Asia Scope

Newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama

Newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama officially assumes his post today and has been finalizing his cabinet picks. The question now is whether the Democratic Party of Japan can put together a coherent set of policies. Understandably, its election manifesto was light on specifics and heavy on promises. But with no experience in government (the ejected Liberal Democratic Party had ruled virtually uninterrupted for more than 50 years) it will need some clear, achievable goals that this mishmash of a party – and the public – can coalesce around.

The challenge of doing so is laid out neatly in a Wall Street Journal analysis of the situation:

“Already, there are some signs that keeping the group together could require a balancing act. The DPJ spent considerable energy last week trying to pick the right words to describe the coalition’s policy on the realignment of U.S. forces stationed in Japan, so that it would be acceptable to the Social Democrats, one of the partners.”

One of the biggest tests for the party is going to be following through on its promise to tackle the country’s hugely powerful bureaucracy. The DPJ has already moved to stymie its power with its decision to end a more than century-old practice of top ministry and government agency bureaucrats meeting ahead of cabinet meetings to effectively coordinate policies. Meanwhile, incoming Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii?has pledged to slash the wasteful spending that has marked cozy bureaucrat-LDP ties. But the difficulties the DPJ faces in taking on the bureaucracy are outlined by veteran Japan watcher Karel van Wolferen who writes in the Epoch Times:

“Japanese politicians have since the 1960s been in the business of power broking rather than policymaking, which was left to groups of government bureaucrats. Hence, the new government must create suitable institutions to deal with domestic as well as international matters practically from scratch.”

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But van Wolferen also neatly hints at the international implications if the DPJ can achieve this:

“If the Minshuto [DPJ] politicians are allowed to have their way, and can survive the near certain attempts by bureaucrats to bring them down through trumped up scandals (a favorite Japanese way to deal with strong-minded politicians), we may well get to know a different Japan on the international stage.”

When I caught up in Tokyo with Stephen Yates, a former Cheney national security adviser and Asia specialist, he told me he felt the lack of awareness in the US of how crucial an ally Japan is is down in part to the failure of Japanese officials to make its case clearly. One of the challenges for Hatoyama next week at the G20 should therefore be to start laying the groundwork for a coherent vision of what Japan can and wants to be.