With Bold Stand, Japan Opposition Wins a Landslide
TOKYO - Japan's voters cast out the Liberal Democratic Party for only the second time in postwar history on Sunday, handing a landslide victory to a party that campaigned on a promise to reverse a generation-long economic decline and to redefine Tokyo's relationship with Washington.
Many Japanese saw the vote as the final blow to the island nation's postwar order, which has been slowly unraveling since the economy collapsed in the early 1990s.
In the powerful lower house, the opposition Democrats virtually swapped places with the governing Liberal Democratic Party, winning 308 of the 480 seats, a 175 percent increase that gives them control of the chamber, according to the national broadcaster NHK. The incumbents took just 119 seats, about a third of their previous total. The remaining seats were won by smaller parties.
"This has been a revolutionary election," Yukio Hatoyama, the party leader and presumptive new prime minister, told reporters. "The people have shown the courage to take politics into their own hands."
Mr. Hatoyama, who is expected to assemble a government in two to three weeks, has spoken of the end of American-dominated globalization and of the need to reorient Japan toward Asia. His party's campaign manifesto calls for an "equal partnership" with the United States and a "reconsidering" of the 50,000-strong American military presence here.
One change on the horizon may be the renegotiation of a deal with Washington to relocate the United States Marine Corps' Futenma airfield, on the island of Okinawa. Many island residents want to evict the base altogether.
The Democrats, who opposed the American-led war in Iraq, have also said they may end the Japanese Navy's refueling of American and allied warships in the Indian Ocean.
The White House issued a statement on Sunday saying it was "confident that the strong U.S.-Japan alliance and the close partnership between our two countries will continue to flourish" under the new government. "President Obama looks forward to working closely with the new Japanese prime minister on a broad range of global, regional and bilateral issues," the statement said.
Political analysts expect Japan to remain a close American ally, but one that is more assertive and less willing to follow Washington's lead automatically.
"This is what happens when you have a government in Japan that must be responsive to public opinion," said Daniel C. Sneider, a researcher on East Asia at Stanford University. "It will end the habits from decades of a relationship in which Japan didn't challenge the United States."
At the same time, the Democrats want to improve relations with other Asian countries, including on the touchy issue of history. Analysts say the party seeks to reverse Japan's growing isolation in the region under decades of right-wing Liberal Democratic rule.
Such changes are not likely to come quickly. Diplomatic analysts expect the Democrats to steer clear of security issues for the time being because they could prove too divisive for a party dependent on a broad ideological spectrum.
And some analysts have played down the rhetoric of Mr. Hatoyama, a bushy-haired former management professor, as a nod to his party's left-leaning base rather than a firm pledge to alter dealings with the United States drastically. In recent interviews, Democratic leaders have insisted there will be no major changes in that relationship.
"It's complete nonsense that a non-Liberal Democratic government will hurt U.S.-Japan relations," said Tetsuro Fukuyama, a Democratic lawmaker who oversaw production of the campaign manifesto. "But there are many things left unchanged from the last 50 years that need to be re-examined."
Analysts, however, saw the vote less as an embrace of the Democrats than a resounding rejection of the incumbents. The conservative Liberal Democrats, who with their precursors have held or shared power for 62 of the past 63 years, led Japan from bombed-out rubble to economic miracle, while keeping it firmly in Washington's camp.
But the party has appeared increasingly exhausted and directionless, and Japan's traditionally apolitical electorate, in a rare display of popular democratic muscle, firmly blamed it for the decline of this former economic superpower and its increasingly cloudy future.
"We have been trying to outgrow this old one-party system ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall," said Takeshi Sasaki, a political expert and former president of the University of Tokyo. "It took two decades, but we finally made it."
Prime Minister Taro Aso told reporters that he would take responsibility for the defeat, and stepped down Monday as head of the party.
The exhilarating sense that Japan had reached a turning point drew long lines of voters to polling stations in Tokyo, where they braved darkening skies from an approaching typhoon. About 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to NHK, the highest turnout in nearly two decades.
"I want the Democratic Party to have a go at running the country," said Akiko Tanaka, a 34-year-old nursing home care worker who voted at a junior high school in the Tokyo suburb of Sayama. "If we keep going like we've been, nothing will get better. We need a new government."
A top priority for the new government will be simply maintaining the unity it achieved on Sunday. The largely untested Democrats, a broad coalition of former Socialists and Liberal Democrat defectors, hope to avoid the mistakes of the only previous non-Liberal Democratic government, in 1993, which collapsed in just 11 months because of infighting and defections.
That imperative virtually assures no sudden, radical departures in foreign policy. Rather, analysts expect the Democrats to focus at least initially on their more ambitious domestic agenda.
The party has pledged to change the postwar paradigm here as well, promising to ease growing social inequality by handing more money and social benefits directly to residents rather than to industry or other interest groups.
It has promised to strengthen the social safety net and raise the low birthrate by giving families cash handouts of $270 per month per child. And the party has said it will rein in the powerful central ministries in Tokyo, which have run postwar Japan on the Liberal Democrats' behalf.
But even here, most people have not embraced the party's platform with much enthusiasm, nor are they optimistic about the Democrats' ability to solve looming problems like the growing government debt and a rapidly aging population.
To many voters, the most important fact of this election was that they finally had a choice.
"This vote is about making a system where parties that fail get kicked out," said Yoshiyuki Kobayashi, 40, one of the white-collar corporate workers known here as salarymen. "We need to teach politicians to be nervous."
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Sayama, Japan.