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Japan: The emerging realism of the DPJ

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In Brief

As the general election approaches, there are signs that a new realism is afoot in the DPJ.

Mainichi reports today that the DPJ is prepared to remove the party's opposition to the MSDF's participation in the Indian Ocean refueling mission in support of coalition activities in Afghanistan, at least until the expiration of the current law. The manifesto, due to be released at month's end, will also include a call for cooperation with the US on reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan. This change accompanies a broader shift on the alliance, as the DPJ plans to soften the language in the manifesto concerning the realignment of US forces in Japan. The DPJ has not completely abandoned its concerns about the current plan for the realignment of US forces, especially Japan's financial contributions to the move to Guam — it is concerned with how Japan's money will be spent, if not with the Japanese contribution in general — but the party is clearly shifting its position on foreign policy.


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There are other signs. Earlier this week Party President Hatoyama Yukio suggested that, in response to the confirmation of the existence of a secret treaty between the US and Japan permitting the “introduction” of US nuclear weapons, a DPJ government would be open to negotiating with the US to revise the three non-nuclear principles.

I have previously written of the party’s shift on administrative reform, with Kan Naoto’s stressing that the DPJ recognizes the talents and usefulness of the bureaucracy and will do more than just attack the administrative service. The party is beginning to make pieces of its 300-day plan public, including a plan to create a national strategy office to bolster the power of the cabinet. A similar realism has been at work in the more visible part of the DPJ program, the various spending programs included in the party’s manifesto. After considerable debate about how the party will pay for the promises in the manifesto — including a 26,000 yen/month child allowance, ending fees for public high schools, its 1 trillion yen for direct subsidies to farmers — the party trimmed 4 trillion yen in new spending, from a total of 20 trillion yen, and clarified how the party proposes to pay for its new programs. In the course of clarifying how it will pay for its new programs, it has clarified the timing for their implementation. The debate over the manifesto included a debate between Hatoyama and Okada Katsuya, the secretary-general, over whether to include a promise to eliminate the gasoline tax surcharge from 2010, which Okada opposed due to what he sees as the illogic of eliminating the tax during a recession. But it is encouraging that the DPJ had this debate in the first place: these are appropriate debates for a presumptive government party to be having, and to have them without tearing the party to pieces.

The party is not without its problems on the policy front. For example, Sato Atushi, the president of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, aired concerns Thursday about DPJ plans for stricter financial regulation. Yamasaki Hajime, writing in Shukan Diamond, is concerned about DPJ-SDPJ plans for raising the minimum wage to 1000 yen and restricting the use of non-regular employees. On foreign policy it is not entirely clear the extent to which Hatoyama and Okada are bringing the rest of the party along on the shift on the alliance and the three non-nuclear principles. I suspect that the former is less controversial than the latter. The problem may be less the DPJ, however, than the Social Democrats, the presumptive DPJ coalition partner, which quickly criticized Hatoyama for daring to undermine the three non-nuclear principles. Indeed, this episode reveals the problem with the DPJ’s new realism: the more the DPJ softens its more controversial positions, the greater the distance between the DPJ and the SDPJ. The SDPJ has released its memo, and the differences are obvious. While the DPJ has softened its stance on the US-Japan status of forces agreement and the realignment roadmap, the SDPJ wants complete revision of both and is absolutely opposed to a permanent dispatch law or any changes to the “brakes” on Japanese security policy.

A coalition with the SDPJ will be a problem for a more realistic DPJ, but just how much of a problem will depend on whether the DPJ wins an outright majority in the general election or whether it will require Socialist votes in both houses. Regardless of the outcome, however, the 2010 upper house election will be important as the means for the DPJ to free itself of the Socialists. As a result, a DPJ government would most likely focus little attention on foreign policy issues during the year leading up to the upper house election. Foreign policy “triumphs” would do little to help the DPJ win in 2010 and could undermine coalition cooperation when it is needed to pass other legislation more useful for winning elections. The SDPJ may have a price at which it would drop its opposition to some measure or another, but that price may be more than the DPJ would be willing to pay on a foreign policy issue. Incidentally, it also bears noting that — nuclear policy aside — the DPJ’s shifts on the alliance are shifts that free the DPJ from having to act instead of committing the DPJ to certain policy approaches. It will be in a better position to do nothing (or nothing more than rhetorical actions, requesting negotiations with the US on Guam, for example) and claim that it is living up to its manifesto. Hardly sounds like a tsunami to me.

One area, however, in which the DPJ may be making a disastrous mistake is in having Ozawa Ichiro and Tanaka Yasuo, former Nagano governor, upper house member and leader of DPJ partner New Party Japan, run against Ota Akihiro, Komeitō president, and Fuyushiba Tetsuzo, a prominent Komeitō official and former cabinet minister. Hatoyama indicated that the DPJ is close to concluding a plan that would have Ozawa run in Tokyo’s 12th district against Ota and Tanaka run in Hyogo’s 8th district against Fuyushiba. That the DPJ is approving this plan is presumably a sign of the party’s confidence regarding the election, because clearly the party feels that Ozawa can safely run for a new district while simultaneously campaigning around the country on behalf of DPJ candidates. But whether or not Ozawa and Tanaka win their seats, this decision will likely make it more difficult for the DPJ and Komeitō to conclude a post-election rapprochement. Given the widening gap with the SDPJ, the DPJ may find Komeitō a useful partner, if not as a formal coalition partner than at least as a silent coalition partner. The gap between the consensus DPJ position on foreign policy and the Komeitō position isn’t all that great. But sending Ozawa — whose star-crossed history with Komeitō has poisoned the DPJ’s relationship with the party — into battle against Komeitō’s president could be disastrous for post-election efforts to build a working relationship. I don’t expect a rapprochement to happen quickly in any event, but this decision is one more obstacle that could stand in the way of a relationship that could be an important one for a governing Japan.

Nevertheless, the point is that as the general election approaches and as the DPJ looks increasingly certain to take power, the party is moderating a number of policies that have been sources for criticism in the past. The DPJ is not a radical party — it is interesting in governing well, not in implementing a radical ideological program. Hence its emphasis on creating a Westminster system: its administrative reforms would be a radical departure from LDP rule, but in the name of creating orderly and functioning government.

One response to “Japan: The emerging realism of the DPJ”

  1. The DPJ has shifted its core policies (such as the U.S.-Japan alliance) close to the LDP, so the Japanese voters will have less concerns to have a non-LDP (or LDP Jr.) government. The point is: there is no real change in government’s change (the formaer Socialist Party elements have been cleared inside the DPJ, and the SDPJ is not considered a true political party). Sadly, no DPJ leaders mentioned one word of his party’s policy toward the people of China, Korea, and other Asian countries. In fact, Japan had non-LDP PMs Hosogawa and Murayama after the cold-war ended in Asia (on June 4th 1989).
    New bottle, old wine.

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