters to administer a resounding defeat. Three Cabinet ministers resigned before the election over allegations of corruption or controversial statements; a fourth, agriculture minister Norihiko Akagi, resigned this week.
Koizumi had begun to nudge Japan out of the cocoon in which the Japanese had wrapped themselves after World War II. Former deputy minister of foreign affairs Hitoshi Tanaka articulated the aspirations of many Japanese in a paper written before but published after the election, asserting that Japan had the capacity to exert influence far beyond its shores.
To do so, Tanaka argued, "Japan must not only clarify its long-term vision for the region but also develop a clear policy through which to achieve its goals." With a split government and electorate behind him, Abe will find that difficult.
Moreover, the "demons of history" will continue to haunt Abe and Japan, as the politically disrupted nation will be able to do little to conquer them. The US House of Representatives, for instance, passed a non-binding resolution this week calling on Japan to apologize for recruiting hundreds of women into prostitution to serve as "comfort women" for soldiers during World War II.
The voice vote, meaning no record was made, was taken despite opposition from Senator Daniel Inouyei, who said that six Japanese prime ministers had apologized since 1994. The senator, a Japanese American who rarely comments on Japan, questioned the propriety of the US condemning another nation when the US was not involved.
"How would the US government have reacted if the legislature of some other nation had condemned our historical actions in World War II?" the senator asked, referring to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during that war.
He warned, as did prominent Japanese, that the resolution would harm US relations with Japan.
Abe will have difficulty in pushing through a revision of Article IX of the Constitution that constrains Japan's armed forces and legislation that would permit them to operate in collective defense with other nations, notably the US. The US has been quietly urging those changes.