Defense Affected by Sunday's Election in Japan

It’s difficult (if not impossible) for Americans to have any distinct recollections of any prime minister of Japan. That country has had four different prime ministers in as many years.  

Perhaps the last head of government in Tokyo anyone here can recall is Junichiro  Koizumi, who stepped down in 2006 after five years as prime minister and head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  Koizumi is memorable here primarily because of his long lion’s mane of salt-and-pepper hair, and his passion for Elvis Presley, which led him to come to Graceland in ’06 and sing just like “the king.” (Koizumi even wore sunglasses like his rock-and-roll hero).

Before Koizumi, the last Japanese prime minister to have made an impact on the U.S. was Kiichi Miyazawa.  Assuming the top office in Tokyo in November 1991, Miyazawa gained worldwide fame two months later when President George H.W. Bush vomited on his lap and fainted at a state dinner.  

So when one hears that Japan is holding a national election on Sunday (August 30th) and there will surely be yet another prime minister, should Americans not be forgiven if they simply yawn and say “Who cares?”

No, they shouldn’t.  What happens at the polls on Sunday in East Asia’s largest economy will have a big impact on some policies that are crucial to the United States:  refueling ships headed to Afghanistan in the war on terror, a missile defense for a nation perilously close to North Korea, and Japan’s own relationship with the Kim Jong-il regime in Pyongyang.  

So it doesn’t matter what the pols and punditocracy in Washington knows today about Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and almost surely the next prime minister of Japan.  Americans will know all they need to know about the 62-year-old fourth-generation politician when results are final on Monday.  He will have come to power in an election sure to be deemed historic and as head of a recently cobbled-together party that the Financial Times dubs “a mishmash of LDP defectors, socialists, and technocrats [that] has been pretty woolly.”  

The Hatoyama Revolution

Every survey now shows that the LDP is going to lose power for only the second time in 54 years (the first time was for eleven months in 1993-94 and was the result of a brief split within the LDP and not an election).  With Japanese voters uncertain about the economy and contemptuous of both corruption within the LDP and pork-barrel spending, a sense of revolution is in the air.  A just-completed poll by the Kyodo News Agency shows the opposition DPJ is likely not only to upend the LDP’s majority in the Diet (parliament) but  likely to emerge on Sunday with more than 300 of the 480 parliamentary seats.

Such results would be nothing short of a reversal of the last national election in Japan.  That was in 2005, when the wildly popular Koizumi led his party to a win in which the LDP actually won 300 seats.  Next week, reduced to about 100 seats in the Diet and denied the all-important patronage that comes with running the government, the LDP will probably go the way of the long-ruling PRI in Mexico after its ouster in 2000 or former Communist parties in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War: downhill fast.

In terms of the U.S., the most significant question about a “Hatoyama Revolution” August 30th will surely be what the new DPJ regime in Tokyo does about the Japanese Navy’s refueling in the Indian Ocean of warships from the U.S. and other allies in the war on terror.  The DPJ record on this issue is not promising.  Two years ago, after winning control of the upper House of the parliament (the House of Councilors), the DPK under then-leader Ichiro Ozawa repeatedly blocked renewal of the fueling operations.

The “floating gas station” has been critical to the war on terror.  Tom Schieffer, former U.S. ambassador to Japan under George W. Bush, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Ozawa to change his mind on this issue.  Schieffer told the Washington Post that “[i]f Japan decides not to continue this operation, you will basically knock Pakistan out of the [war on terror] coalition.”  Ozawa didn’t budge and, while he is gone from the DPJ helm, the party has never officially changed its position on the gas station.

Earlier this year, Japan’s ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki told HUMAN EVENTS Editor Jed Babbin and me that a missile defense system was critical to his country.  Japan’s support for a missile defense system is motivated, the ambassador explained in large part by it being so close to North Korea, which has alarmed the world with recent nuclear tests and missile launches.  As Fujisaki said,  “In view of our geography, we think missile defense is an important element of national defense and that is why we are spending $1 billion a year on a missile defense system.”

But the DPJ is unclear on missile defense and on prospective relocation of U.S. bases in Japan.  In fact, Washington has become so concerned with a group of essential unknowns very likely governing a key ally that, as the New York Times reported, “an American assistant secretary of state met party officials to learn more about the Democrats’ foreign policy stance, which calls for greater focus on Asian while building an ‘equal partnership’ with Washington, Japan’s traditional protector.”

Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the DPJ, told reporters that the American — Japanese relationship would remain essentially the same, that there was “no need to worry” for Americans.  And has been noted often, Hatoyama studied in the United States and is the grandson of Ichiro Hatoyama, a pro-American prime minister in the 1950’s who also studied here.

But anytime one deals with a nation and leaders whose details of policy on critical issues are so vague and little known and whose leaders are motivated primarily by a dislike of the party long in power (the DPJ contains many former Socialist Party figures as well as LDP malcontents), Americans should be watching.