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Published:March 3rd, 2010 11:03 EST

Japan's Fractious Ruling Coalition

By Geoff Dean

 Ruling coalition`s are by nature unwieldy beasts. After all, parties that are election rivals get together post-election to rule the country. Furthermore, in the Japanese case, one party, the Democratic Party of Japan, absolutely dwarfs the other two (the Social Democrats and Kokumin Shinto (the People`s New Party). In the Lower House of the Japanese Diet, the DPJ has the strength to rule without any partners but in the less critical but impossible to ignore Upper House, it relies on its partners to assert its majority.

 The long time ruling Liberal Democratic Party had a coalition partner as well, the Komeito Party (Clean Government Party), but it was a much more docile ally. As a matter of fact, while there were some nuances of distinction, Komeito basically followed the LDP`s lead (in return they could gain one minor cabinet post). They followed so closely in fact that when the LDP was crushed in the recent Lower House election, Komeito also suffered serious losses.

 The Social Democrats and Kokumin Shinto have devised a strategy to avoid a similar fate, namely, taking up positions in the cabinet and largely supporting the government, while, at the same time, maintaining some key policy disagreements and threatening to leave the coalition if ignored.

 For the largely pacifist Social Democrats the number one issue is the move/removal of Futenma Base in Okinawa. The Hatoyama Administration has dawdled and dithered on the issue but seems to be heading towards moving the base`s operation to Camp Schwab, but on land instead of extending into Henoko Bay as previously agreed to with the US. While this is a slight modification of the US-Japan agreement, it basically follows what had already been agreed on. Kokumin Shinto has strongly supported this new stance while the Social Democrats have insisted that the base must be moved out of Okinawa and out of Japan completely (the insistence on the second count is a bit weaker). If the base is kept in Okinawa, where Camp Schwab is located, they promise to leave the coalition, ending the Upper House majority. The Hatoyama Administration responds repeatedly that "no decisions have been made" which is unfortunately, infinitely believable.

 Kokumin Shinto, a rather reactionary, more right-wing party, has other beefs. While supporting the government on Futenma, they oppose two proposals of the Hatoyama Administration. One is granting voting rights to permanent residents and naturalized citizens of Japan. This is a controversial topic in Japan and they have announced they are dead set against the concept (Japan for the "Japanese"?)

 They also oppose a proposal to allow married couples to keep their own family names. In current Japanese law, married couples must choose one family name, legally speaking, which normally means the husband`s name. More and more working women use their maiden names at work while being forced to sign official documents with their "legal" one. Or many couples choose to "marry" but not register it officially. The DPJ`s proposal is widely supported among Japanese voters but Kokumin Shinto has called it a frontal attack on the institution of marriage and threatened to leave the coalition over passage of either plan. The Social Democrats, by the way, strongly support both proposals.

 The Hatoyama Administration response to Kokumin Shinto has been to say that "negotiations are underway" and nothing has been "finalized". And probably never will be.

 Until recently, many political prognosticators had suggested that following the upcoming summer Upper House election, the DPJ would likely claim a majority in that chamber as well and jettison the unruly partners. Unfortunately, financial scandals swirling around Prime Minister Hatoyama and party "kingpin" Ichiro Ozawa have made the partners more indispensible than ever.

 Would the minor parties actually leave the government? It is unlikely since it could force another election which would likely crush the two smaller forces as well as costing them the exposure that minor cabinet officialdom has granted them. More likely is continued posturing to show that they a) loyally support the government and b)have independence from the government and c)stand up for their policies and constituents while d) accomplishing some of the administration`s priorities. And even more likely, it means more headaches for a man who needs no more, PM Hatoyama.