Ruling Party’s Woes Mean a More Inward-Looking Japan

Tokyo – Worries about its political survival will hound Japan’s ruling party after its setback in the recent Upper House polls, leaving it little room to pursue policies that the country’s neighbours had been looking forward to when the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan himself has been in power only since Jun. 8, taking over from Yukio Hatoyama, who left office after his failure to carry out a campaign pledge to move an unpopular U.S. military base from Okinawa island.

After losing its majority in the Upper House – though it still has that in the lower house with its coalition partners — the Kan-led government is bound to have a harder time getting its policies passed and pay less attention to issues of foreign policy.

“Prime Minister Naoto Kan faces an unstable future. The poor election outcome for the DJP has reinforced Japan’s international image as a country with a rudderless political leadership and thus, a disappointment for Asia,” said Satoru Okada, an expert on South Korea at the Institute of Developing Economies, a quasi-governmental think tank.

After the vote for half of seats in the Upper House of Parliament was completed on Jul. 11, the DPJ managed to keep only 44 of the 54 seats it needed to keep a majority. It now has 106 seats plus three of its ally’s, the People’s New Party, giving the ruling coalition 109 seats – quite short of the 122 needed for a majority in the 242-member chamber.

Asian countries and Japan’s partners had been expecting new foreign policy initiatives from the country given that Kan has clearly been trying to move away from conservative nationalist politics, which has been a sore point with the region.

Hailing from a social activist background, Kan favours more welfare spending and a Japan that will build a more conciliatory approach toward former Asian colonies, as well as a more equal partnership with the United States, a key ally For instance, countries like South Korea welcomed Kan’s announcement when he became prime minister that unlike some predecessors, he would not be visiting Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead, including Class A criminals, are buried.

There has been renewed optimism by South Korea in bilateral ties with Japan, Okada said, citing his research on Tokyo-Seoul relations. “Moreover, stronger Japan-South Korea ties are important for both bilateral economic expansion and regional stability,” said Okada, pointing to the tension over North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean submarine in May.

Other pressing foreign policy issues for Japan are reinforcing ties with the U.S. government, especially in the aftermath of the attempt to move its base from Okinawa, and redefining ties with a China that is a regional rival, military power and a key economic partner as well.

But with the Upper House setback, Kan will be “desperately fighting to keep afloat, and he will hardly be able to pass new policies that will rekindle stronger ties to revitalise Japan’s diplomacy and economy,” Okada explains.

Hiroko Maeda, a China expert at the prestigious PHP Research Institute, says that while he signaled a refreshing change from traditional conservatism, Kan will not be able to do much now. “For the moment, given his defeat in the elections and the corresponding restriction on time as a leader, Kan’s priority is to resurrect a flailing relationship with the United States after the disaster created by former prime minister Hatoyama,” she said.

At home, the Kan government will have to continue to look after issues like Japan’s sluggish economy.

Just as they hounded Hatoyama, domestic issues were responsible for the DJP’s poor performance in the Upper House poll. Kan himself attributed the setback to his attempts to introduce a higher sales tax to deal with Japan’s debt, which is twice its 5 trillion U.S. dollar economy.

“I touched on the consumption tax and the public may have felt it came all of a sudden,” Kan told reporters. He had sought a doubling of the sales tax to 10 percent, which he said was needed to avoid financial collapse.

The result of the Upper House elections has set the stage for more political bickering, says political analyst Gerald Curtis. “The election results represent a protest against the DJP leadership by the public that finds the party leaders weak,” he said.

Already, smaller opposition parties have indicated they have no plans of supporting the DJP’s major policies, such as a postal reform bill, because it could prove to be unpopular, like the Kan-supported consumption tax was.

Likewise, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), whose 50- year rule the DJP ended in August 2009, has been busy looking for opportunities for a comeback. The LDP, which won 51 seats to increase its Upper House seats to 84, has said it will step up calls for Kan to step down and suggested it is time for a general election. The prime minister rejected both this week.

There is more uncertainty ahead. In September, the DJP will hold elections for its party leader — yet another test for Kan. If he is forced to step down, Japan faces more unstable times that would keep what was the world’s second largest economy away from the stage of international diplomacy.

“Such a missed opportunity is bad for Japan especially when it is also seeking to balance China’s influence in Asia by boosting its economic standing and setting up a stronger relationship with the United States,” Maeda explained.

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