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Japan's change and non-change
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By Wang Ping

Japan's next prime minister faces the task of how to organize a new government to tackle the slew of challenges ahead - such as record unemployment and a rapidly aging society - and draw the world's second largest economy out of the worst recession since World War II.

Japan's historic House of Representatives election on Sunday ended with opposition parties snatching an overwhelming 340 seats, leaving the ruling coalition with only 140. In its historic victory, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) alone gained 308 seats, far more than the 115 it won in 2005. The defeated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for most of the last half-century, got only 119 seats - far lower than the 300 it got in the last election. The DPJ won a complete victory in nearly a third of the electoral districts, while the LDP gained only one seat in another one-third of the total districts, suffering its first defeat since its founding in 1955. The LDP has been in control of the lower house in the past decades even when it remained out of office for 10 months between 1993 and 1994.

The Diet of Japan is a bicameral legislature, composed of a lower house (House of Representatives) and an upper house (House of Councilors).

Japan's outgoing prime minister Taro Aso has blamed the LDP's humiliating defeat on growing grievances among the public over the past years, its failure to reverse voter opinion and frequent changes of the party chief. Naoto Kan, a former DPJ leader, however, attributed the landslide defeat of the LDP to its alienation from mainstream public opinion and failure to ease people's main concerns.

Anyway, the defection of one-third of LDP's supporters to the opposition DPJ was one of the underlying factors behind the former's defeat. Because of its record defeat, the LDP is facing a crisis of survival now, with its president Taro Aso and other key leaders announcing their resignations. The mounting calls for new and changed government policies, together with the effective election tactics, of the DPJ helped the party's chances to defeat the more powerful LDP.

Despite its overwhelming victory, the DPJ, however, does not face an easy job ahead in ruling the politically-restive country. The DPJ, and its coalition partners, would be in a parliamentary dilemma if it cannot win in next year's election to the House of Councilors. Conscious of the political risks ahead, Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ leader, said that his party would adhere to the established policy of forming a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People's New Party, although the DPJ alone has won a clear majority in the lower house.

With a long-reviled bureaucracy and the task to bring the decade-long faltering Japanese economy onto a normal development track, the incoming DPJ will need to deal with a series of formidable challenges ahead. It is expected that the DPJ will push for some sweeping reforms to the country's bureaucracy, either in personnel installation or in governance psychology. However, the long-established multi-faction partisan politics - which has been built on Japan's traditional political culture - can by no means be easily uprooted in a short period. There are enough reasons to believe that such politics will be strengthened within the DPJ as the party begins ruling. Currently, there are nine political factions within the DPJ, with each having about 20 political figures. As the strength in the House of Representatives will increase by a large margin, all DPJ factions will accordingly expand. It is reported that Ichiro Ozawa, former DPJ president, had a 120-member team behind him in this year's Chamber election. How his political faction evolves after the DPJ comes to power remains to be seen. According to Kyodo News, which cited party sources, DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama has decided to let Ichiro Ozawa, who has also been one of the party's acting presidents and its chief election strategist, handle the DPJ's campaign for the upper house election due next year.

On the diplomatic front, the DPJ-led Japanese government is expected to continue maintaining the decades-long alliance with the United States even if some changes are likely to be made in the long-disputed military alliance. But a Japan under the DPJ will show its character to be different from that of the LDP, given that the former has long advocated diplomatic independence. It is expected that the new Japanese government will make great effort to pursue the goal of equal status with the US and try to reduce US troop deployment on its territory. Also, how to co-exist with China and smoothly push for its strategy of re-focusing on Asia will top the diplomatic agenda of the new Cabinet. Japan's policies towards China under the new government will not undergo radical changes. However, with a number of thorny issues unresolved, the two countries should further increase communication to enhance mutual trust, especially on issues relevant to their fundamental national interests.

The author is a researcher with the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily September 1, 2009)

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