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The Democratic Party of Japan’s victory in the Japanese elections on 30 August poses questions about the country’s future involvement in international security. As the Liberal Democratic Party has previously pushed the country towards re-militarisation and assertiveness, the election of the opponent may have huge implications on current security strategy.
By Johnathan Hill for RUSI.org
An air of excited anticipation surrounded the Japanese elections on 30 August. As many expected, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) claimed victory as opposition over their governing rivals, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), whose previous monopoly on power spanned nearly six decades.
The two parties have sparred over security policy at every opportunity as the LDP has taken Japan towards re-militarisation and an increasingly assertive stance on domestic and international security. There is therefore talk that the DPJ may set Japan on a reverse course or in an alternate direction. However, the realities of internal battles, government and Japan’s geopolitical circumstances make this unlikely as the DPJ faces up to its responsibilities and limitations.
In 2001, Japan began re-militarising and developing a more assertive stance to both its domestic and international security under the leadership of Junichiro Koizumi. He and the LDP sought to balance Japan’s influence over foreign affairs and security with the country’s power as the world’s second largest economy. Japan therefore began stretching its wings within the borders of its alliance with the United States, the backbone of its security policy since the Second World War, and reconsidering how important laws should be interpreted.
Japan becomes pro-active
Japan has certainly become more active within international security; continuing significant development assistance to troubled hot-spots around the world whilst engaging its forces in an increasing number of operations and assertive roles. The transition has not been easy. Self-defence Force (SDF) deployments to the Middle East and Indian Ocean in support of US led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively have caused great controversy and, together with anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, put personnel in moderate yet real danger; a situation not even uniformed officials were able to accept without continuous reassurance.
These new engagements made the LDP vulnerable to attack that it was acquiescing to the US’s foreign agenda whilst failing to address unfair burdens at home caused by the presence of US troops on the Japanese islands and to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
The DPJ sought to distance itself from the LDP and these developments, favouring a more conservative reading of Japan’s constitution, opposing the use of force beyond Japanese territory. Almost anytime and anywhere the LDP has wanted to deploy troops abroad, the DPJ objected. It took a more suspicious view of US interests, upsetting Washington with calls for a ‘radical revision’ of SOFA with strongly worded statements demanding a reduction of US forces stationed in Okinawa and cut-backs in Japan’s funding for alliance readjustments.
The hawk and the dove
This does not suggest that the DPJ holds a clear vision for Japan’s security and will return the country to pacifism and an exclusive reliance on soft-powers. It too advocated that Japan should play a more assertive role in international affairs but has been paralysed by raging battles between its own dove and hawkish elements. The party brims with contradictions; a result of its conception in 1998 when it was formed around the promise of power and a dislike of LDP politics, rather than key and mutual values. The DPJ’s therefore covers a broad spectrum of often irreconcilable views, a cacophony of policy cut into factions supporting either enduring principles of the founding parties or powerful personality figures.
This has made it tough to form agreeable security policies, an often taboo realm in Japanese politics and where the DPJ ranks are most fractious. Therefore, the path of least resistance has been to take a very populist and strongly critical stance in opposition. The DPJ learnt it can hurt the government during controversial debates without proposing its own solid strategies, a tactic championed by the leadership of Ichiro Ozawa, an LDP defector whose personal opinion on security has fluctuated regularly from pole to pole.
However, the DPJ’s lack of policy has drawn increasing criticism and caused internal tensions to rise, contributing to the shock departure of Keiichiro Asao, the party’s ‘Next Minister for Defence’. Asao instead chose to be a founding member of ‘Your Party’ and has since criticised the DPJ’s pandering to populism over policy. ‘In the past, the DPJ was a reformist party, seeking reforms that do not necessarily sound nice to voters,’ he said. ‘But it has come to project policies in a way to butter up the electorate, having grown too fixated on changing the government.’
Still, the DPJ’s populist tactics have brought it to victory where comprehensive security policies were unnecessary in the battle for votes. All the DPJ really had to do was stay out of trouble and let the LDP self-destruct. Government will bring new challenges, however, that will require the DPJ to be much stronger in its convictions.
Even if the DPJ can find unity and form clear policies, deviation from previous trajectories will be difficult to pass through Japan’s monolithic, Kasumigaseki bureaucracy. The all-powerful bureaucracy has significant independence, and fostered a close, symbiotic relationship with the government’s (LDP’s), policy development bureaus. It has therefore had strong influence in both the development and implementation of new security laws, favouring pro-US alliance and more assertive postures.
The DPJ’s relationship with the bureaucracy can only be described as frosty. As the opposition, it never had opportunity to develop deep routed connections and past leaders have done little to endear themselves, ‘We will form an administration capable of showing the bureaucrats who is boss,’ promised Naoto Kan in his manifesto. Unless the DPJ can persuade the bureaucracy that its government will be lasting and that it is in the public’s interest to forge good working ties, bureaucratic protectionism of laws developed mutually with the LDP can be expected, preventing DPJ initiatives from gaining traction.
It is much for this reason and the purpose of caging their own factions that the DPJ once again initiated a small war against the bureaucracy. Whilst currently rhetorical, there is definite scope for real political blood. The DPJ hopes to concentrate policy making power in a new European style cabinet, stripping influence from its own weak and fractious policy bureaus, and forcing the bureaucracy to its will. This is a high-stakes power battle. Failure would not only have been an embarrassment but estrange the inexperienced government from the bureaucracy’s wealth of knowledge, leaving its policy development process unsupported and with marginal chance of effective implementation.
However, the world will not wait for Japan, and irrespectively of its limited ability to form and enact comprehensive policy, the DPJ will face challenging and dangerous security realities the moment it takes power. Ideologically, driven and divided parties often fail in such tasks. However, Japanese politics, politicians and the DPJ are, when push comes to shove and real crisis emerges, deeply pragmatic. The ideological values championed in general term discussion over Japan’s security posture rarely feature with regards to specific threat.
The shape of DPJ policy is already changing to this effect, and its most recent pronouncements on security have avoided the more vociferous positions of the past. DPJ members accept the task ahead and realise that despite their populist opposition, strong allies and continued engagement in international security are essential for government and Japan’s security in the face of geopolitical reality.
‘Japan must participate in international security’
Asao, just days before leaving, described on behalf of the DPJ how, ‘North East Asia lacks stability and Japan’s security situation is very much influenced by the actions of its neighbours.’ He identified a nuclear armed North Korea as Japan’s primary concern and China’s military build-up and assertive territorial claims as concerning. In response to these threats, he spoke freely of national interest and argues that, ‘The geopolitical situation has heightened the public’s awareness that Japan must participate in international security,’ a rare and surprisingly realist attitude for a high-ranking Japanese politician.
The US will also sigh in relief that the DPJ is now taking a more positive view of the Japan-US alliance and SOFA. No longer does the party call for ‘radical revision’ but shows it willingness for moderation, promising to, ‘propose the revision of the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement,’ within a, ‘close and equal Japan-US alliance to serve as the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy,’ a position not so far from the LDP.
Not everything will stay the same, though. Yukio Hatoyama, the man likely to be Prime Minister, has made several warnings to this effect and recently promised that Japan’s refuelling ships in the Indian Ocean will be called home once special laws authorising their mission expire in January; a logistical and symbolic blow to those nations whose navies are engaged in Afghanistan related operations. But still, the DPJ had previously promised an immediate end to the mission and looks to be taking Japan’s contribution to Afghanistan with increased seriousness. Time is there for negotiation and the party is seeking alternatives, proposing aid provisions including government and private sector personnel. Whilst some foreign capitals will see this as weakness, the change is indicative of the DPJ’s acceptance that Japan must continue to play a serious role in international security operations.
Election day saw historic change in Japanese politics with the promise of real choice for its people. This does not necessitate, however, that advances made towards a more assertive Japan will be reversed or set on a new course. The test of government will be very different to the relative freedom of DPJ opposition. Internal battles and a poor relationship with the bureaucracy mean that comprehensive and radical change is unlikely. But this will not prevent Japan from taking a stand against the geopolitical challenges ahead. It will seek out support from its traditional allies and respond to changing circumstances pragmatically. The DPJ has started to mature over past months: facing up to the responsibilities of government and real world security.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.