Japan's democratic party strives for normalcy

  • Fall 2009

Tobias Harris is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at MIT and a member of the Center's Security Studies Program.

By Tobias Harris
November 1, 2009

Following the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, Tokyo was rife with speculation about what the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration would mean. The Bush administration had been viewed by many Japanese elites as good for Japan, at least until the second term when it changed its approach to North Korea. Many commentators recalled the Clinton administration's "Japan passing" and saw the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state as a sign that China would receive more attention than Japan. After all, few Japanese leaders failed to notice her sentiments in Foreign Affairs, when she wrote, "Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century."1

Less than a year later, Washington was roiled by similar concerns after the historic victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the 2009 general election. For the first time since its creation in 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was defeated outright in an election by an opposition party. The party with which the U.S. had forged the bilateral security alliance and the party with which many U.S. Japan hands had intimate ties has now passed into opposition. In its place the DPJ has arrived, under the leadership of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Only a decade old, the DPJ is poorly understood in Washington and, therefore, its promises to build an "equal" alliance and an East Asian community have been treated as cause for concern by the United States.

However, U.S. fears about the durability of the alliance under the DPJ are overblown much as Japanese fears that the Obama administration would abandon Japan were largely unfounded. The Hatoyama government has promised to change the alliance, much as it has promised to change dimensions of Japan's foreign and domestic policy. Change, however, is nothing to fear, especially in this case.


Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the night before the general election in which his party won a landslide victory, propelling him to the premiership. 
Image Courtesy of Tobias Harris


To understand the thrust of the new government's agenda, it is essential to understand the desire to make Japan a "normal" nation. DPJ politicians, especially Party Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa, have long discussed the need to normalize Japan. They believe that under the LDP, Japan's political system was abnormal, as ruling politicians were utterly dependent on elite bureaucrats to make policy, the economy was distorted in favor of producers, and Japan's foreign and security policy rested largely in the hands of the United States. Just as dependence on the bureaucracy has deprived politicians of the ability to make decisions necessary for Japanese society, so too has dependence on the United States interfered with Japan's foreign policy behavior.

Accordingly, the DPJ wants to normalize Japan. In foreign policy terms, the party's goal is to give Japan freedom of action internationally. It does not want to end the alliance, but it wants to find a balance between the alliance with the U.S. and cooperation with other countries in East Asia, especially China. This middle line policy course is not unlike what Richard Samuels calls Japan's "Goldilocks consensus."2 As the prime minister wrote in a controversial article in the Japanese monthly VOICE, "How can Japan, caught between an America struggling to remain a hegemon and a China wanting to be and planning to be a hegemon, maintain its political and economic autonomy and defend its national interests? The international environment in which Japan will be placed from now on is not straightforward."3

What will this mean for U.S.-Japan relations and Japanese foreign policy in the near term? In the first year, when the law enabling the Japan's refueling mission in support of coalition activities in Afghanistan expires in January 2010, the DPJ will likely bring its ships home from the Indian Ocean. As the Obama administration debates its own approach in light of General Stanley McChrystal's request for an additional forty thousand troops and Afghanistan's tainted election, the Japanese government appears to be giving serious thought to the best way to support the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The Hatoyama government will likely provide greater civilian support for the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan in place of a mission involving Japan's armed forces.

The new government has also decided that it will press for early negotiations on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, especially the controversial Marine Corps air station at Futenma. After a decade of talks, the United States and Japan agreed in 2006 to a "Roadmap for Realignment Implementation," which stipulated the relocation of eight thousand Marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam.4The agreement tied progress on relocation to the construction of a new air station at Henoko Bay—a "Futenma Replacement Facility"—on land currently part of the Marine Corps's Camp Schwab. The roadmap became law in 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then–Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone signed an agreement on its implementation.5

The DPJ has expressed its opposition to the roadmap. In principle, the DPJ wants U.S. bases removed from Okinawa entirely. Even conservative DPJ members—the party's most enthusiastic supporters of the alliance—are opposed to the roadmap.

At the same time, however, the new government is fully aware of how difficult it will be to revise the realignment process. With the realignment roadmap enshrined in a bilateral treaty and preparations under way on both Okinawa and Guam, the Hatoyama government will have a hard time implementing the DPJ's Okinawa vision. Acknowledging this reality, the party softened the language on realignment in its election manifesto, saying that it would "look to revise" the realignment of U.S. forces and the arrangement of American bases in Japan.6 Since taking power, the Hatoyama government has been no less willing to reconsider its approach to Okinawa and Futenma. Within days of taking office, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said that he wants to reach a new agreement with the United States on Futenma within the year, so that necessary expenditures can be included in the 2010 budget.7Nonetheless, senior officials have clearly backed away from more radical revisions to the roadmap.

The Obama administration has also softened its tone on Futenma. Shortly after the election, a State Department spokesman ruled out the possibility of renegotiating the roadmap, but since then senior administration officials have stressed their willingness to listen to the new Japanese government's concerns about the agreement. On a recent visit to Japan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in regard to Futenma that "it is time to move on," so it remains possible the U.S. may still reject a Hatoyama government proposal.8 However, it does appear that the U.S. will at least try to minimize conflict over the issue.

There is a certain political logic to the Hatoyama government's decision to address these thorny bilateral issues in its first months in office. The closer the government gets to the 2010 upper-house election—in which the DPJ will try to win a majority to complement its majority in the lower house—the less it will want foreign-policy issues crowding its agenda. Other things being equal, the Japanese public is largely inattentive to foreign policy; foreign and security issues never rank as top priorities in public opinion polls. However, the Hatoyama government could still suffer political consequences if it is seen as incapable of responsibly managing Japan's foreign relations, especially the alliance with the United States. It is unclear whether the public approves or disapproves of the government's policies regarding Afghanistan and Futenma, but if the policies result in bilateral strife, the DPJ could suffer at the polls.



Underlying both of these Hatoyama government policies is the idea that the U.S.-Japan alliance is on the cusp of a new era. From 1996 onward, officials in both countries sought to transform the Cold War alliance—characterized by Japanese free or cheap riding—into an alliance modeled on the "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain. After the trade wars of the early 1990s, officials focused once again on the security relationship, starting with a 1996 joint security declaration and continuing with a 1997 revision of the guidelines for security cooperation.9

The advent of the Hatoyama government will likely mean the end of the security-centered 1996 alliance. The United States and Japan will continue to cooperate in security affairs, of course, but the geographical and operational scope will be more limited than officials in both countries had hoped earlier this decade. Hatoyama and other DPJ leaders are instead interested in exploring new avenues of bilateral cooperation, notably cooperation against climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. In particular, economic cooperation is back on the agenda and the DPJ manifesto included a proposal for a U.S.-Japan free-trade agreement.10 While such an agreement may be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the foreseeable future, its inclusion in the party manifesto is revealing. For the DPJ, the key to building an "equal" relationship with the United States means exploring cooperation in areas other than security, because ultimately an equal partnership with the United States in the security realm is impossible, given the asymmetries in capabilities.

The DPJ's thinking on the alliance cannot be separated from its broader thinking on foreign policy. The Hatoyama government, like the Abe, Fukuda, and Aso governments before it, faces a structural challenge in East Asia. Japan, like Australia, South Korea, and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has close and indispensable security ties with the United States, but it also has increasingly important economic ties with China. Japan, like the other countries of the region, is in no position to choose between the United States and China. Both Abe and Aso, despite belonging to the conservative wing of the LDP, which is notoriously skeptical of Chinese power, worked to build a "strategic, mutual" relationship with China. Yasuo Fukuda, as prime minister from 2007-2008, was even more enthusiastic than the two conservatives. While Abe tried to balance a new relationship with China with efforts to enhance security cooperation among East Asia's democracies, his successors focused more on China than on cooperation among democracies that excluded China.

If there is a difference between the Hatoyama government and the LDP governments that preceded it, it is that the new prime minister has made principles implicit under the LDP more explicit. He is also much more willing to address concerns voiced by Japan's neighbors that Japan has thus far not sufficiently expressed its remorse for wartime wrongs, a major stumbling block to further cooperation. Much like Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Hatoyama has come into power pushing a vision for an East Asian community. While some of Hatoyama's specific proposals for cooperation in Asia are far-fetched, it is clear that a DPJ government will continue Japan's movement to status as an Asian middle power, in that—like Australia, South Korea, and the ASEAN countries—Japan will have to balance its relationships with the region's two giants.



1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, "Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century,"Foreign Affairs (November/December 2007).

2 Richard Samuels, Securing Japan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).

3 Author's translation. Yukio Hatoyama, "Watashi no seiji tetsugaku" [My political philosophy], VOICE (September 2009) 139-140.

4Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, "United States–Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation," U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, 1 May 2006, available at www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/security/scc/doc0605.html.

5 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, "Agreement between the Government of Japan and the Government of the United States of America Concerning the Implementation of the Relocation of III Marine Expeditionary Force Personnel and Their Dependents from Okinawa to Guam," 17 February 2009, available at www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/security/agree0902.pdf.

6 Democratic Party of Japan [hereafter DPJ], Election Manifesto, July 2009, available at www.dpj.or.jp/special/manifesto2009/pdf/manifesto_2009.pdf.

7 Mainichi Shimbun, 18 September 2009, available at mainichi.jp/select/seiji/news/.

8 "Joint Press Conference with Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates," Tokyo, 21 October 2009, available at www.defenselink.mil.

9 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on Security: Alliance for the 21st Century, 17 April 1996 and the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, both available at www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/security/arrange.html.

10 DPJ, Election Manifesto.