An unprecedented change in government has raised speculation about the direction of Japan’s foreign policy. The Aug. 30 legislative elections allowed the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to take control of government for the first time from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Japan’s democracy is poised for change, but a drastic revision of the Japan-US alliance is not in Japan’s national interest, is not what the Japanese people voted for and would seriously distract the new government from other priorities.
The DPJ won a 308-seat majority in the 480-seat Lower House of the Diet but lacks an outright majority in the Upper House. To enact legislation smoothly, the DPJ decided to form a coalition government with two minor parties: the pacifist Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People’s New Party (PNP), known for its skepticism of economic liberalization. The coalition is set to govern at least until the Upper House election in July.
In forming the coalition, the DPJ reached agreement on five foreign policy goals: (1) increasing contributions for UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKO), disaster relief, environmental diplomacy and free trade; (2) pursuing a more sustainable and equal alliance with the US by reviewing existing agreements out of concern for the Japanese taxpayer and citizens of Okinawa Prefecture; (3) expanding cooperation with Asian neighbors and developing an “East Asian Community”; (4) advancing nuclear disarmament; and (5) directing foreign aid toward the alleviation of poverty and post-conflict reconstruction, including in Afghanistan.
These policy visions are in line with the DPJ election platform, but the inclusion of the SDP could constrain Cabinet decisions on security policy. The SDP has strongly opposed international activities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. However, the SDP and PNP did not gain additional seats in the recent election and account for only 2.5 percent of the Lower House. Nonetheless, the appointment of PNP leader Shizuka Kamei as financial services minister signals a dramatic break with former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s attempts at economic reform.
Even more important in terms of personnel decisions, DPJ leader and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama appointed Katsuya Okada as foreign minister and named Ichiro Ozawa secretary-general of the DPJ. Ozawa, the veteran politician instrumental in the historic transition from LDP to DPJ-centered government, wields considerable power behind the scenes. Many DPJ lawmakers owe their positions to Ozawa, who will oversee not only party but also legislative business since his closest aide, Kenji Yamaoka, chairs the Diet Affairs Committee. An open question is how Hatoyama will coordinate policy among Ozawa, Okada’s foreign affairs ministry and the newly established National Strategy Bureau headed by Naoto Kan.
Hatoyama chose Toshimi Kitazawa as defense minister, a senior lawmaker not expected to take a transformative role. As the DPJ is without governing experience, it may be putting its most senior faces in the Cabinet to inspire public confidence. This appointment might also indicate the DPJ’s intention to play down defense issues ahead of the Upper House election. The tight election cycle puts pressure on the DPJ to demonstrate progress on economic and social issues. Japanese public surveys suggest that people voted against the LDP’s domestic failures rather than in favor of the DPJ’s international agenda.