The Democratic Party of Japan has a lot to prove

Sarah Hyde is a lecturer in the politics and international relations of Japan at the University of Kent. Her book—The transformation of the Japanese left: from old socialists to new democrats—is published by Routledge this month.

Q: The Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] overcame the ruling Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] in last week’s Japanese general election. How different are the two parties ideologically?

A: They are not very different any more. There are real nationalists in the LDP and there are lefties in the DPJ, but in the middle they overlap. The DPJ has several high-profile former members of the LDP, including Yukio Hatoyama [president of the DPJ and Japan’s prime minister-elect] and Ichiro Ozawa [former president of the DPJ] who won nine elections as an LDP man before 1993. Where the parties fundamentally differ is that while the LDP cares about factories, companies and rice farmers, the DPJ has more social awareness.

There has been a long-running scandal where 75-year-olds were asked to pay more for a special kind of health insurance and this horrified the Japanese electorate. They asked: ‘Why should these people have to pay extra?’

The DPJ promised to look after people who have lost out and that is where it has found a winning strategy – its pledges include paying more money in child allowance and making high school education free. Whether or not the DPJ manages to pull this strategy off is the big question.

Q: The DPJ characterises itself as a more dynamic party, less prone to influence by the bureaucracy than the LDP. Is this a fair description, or political spin?

A: The DPJ has not been in government so it has not had as much access to the bureaucracy. The question is, what happens when it gets into power? Regarding the ‘iron triangle’ [the co-operative structure between the LDP, the bureaucracy and Japanese business], we should see more politicians dealing directly with business. Bureaucrats talked on behalf of LDP politicians in the Diet [parliament] until not long ago, and the party was maligned for its close contact with the bureaucracy.

I do not think we will see the end of the bureaucrats in Japan – they have a lot of knowledge and a compromise needs to be made. The system could work very well but it cannot be an antagonistic relationship, with the DPJ thinking that the bureaucracy is trying to control the party.

Q: The DPJ won a convincing electoral majority in the Diet’s lower house but did not achieve a ‘super [two-thirds] majority’ in the upper house. Does this have implications for what the DPJ can achieve?

A: Yes. In 2007, it was an astonishing moment when the DPJ took control of the upper house. It was not a complete majority but the DPJ was absolutely the largest party. Half of the upper house is put up for re-election every three years, so it remains to be seen if the party can maintain that level of support in 2010.

Q: The DPJ was created in 1996. How has it risen to power so quickly?

A: I think that 13 years is quite a long time – it is worth bearing in mind that 35 political parties have formed and disappeared in Japan since 1993. The DPJ’s rise is more about the growing unpopularity of the LDP than anything else. A poll published in the Asahi newspaper in August 2007 asked why people thought the DPJ had won [the upper house elections]: 9% said it was because the DPJ’s policies were appealing, 4% said it was because Ozawa was appealing as leader, and 81% said it was because of problems in the LDP. The DPJ has got to prove itself an awful lot.

Q: What were the reasons for the scale of the LDP’s unpopularity?

A: Part of the problem was that Junichiro Koizumi [former president of the LDP and Japan’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006] had been so popular and nobody could take his place. Second was the financial environment. Japanese unemployment is up and the consumer prices index is dropping – if I compare prices with what they were 10 years ago they have not changed. There is a real sense of social deprivation. About 90% of the country think they are middle class, but there is a sense that things are getting worse.

Q: During his premiership, Koizumi tried to push through several radical reforms. How much damage did this do to the LDP?

A: I don’t think he caused long-term damage. He was incredibly charismatic and he still has a lot of influence – his son was elected in his old constituency.

Q: Taro Aso has decided to step down as leader of the LDP. Can you envisage the party re-emerging as a political force within the next few years?

A: I don’t think there is any incentive within the LDP to break the party up as it gets money from the government based on its size, despite what many are saying. The party will have a bad few months but should the DPJ make any mistakes, the LDP will benefit in next July’s upper house election.

Q: Hatoyama has reportedly criticised “US-led market fundamentalism” and other DPJ figures are calling for looser military ties with America, including an end to the refuelling of American warships in the Indian Ocean. Do you expect the DPJ to weaken Japan’s links with America?

A: The problem for the DPJ is that it has members who want to send troops overseas and others who want to stop sending anything abroad ever again. Ozawa wrote a book called “Blueprint for a new Japan” in 1992, in which he talked about Japan being a normal nation with more control over its security, and others in the party are very supportive of Article Nine [a clause in Japan’s constitution that prohibits it from maintaining armed forces].

Hatoyama has talked about international roles within the constraints of the article, including providing non-military support in Afghanistan and anti-piracy work off the coast of Africa.

As for Japan’s relationship with America, Taro Aso was the first foreign leader to meet President Obama after his inauguration. Hatoyama is not stupid and he is not going to break it up. He went to university at Stanford in America.

Q: You first visited Japan in 1984 and return regularly. What fascinates you about the country?

A: There are good bits and bad bits to Japan, but the country has become part of me. I like being there and my ideas are constantly being confirmed and challenged. It has been wonderful to watch the election campaign with my own eyes. Japan is a pure democracy in some regards and completely undemocratic in others. We finally have a chance to see if a two-party system can work.