Tokyo Notes

Good News or Bad? Both

The SDP’s leaving the government is bad news for the DPJ, but perhaps good for Japan.

Was it good news or bad news for Japanese politics?

As the dust settled on a dramatic weekend that saw the ousting of a cabinet minister and the splitting of Japan’s coalition government, it was more bad news for the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as its support rating dived below 20 percent.

But for anyone who had lost hope of a Japanese political party ever making a principled stand on an issue of policy, it was actually good news, as the Social Democratic Party decided enough was enough and parted company with a troubled administration whose credibility is plunging as fast as its popularity.

As mentioned earlier, a controversial visit by SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima to Okinawa last week raised the likelihood that a dramatic sequence of events might follow Friday’s joint statement by the United States and Japan. In the statement, the two nations agreed to relocate the Futenma air base to the same site in Okinawa they originally agreed to in 2006.

Reaching some kind of resolution on the issue was crucial for Hatoyama, who had staked his political career on resolving the matter by the end of May. But the agreement announced Friday provided Hatoyama with a veneer of a face-saving solution at best.

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He failed to keep his promise to relocate the base outside the prefecture, and his striking of a deal with the US side before gaining acceptance for his plan from local authorities or his own coalition government gave the impression of putting the Americans before his own electorate. Not only that, in going back to square one and agreeing to relocate the base in Henoko in the prefecture after eight months of dithering, his decision smacked of capitulation. So much for the US-Japan relationship of equals…

Reneging on the promise to relocate the base outside Okinawa was too much for Fukushima, who refused to sign a cabinet document agreeing to the deal on Friday, and was stripped of her cabinet post as a result. Normally you’d expect the party’s departure from the coalition to be a done deal. But some SDP members were apparently less than enthusiastic about pulling out. When it comes to clinging to power, the party also has previous form since its forerunner, the Japan Socialist Party, helped the Liberal Democratic Party slither its way back into power in exchange for getting the prime ministership as part of a grand coalition back in 1994, despite the parties’ disparate policies.

But the SDP decided to stick to its principles on Sunday, and pull out of the coalition. By Monday, Fukushima was already talking about the possibility of voting against the DPJ should a no-confidence motion emerge.

After eight months of the DPJ-led administration backpedalling on its election promises, here at least was a political party willing to stand by its words even if it meant losing its share of power.

Now that is a lesson the DPJ needs to learn. And quickly.