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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 8, 2003)

Election, North Korea, and Iraq

Katsuyuki YAKUSHIJI (Editorial Writer, Asahi-Shimbun)


1) Results of the General Election

First of all, I would like to explain about the result of the general election on 9th November. I can say it is the start of a two-party system in Japan. And in this election, the choice of the government was left to the voters for the first time, and people noticed it would be possible to change the government through an election in the near future.

In Japan, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has held on to power for almost 50 years since World War II. People believed that the ruling party is the LDP and that it would be impossible for the opposition to get into power.

But the result of this general election changed the Japanese political common sense. The fixed number of the Lower House is 480, and LDP got 237, and the biggest opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) got 177. These two parties got more than 86% of the total seats; it is the highest record in any Japanese general election. And most of the other small parties except the Komeito, decreased their seat dramatically. That means the first chapter of the story of the two-party system in Japan.

From the middle of 1950s to the 1980s, there were two big parties: the LDP and the Socialist Party of Japan (SPJ). But it was quite different from the current situation.

First, the SPJ could not put forward enough candidates to get a majority, so people knew the SPJ would not hold onto power forever. We called it a one-and-a-half-party system, not a two-party system. The DPJ is different from the SPJ. They put forward candidates in almost all constituencies and defined this general election as the choice of the government.

Second, the policies of the SPJ are totally different from the LDP. The SPJ insisted the Self Defense Forces were unconstitutional. They were against the US-Japan Security Treaty. The SPJ was against all LDP policies. But the DPJ is quite different. Many of their policies are very similar to the LDP. The DPJ declared the US-Japan alliance is most important. They offered revision of the constitution. And the policies on the reform of budget, economic system, social welfare, and the reform of the pension are nearly same.

I imagine people could feel comfortable and at ease when they read the platform of the DPJ, because even if they get into power, the basis of Japanese society or the economic system will not be changed. People found that the regime change by the DPJ is not a revolution.

And the result of the general election proved the limits of the LDP. The LDP fought this election with its most popular politicians, Prime Minister Koizumi and LDP Secretary-General Abe. The approval rating of the Koizumi administration was more than 60%. Depending heavily on his high approval rating, Mr. Koizumi confidently dissolved the Lower House last month. But the LDP failed to get a majority. There are several reasons. People know many LDP politicians are against Koizumi's reforms. And people know there are no powerful and promising politicians who could be the successor of Mr. Koizumi. Many new LDP candidates are second- or third-generation politicians. And people have already noticed that the old way of LDP policies or so-called pork-barrel politics has no possibility to revive the Japanese economy.

I think all of you know about the LDP, but there is not enough information about DPJ and its politicians. I want to explain about the DPJ.

According to the DPJ manifesto, they emphasized the reform of the policy-making process. They declared they would break the control of the bureaucrats and the so called "iron triangle system", which is made by the close relationship between LDP politicians, bureaucrats, and industry. After breaking this system, they would try to build a new policy-making system. They offered some concrete ideas. They would abolish the administrative vice-minister meeting to realize the politicians' initiative. It is held twice every week and they decide main policies before the cabinet meeting. They suggested increasing the posts of political appointees in the central government.

In this election, the DPJ defeated the LDP in proportional representation constituencies, and the DPJ and LDP were neck and neck in many single-seat constituencies, mostly in urban regions. The LDP is strong in rural areas and the DPJ in urban areas.

DPJ politicians are much younger than LDP politicians. Fifty-eight DPJ candidates were elected for the first time; the LDP had only twenty-seven first-time winners. And the average age of DPJ politicians is 48.7 years old; the LDP, 56.3. Many DPJ politicians have experience studying abroad and have their own special fields like finance, market, banking system or security issues. Many of them are rational and pragmatic. They like policy-making much more than the power game and are much better at it.

Next summer, we will have the Upper House elections. And in four years we will have the next general election. If the DPJ succeed in improving their ability in running government, they can bring about a change in the government.


2) North Korea Problem

Next, I will talk about Japanese foreign affairs. We have two big issues: the North Korea problem and the Iraq War. The traditional style of Japanese foreign policy is reactive and passive. Japanese government is not good at creating situations or exercising leadership to deal with vital problems by itself.

But I think Koizumi's visit to North Korea last year was exceptional. It was a rare case that Japanese government tried to solve a regional security issue by itself. But unfortunately, they failed to achieve its goals and the situation become worse. Most Japanese people focused on only the abduction problem. And they think, without a solution to the abductions, the Japanese government should not normalize relations with North Korea. The Japanese government is tied hand and foot by the abduction problem.

There are some reasons why the Japanese people were annoyed with the abductions. First, it was so shocking that Kim Jong-Il confessed to the abductions and apologized for them at the summit meeting. Before the summit, for many years North Korea denied and refused to talk about the issue and blamed the Japanese government. The Japanese people watched the news and got angry about North Korea's dishonesty and lies. Compared with the nuclear problem, the abduction issue was very easy to understand for the people. And the commercialism of the Japanese media, especially television, accelerated this fever.

The Japanese government failed to deal with this issue. The abduction victims' families have complaints against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of its failure to make an active response to the abductions for quite a long time. And after the summit meeting, the Foreign Ministry did not reveal the existence of materials regarding the dates of death of the abducted delivered by North Korea. These facts fired the people's anger or the interest to North Korea. These attitudes fired their anger and distrust in the Foreign Ministry.

But the public opinion in Japan is not unanimous; there are some different ideas about how to solve the North Korea problem. Roughly speaking, there are two ways: the hard landing and the soft landing. People who support the former regard the talks with North Korea as not productive and insist the final solution must be preceded by regime change in North Korea. But the latter think the peaceful way is indispensable not only for Japan also for South Korea and China, and multi-lateral talks are one of the best ways to solve it.

Of course, the Japanese government takes the latter approach. Right-wing politicians and abduction victims' families organization support the former approach. Survey results conducted by many newspapers show that the majority support the normalization of relations with North Korea. People do not want to solve the issue with the use of the military.

About what the Japanese government should do to solve this problem, there are two tides. The right-wing group says abductions are the most important issue; the government should make this its primary priority. Without a solution to it, the government should not negotiate with North Korea. And they insist on economic sanctions against the North or prohibiting North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports. They say Japan should apply economic sanctions even if they do not have the support of other nations. Some extremists say if the North succeeds in developing nuclear weapons Japan should have them too.

But the other group is against increasing tension or military use. We know the hard landing way will not bring about a quick solution. And the practical way to solve North Korea problem is a simultaneous agreement on the nuclear problem and the abductions. Many people expect progress through the six-party talks. But if North will not change their attitude any more or keep their stance stubbornly, I am afraid Japanese public opinion will accept the hard landing way and right-wing group will get much power.

Historically speaking, emotional public opinion has been influential on the foreign policies of any country. Next summer, we will have the Upper House elections, and politicians are very nervous and weak in regard to public opinion. If there were no progress, some LDP politicians will submit new bills to stop North Korean ships or economic sanctions. If they are passed, the North will take countermeasures. During these few months, the Japanese government continues to work on the US to move more quickly and to make a road map to solve the North Korean problem. But the US is not moving actively. If the Japanese people's antipathy towards the North becomes worse, actions that can be taken by the Japanese government will become restricted.


3) Japanese Foreign Policies towards the US and Asia

At the same time, Japanese government is confronted with the Iraq problem. The US asked Japan to dispatch SDF forces to Iraq to support the American army and reconstruction of Iraq. But Japan cannot decide whether to dispatch them because of the current instability and confusion in Iraq. I doubt very much that Japan will send SDF troops this year.

I would like to talk about the change of the Japan-US alliance during these ten years, and the change in Japanese foreign policy toward Asia. The role of this alliance was increased and expanded especially after the first Korean peninsula crisis in 1994 and reached a peak after September 11th. Both governments agreed to redefine the Japan-US security treaty in 1996. The Japanese government passed a law to provide logistical support to the US army in 1999. And during the Afghan and Iraqi wars, they passed another new law for logistical support for the US army. Officially the Japanese government explains the aims of these two laws as logistical support for the international cooperation against terrorism, but it is clear that the main aim is to support the US army. Needless to say, this change was caused by a change in US strategy.

The reinforcement of the Japan-US alliance has close implications for the revision of the Constitution. At the last general election, the three main partiesóLDP, DPJ and Komeitoóreferred to the revision in their manifestoes. There are many points in the Constitution that they want to discuss. Of course, Article 9 is the most important issue and the focal point.

Roughly speaking, there are two groups who insist on the revision of Article 9. One is to amend it for the intensification of the Japan-US alliance. According to the current interpretation, the Japanese government is prohibited from exercising its right of collective self-defense. So the SDF cannot join US military operations or support them. They want to change that. That means the SDF will be able to support or fight with US forces not only on Japanese territory but also anywhere in the world.

The other group wants to make an international contribution to peace building in troubled countries or on human right issues. The Japanese government intends to join in many PKO and other international activities. But there are many restrictions in the laws and the Constitution. They cannot send SDF units without the agreement of the concerned countries; they cannot support activities related to battle. So they think if they succeed in the amendment, Japanese contributions to international activities will be more constructive and broad.

I think, in a few years, they will argue actively about the amendment of the Constitution in the Diet. The committee on this problem will make its conclusions in 2005. The direction of the argument is not clear, but people will appreciate the amendment which will make it possible for the SDF to join international peace building activities more widely. By the way, Prime Minister Koizumi thinks the Japan-US alliance is very important because of the North Korea problem. And he is not interested in foreign policy toward Asia. He has visited Yasukuni shrine every year, and he is not eager to make free trade agreements with Thailand, the Philippines, or South Korea.

Former Prime Minister Obuchi was earnest about building good relations with neighboring countries. He succeeded in a historical reconciliation with former South Korea President Kim, and was positive about diplomacy with China. But former Prime Minister Mori and current Prime Minister Koizumi are not as much interested. Consequently, Japanese foreign policy has become single track and narrow.

But public opinion is different from Koizumi's mind. I do not think that pro-American atmosphere would not spread in Japan. People think the Japan-US alliance is vital. And at the same time, people worry or have the antipathy to the unilateral character of the Bush administration. Public polls show that more than 60% are against the dispatch of SDF units to Iraq. And almost all newspapers criticized the negative attitude of Koizumi toward Asian countries.

Finally I would like to mention the rise of so-called "nationalism" in Japan. In South Korea, China or the US, some scholars believe the nationalistic movement in Japan is becoming stronger. In these past ten years, there have been some issues: the history textbook problem, Prime Minister's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, and the reaction to the North Korea abductions. It looks like Japan is swinging to the right or experiencing a surge of nationalism.

The definition of nationalism is very difficult; some kind of nationalism is useful for international relations. And I think it is hard to say that the current movement in Japan is a philosophical, ideological phenomenon. Many of them are only a reaction to the actions of neighboring countries. For example, the China and Korea governments criticized Japanese history textbook and the Yasukuni visits, and Japanese people said, "It is our own problem. We decide our attitude without any pressure from foreign countries".

I think that it must be an expression of the public's loss of confidence and frustration. Japan, whose high economic growth period is over, is rapidly entering into an age of small families and an aging society. When it is difficult to find bright prospects for the future and neighboring nations say something or other, people could think "why should we listen to the other nations when we can make our own decisions?" This is the reaction that reflects the emotion toward China and South Korea and reaction to the abductions by North Korea. And the same is happening to relations with the US. I think that is different from nationalism.

The provocative words of Mr. Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, are very popular in Japan, but people do not appreciate his anti-US, anti-China, and anti-Korea stance. His words are only an outlet of peoples' frustrations. Of course, I do not accept this tendency. But it will disappear when Japan overcomes its current economic recession and Japanese people regain confidence again.

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