Japan's Obama Moment
Will the DPJ Meet Voters' Expectations?

Japan's voters have had their Obama moment: resoundingly voting for change and a new direction for their country. The question now is whether an untested, if inspirational, party can deliver. If the newly ruling Democratic Party of Japan can solve the country's myriad problems, then a true two-party system may finally take root in Japan, and the country may be transformed. If not, and power switches back to the dethroned Liberal Democratic Party, then the mantra of change and hope will have been dealt a perhaps fatal blow.

This political upheaval has been nearly two decades in the making. Former DPJ leader, and behind the scenes power, Ichiro Ozawa, left the LDP back in 1993, along with a number of his colleagues. Since then, he has been at the center of an evolving group of opposition parties. Taking advantage of the collapse of Japan's economic miracle at the beginning of the 1990s, and capitalizing on the seemingly unending specter of LDP-related scandals, Ozawa built a political party of uneasy alliances, with deep roots in urban areas and an aggressive rural strategy.

He was helped by the failure of LDP policies to fully turn around Japan's "lost decade" of the 1990s, and by the sorry performance of LDP leaders, save for Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 through 2006. When the DPJ took control of Japan's Upper House after elections in July 2007, Ozawa successfully blocked key LDP legislation, leading to the early resignation of two prime ministers. Since then, the writing has been on the wall. Yet, at the moment of his triumph, Ozawa was denied entry into the promised land, being forced to resign his party leadership due to a fundraising scandal of his own.

Yet like the new American president, Hatoyama and the DPJ have placed their credibility on the line by promising so much. By proposing such a sweeping transformation, the DPJ may lose sight of the fact that Japan's voters expect results soon.

Despite Ozawa's fall, it is now the DPJ's turn, led by political scion Yukio Hatoyama. His election platform leaned heavily on domestic reform, promising tax relief, stimulus programs and financial aid for farmers, families and seniors. Hatoyama has pledged not to raise taxes on ordinary Japanese, and insists his funding plans can be paid for by eliminating waste in Japan's nearly $2 trillion budget. Perhaps even more radically, Hatoyama and his deputy, Naoto Kan, propose to concentrate power in the Cabinet, as in Great Britain, by appointing nearly 100 party members to high-level administrative positions in a bold bid to wrest control of policymaking from Japan's powerful bureaucrats.

Finally, the DPJ has long argued for a more independent Japanese foreign policy, one less tied to the U.S. and more in tune with multilateral organizations such as the U.N. Taken together, these election promises are a dramatic departure from how the LDP has ruled Japan for the past five decades. The new leaders will benefit in the short term from Japanese excitement about a new chapter in their country's political history.

Yet like the new American president, Hatoyama and the DPJ have placed their credibility on the line by promising so much. By proposing such a sweeping transformation, the DPJ may lose sight of the fact that Japan's voters expect results soon. Japan's citizens are demanding accountability from their politicians, as well as positive domestic economic effects, meaning more in their paychecks. That will require pulling Japan out of its current economic slump, which has the country hobbled by the failure of its export-driven model of economic growth and now flirting with deflation. Administrative wrangling may simply delay the needed regulatory and bureaucratic reform begun over a decade ago by the LDP.

First up for the DPJ is the budget, one of the more intractable problems for any self-proclaimed reformist government intent on challenging special interests. Hatoyama, who will likely take office sometime around Sept. 14, will have just about three months to put together a $2 trillion package. For a party that's never governed before, that's a tall order, and one that probably militates against any radical changes, although some symbolic measures, like axing the boondoggle "Manga Museum," will undoubtedly be touted as proof of the new direction the DPJ is taking Japan. Similarly, the plan to take over the ministries and rein in the bureaucrats has to be pursued delicately, lest backstage obstruction grind DPJ plans to a halt.

But if Japan's voters have become accustomed to tossing out politicians for their failure to deliver, then Hatoyama and the DPJ must deliver early in their four-year term. A DPJ failure may alienate many of Japan's voters who believed that change really was on the horizon, and result in great cynicism among the populace. The hard work for Japan's new leaders begins now.

Michael Auslin is the director of Japan Studies and a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

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  • Phone: 202-862-5848
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