Although a historic victory for Japan’s Democratic party, Sunday’s election result will mean little in practice

Measured by the yardstick of Japanese politics since 1955, the result of Sunday’s general election is extraordinary. Only once since 1955 have the ruling Liberal Democrats been ousted from office and that was in 1993, when an eight-party coalition took office for a brief and highly unstable period of rule; and even then the Liberal Democrats remained the largest single party. This is quite different. The Democratic party now enjoys a big majority and the Liberal Democrats have suffered a huge electoral defeat.

But what will the victory of the Democratic party and the defeat of the Liberal Democrats mean in practice? Is it likely to mark a decisive change in Japanese politics? This seems improbable for three reasons.
First, power in Japan does not really reside in the elected government, but rather in the permanent bureaucracy; it is this rather than the Liberal Democrats that has provided the direction for Japan since the end of the American occupation. Indeed, this has been a characteristic of Japanese political culture for many centuries. For this election to mark a decisive shift, a Democratic government would have to replace the Liberal Democrats as the main party of government and also supplant the bureaucracy as the country’s centre of power. There is little likelihood of this happening. This is not what the country voted for, or indeed wants; and the Democratic party has given little indication that it has this kind of ambition. However stunning the electoral shift, the Japanese have not embraced such radicalism.

Second, the Democratic party is a relatively recent creation, having been founded in 1998 by five disparate parties, and largely consists of mild leftists and disillusioned former Liberal Democrats. Its programme is somewhat vague and indeterminate. On this basis, it would be surprising if the new government proved strong and independent enough to undertake radical innovations in policy. Its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, has spoken of the decline of American power, the rise of multi-polarity and the need for Japan to reorient itself to its east Asian neighbours. Could this be the prelude to a long overdue shift in Japanese policy that seeks a new kind of relationship with its neighbours, and especially China? After all, last year China replaced the United States as the country’s largest trading partner. Desirable as it might be, it seems highly unlikely; the most one should probably expect is a minor recalibration of policy.
Third, Japan is a country that finds major strategic reorientations extremely difficult. Arguably, there have only been two since 1868. The first was the Meji Restoration in 1868, which resulted in the decision to modernise the country on European lines in order to forestall imminent colonisation by the western powers. The second was the post-1945 modernisation of the country following defeat and the American occupation; this, like 1868, it should be noted, was a result of external forces. Both of these periods were in many respects hugely successful. Once a new strategic goal has been decided upon, the Japanese have proved highly resourceful and remarkably tenacious at pursuing it. But short of such epochal shifts, the Japanese find major change extremely difficult and elusive.
There is no doubt that the postwar era has now effectively come to an end. The remarkable period of growth has given way to a sclerotic performance since the end of the 1980s. Japan’s hinterland has been transformed with the rise of the Asian tigers, especially China, and yet Japanese foreign policy instincts remain mired in the past. The fundamental assumptions that informed the strategy pursued by the ruling elite since 1955, namely “catching the west” and a pro-US foreign policy, have been undermined, and yet Japan, whatever the result of the election, still seems unable to confront these challenges and to articulate a new strategic orientation.
No doubt in time this will happen; but Japanese history suggests that change will only come when the pressures are truly exceptional. Notwithstanding Sunday’s electoral earthquake, Japan’s existential crisis is likely to continue for some time to come. Neither the ruling elite, most importantly the bureaucracy, or the electorate is yet prepared to countenance that kind of change.