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Published:October 26th, 2009 16:15 EST
Japanese By-Election Results and American Policy

Japanese By-Election Results and American Policy

By Geoff Dean

 It is the best of times and the worst of times. OK, I`m being a bit too melodramatic. Forgive me. Or don`t. Either way, don`t bother to let me know. Still, the recent success of the Democratic Party, coming on the heels of other successes has put the Democratic Party in quite a difficult spot. As a matter of fact, I`m pretty sure the Democratic Party wouldn`t mind if the Democratic party were taken down a notch or two. It would make things a lot easier for the Democratic party.

 If you are confused, that was the point. There are two Democratic parties (probably more but who`s counting?); one in America and one in Japan. The Japanese version has been racking up the successes of late, sweeping the Tokyo metropolitan government elections and then following that up with a massive victory that threw Prime Minister Aso and his Liberal Democratic Party out of office. I discussed this phenomenon in detail in my previous contribution, "The LDP, the DPJ, and the USA",* so I won`t go into that here. Suffice it to say that newly installed PM Yukio Hatoyama has continued to maintain sky high approval ratings (in the 65-70% range, depending on the poll) and has just added two new seats in the Upper House as a result of "by-elections" in Shizuoka and Kanagawa Prefectures.

 These election results are especially significant for three reasons. First, the Upper House is the weakest area of the Democratic Party of Japan administration. Despite a commanding majority (nearly two-thirds) in the Lower House of the Japanese Diet, in the Upper House, the DPJ is forced to act in coalition with some smaller parties and at times, this can disrupt policy making. The addition of two new DPJ Upper House members brings the DPJ a great deal closer to being able to jettison some of the least cooperative "minor" parties.

 Second, the election comes on the heels of some new revelations about questionable financial practices of PM Hatoyama. Already under some clouds concerning campaign financing, it was revealed a day before the elections that he had failed to list his office rent properly and may have violated campaign finance laws in Japan. The election results showed that voters brushed that off as innocent clerical errors or considered it less important than other issues at stake.

 Most important, the victories strengthen PM Hatoyama`s hand ahead of critical talks with the U.S. This is the point which the "other Democrats" (the U.S. ones) may not find amusing.

 Recently, the Japanese Prime Minister has floated some ideas that are not to the liking of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others. For instance, Hatoyama has been promoting his idea of an "East Asian Community " similar to the EU for Japan, China, Korea, and possibly ASEAN. Some see in this plan a desire to exclude the U.S. and/or augment the relationship with China as an alternative to dependence on the U.S. exclusively.

 Furthermore, there has been a burgeoning row over the plan to move Futenma Base, a U.S. military base in Okinawa, connected to the DPJ`s basic hostility (at least some of the members feel so) to U.S. bases in Japan as well as nuclear armed U.S. ships passing through Japanese territorial waters.

 The DPJ has also kept a campaign promise to end refueling missions in the Indian Ocean where vessels of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force were aiding U.S. military ships involved in Iraq, Somalia, and the region and which were according to some, in violation of the Japanese war-renouncing constitution.

 The latest bilateral irritant is a request by the PM to review the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) between the U.S. military stationed in Japan and Japanese law enforcement authorities to allow Japanese police more flexibility in arresting and indicting U.S. servicemen and women for crimes committed in Japan (currently this is only allowed in the case of murder and other "critically serious" cases; in all others, they will be returned to base and the punishment will be determined by the U.S. military justice system).

 All in all, some analysts see a change in Japan from a country that tended to do whatever the U.S. wanted to one that will increasingly go its own way. Indeed, I have often heard, myself, from my students here in Tokyo that on this issue or that issue, Japan should go along with what the U.S. says, even when Japan disagrees with it, since we may need U.S. help vis a vis North Korea or China at some point in the future. I doubt that that attitude is as prevalent now.

 President Obama promised a more humble America, one that listened and didn`t just order other nations around. In his campaign speeches, Hatoyama often called for a Japan that stood up for what was best for Japan, a Japan that stopped being a pushover. They may both have gotten what they wanted but President Obama might be beginning to wonder if he really wanted it that much after all.

*See: The LDP, the DJP, and the USA - Geoff tries to make sense of the various parties of Japan and the political system in light of the recent election surprise.

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