A new Japan?

Politics in Japan has witnessed a stunning reversal of fortunes. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which was in power for almost all of the past 54 years, has been ousted in recent elections to Parliament. Voters have handed the opposition centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a landslide majority. This is a decisive mandate for change. The vote is as much the result of weariness with the LDP’s politics and pro-rich policies as it is an endorsement of the positions and promises of the DPJ. DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, who is likely to be Japan’s next prime minister, has promised to change the way politics is practiced. This will involve breaking the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and big business. Japanese voters want transparency in the way policy decisions are made. Whether the DPJ will actually act to break with the past in the way politics is done in Japan remains to be seen.The new government will have to address rampant unemployment and pull Japan out of a bruising recession. It has little time to act on these issues as elections to the Upper House are due next year.

How Japan’s new government acts on foreign policy will be keenly watched by the international community.  DPJ has promised to close down an American base on the island of Okinawa. The presence of US soldiers there was part of a mutual security pact signed in the aftermath of Japan’s World War II defeat. Many Japanese perceive the American base as a blot on Japan’s sovereignty. DPJ’s campaign promise of closing down the base has ruffled feathers in Washington. Some have interpreted the DPJ’s Okinawa statements as confrontationist. This is an unfair assessment. What the DPJ is calling for is a more equal relationship with the Americans. Besides, it would like to correct Japan’s current excessive preoccupation with the US in favour of more emphasis on its Asian neighbours.

The DPJ’s call for an end to American presence in Okinawa is fully understandable. Japan has the right to demand the exit of foreign troops from its soil. But the new government will have to tread carefully. Its decision to close down the base will mean the loss of $10 billion. Can recession-hit Japan afford this loss at a time when it is rebuilding its economy?

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