DPJ faces pragmatism poser
TOKYO - Policymakers and military experts in the United States are watching closely what is likely to be a fundamental political change across the Pacific in Japan. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is almost certainly set to gain control of the government after the national lower house election scheduled for August 30. It would be an unusual toppling of the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) near-perpetual rule for more than half a century.
The DPJ now faces a major dilemma; whether it can adopt a more pragmatic foreign and defense policy and allay security fears of the United States, Japan's key ally. That would be more possible if it kept the more left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SDP) away from the coalition government in the post-election period - but without the SDP, the DPJ would lose a majority in the upper house of the Diet (parliament) and be unable to pass any key bills, even it were to gain a majority in the lower house election.
Splits between the DPJ and SDP are already appearing, even as the DPJ enters talks with the US.
"The DPJ is already increasingly exchanging views on security issues with the US government officials, and it is reviewing its previous stance," Minoru Morita, a noted political analyst in Tokyo, told Asia Times Online. "The alliance with the DPJ and the SDP would be fragile if the DPJ succumbs to pressure from Washington. Pragmatism is a double-edged sword for the DPJ for sure. The more the DPJ becomes pragmatic, the more the SDP aggravates a grievance."
US officials admitted starting a deep dialogue with the DPJ. Most recently, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said, "One of the things that I've been heartened by, very, very much, is the level and extent to which Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) friends and colleagues have been reaching out for dialogue with the United States. That suggests to me that, at a very deep and basic level, there is a belief that the alliance is central and critical." Campbell was speaking in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun published by the International Herald Tribune on Thursday.
On Thursday, the DPJ announced a set of policies called "INDEX 2009". Published in 57 pages, it forms the basis of the party's platform for the lower house election. The formal election platform is due to be announced before the end of the month.
INDEX 2009 is mostly given over to domestic policies, relating to such things as child-raising support programs and a bold review of the social security system, including pensions, medical services and nursing care. Most Japanese believe the DPJ could cope better than the LDP in handling problems related to the nation's aging society.
In defense matters, the most notable point is that the party appears to have reversed its previous stance of opposing the overseas dispatch of Self-Defense Forces (SDF). It dropped all reference to the Maritime Self-Defense Force's refueling operations in the Indian Ocean, an activity the DPJ has until now adamantly opposed, leaving it ambiguous whether the party would oppose the mission's extension beyond next January.
It also dropped a reference to the measures for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan, which could involve the SDF. Former DPJ head Ichiro Ozawa has been a strong supporter of the SDF's participation in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Having gained a majority in the upper house of the Diet in July 2007, the DPJ temporarily blocked the extension of legislation that would have allowed for the continued SDF's refueling mission for antiterrorism coalition forces in and around Afghanistan since December 2001, effectively ending the dispatch of Japanese naval vessels for three months from November 2007.
Yukio Hatoyama, the present head of the DPJ and virtually prime minister-elect given the current political climate in Tokyo, last week told reporters that a DPJ-led government would continue the refueling mission for the time being if the party takes power, saying that withdrawing in a rush would be reckless. 'Continuity is required in diplomacy,' he said on July 17.
Then, on July 18, SDP president Mizuho Fukushima criticized Hatoyama, saying, "It's strange to change the idea just because [the party] approaches power, as it has opposed the refueling mission as an opposition party. We cannot ignore the wobbling of the DPJ."
Fukushima took criticism from Tetsuro Fukuyama, an Upper House member of the DPJ and the current deputy policy chief. "I do not think it's healthy to change the nation's current foreign policy suddenly," Fukuyama told Asia Times Online. "Diplomacy is always about talking with foreign counterparts out there."
Washington appears to have been worried that a DPJ win will bring about significant changes to Japan's traditional alliance with the US. Unlike right-leaning Japanese politicians, especially in the LDP, DPJ members aim to strengthen Japan's relations with Asian countries, the world's probably economic growth center in the 21st century, especially China.
The DPJ, which has often refused to support US policies, notably on the war in Iraq, has previously criticized the single-track Japan-US alliance by advocating that Tokyo diversifies diplomatic and economic relations. The party has called for a more equal partnership with the US, while supporting policies of multilateral cooperation.
INDEX 2009 also mentioned the party's plan to raise the issue of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a long-standing issue of jurisdiction over the 37,000-strong US military presence in Japan. The party has proposed relocation of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan City, Okinawa Prefecture, to outside the prefecture, and has opposed the agreement between the US and Japanese governments on the planned relocation of that station within the prefecture.
Under the US-Japan accord, 8,000 Marines and their 9,000 dependents will be transferred from Okinawa to Guam by 2014, while the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan will be relocated to Henoko district in Nago, Okinawa. Okinawa is home to 70% of the US military facilities in Japan. The DPJ has advocated reducing Okinawa's burden of hosting US military bases as a principal policy imperative.
US officials are putting more pressure on the DPJ stance. Lieutenant General Edward A Rice, commander of US forces in Japan, said on Thursday a plan for the realignment of its bases there must be completed. Rice said the deal "is the right agreement for Japan and the people of the United States", according to an AFP report.
Hatoyama's DPJ, no doubt, appears to be winning. A survey conducted between July 21 and 22 found that 40% of the public supported the party, up three percentage points from the previous survey early in the month and far more than the 30% who said they supported the LDP, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Thursday. The approval rating for the cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso stood at 20%, while 71% disapproved.
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist.