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Leadership Changes and Japan in 2012-13

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 49-55 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0002

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The December 16, 2012, election for the lower house of parliament in Japan gave a decisive victory to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over the incumbent ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). While the LDP returns to power under the leadership of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, DPJ conservatives, including former prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, are consolidating their grip on the party after its ejection from power and electoral defeat. The LDP cooperated with Noda on tax reform in exchange for an early election, and Noda responded by forcing out those DPJ politicians who opposed the tax reform and calling a snap election.

The LDP won a comfortable majority in the lower house but not the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments. Abe's electoral pledge to amend the constitution was echoed by the conservative Japan Restoration Party (JRP), formed by the highly popular conservative governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, and the equally popular mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto. The prospect of an LDP-JRP coalition invited an overrated fear of Japanese nationalism overseas. Instead, the LDP picked its long-term ally Komeito as its coalition partner, giving the coalition a combined strength of 325 seats—more than two-thirds of the total 480 lower house seats. However, the centrist Komeito will not lend its strength to Abe's constitutional redesign. As the LDP-Komeito coalition lacks a majority in the upper house, the two-thirds majority in the lower house will be used instead to override unwanted upper house decisions. This use will be instrumental when controversial security policy decisions (such as dispatching troops overseas under sunset legislation) must be voted on.

For now, the LDP-Komeito coalition that excludes Ishihara and Hashimoto's right-leaning grouping will keep security policy at the present level of minimally required defensive assertiveness. The result of the next election in the upper house, due in summer 2013, and the composition of a possible two-thirds majority there will be the key to whether conservatives can fully pursue their more assertive security policy.

Issues in U.S.-Japan Relations for Obama's Second Term

At the beginning of President Barack Obama's second term, U.S. Japan relations face multiple challenges. On a positive note, Obama's announcement of the U.S. "pivot" or "rebalancing" toward Asia is welcomed by Japan, which felt a sense of neglect due to U.S. preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. attention, however, does not by itself guarantee positive results. North Korea for the most part continued to refuse to participate in discussions through Obama's first term, and even a revived trilateral consultation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea could not find an effective solution to the problem. U.S. attention to East Asia in regard to China's increasing maritime assertiveness is viewed by Japan as, at best, reactive and insufficient. The bilateral discord over the relocation of the Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, triggered by DPJ prime minister Yukio Hatoyama's decision to revisit the previous agreement, presents a significant challenge. The new government finds itself caught between the demand for U.S. presence that is brought on by rising regional tension and the heightened expectations of Okinawans that the United States' presence on the island will be reduced.

Obama's re-election has ensured that his government will continue its commitment to repairing the damage to U.S.-Japan relations caused by the Futenma saga. Despite the election of a new Japanese government, the alliance is expected to continue on the current course of repair, given rising regional tension and Japan's lack of an alternative security guarantee. Okinawa remains a wild-card issue, however, as the possibility of low-ranking military personnel causing an incident of strategic significance never ceases to trouble the decision-makers of the two countries.

The first Obama administration also coincided with a period of escalating tension between China and its neighbors. U.S. interests in trading with and selling treasury bonds to China have moderated the otherwise increasing geopolitical rivalry between the two countries. The efforts of many Asian countries to court U.S. support in their ongoing disputes...

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