Tetsuya Toyoda: Does China help Japanese Conservatives in the Upcoming Election?
On November 14, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced, all of a sudden, the dissolution of the Lower House (or the House of Representatives) ten months before the expiration of its full term. After the election on December 16, the newly composed house will choose next prime minister. The incumbent ruling party, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is widely criticized for not fulfilling many of promises they made before the last election three years ago and is likely to lose the majority. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is hopeful to return to power.
In its election campaign document, the LDP promises four 'restorations': those of economy, education, diplomacy and well-being. While the restorations of the economy, education and well-being are the themes also promoted by the DPJ (while the 'restoration of well-being' is so vague in any way), the restoration of diplomacy stands as almost the only policy promise of the LDP's different from the DPJ's.
This is not the first time that international politics plays into Japanese domestic politics. During the Cold War, the Soviet threat helped the LDP's long reign. Now with the rise of China we are entering the age of New Cold War. How does it play out in Japanese domestic politics?
In 1955, the LDP was established, three years after the end of the US occupation. It united the conservative political groups to compete with the rise of Japan Socialist Party (JSP). Since then, the profound division of the public opinion between socialist ideals and capitalistic liberalism allowed the LDP and JSP to coexist as the first party and second party respectively for as long as thirty-eight years until 1993. The LDP survived the end of the Cold War, but not the JSP. In July 1989 the LDP was badly defeated by the JSP at the Upper House election (36 to 45), but it struck back in February 1990 at the Lower House election (defeating the JSP by 275 to 136), with a passionate appeal to the public that it was an election of regime choice between socialism and capitalism. Having been disappointed by the failure of the Soviet Union and scared by the brutal political turmoil in former communist countries in East and Central Europe, Japanese voters sought safety and stability in the LDP. Then the Lower House election in 1993 gave a fatal blow to the JSP, decreasing the number of its Lower House members from 136 to 70 (out of 511). In retrospective, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union which discredited the socialist policy advocated by the JSP.
New Bipolar Structure and Japanese Politics
With the rise of China, a new bipolar structure is emerging in international relations. People's Republic of China (PRC) is now the second largest economy in the world and is expected to outweigh the US economy by 2025. As the Chinese military expense is increasing at the speed of more than 10% every year, it will not be long time before we will see the military equilibrium between the US and PRC. Will this affect Japanese domestic politics and make a new era of political stability under the rule of a conservative party, perhaps the LDP? Some politicians seem to be aware of such a possibility. LDP President Shinzo Abe declared on November 15, the day after Prime Minister Noda's declaration on the dissolution of the Lower House, that the LDP would revise the Constitution to give the Self-Defense Forces a fully legalized status and protect Japanese territorial claims amid strains with neighboring China and South Korea over the sovereignty of disputed islands of Senkaku (Diaoyu) and Takeshima (Dokdo).
This may be an effective means to attract ballots. A recent poll conducted by the Cabinet Office between late September and early October this year indicated that only 5 percent of the respondents said bilateral ties with China are good, a figure 14 points down from last year and the lowest since the government started such polls in 1986. The sentiment towards South Korea is much better because 18 percent responded that Japan's ties with South Korea are good. But this figure is 40 points lower than the result last year. There is no reason for the LDP candidates to miss the occasion to appeal to the public once again that they are the patriots to defend the country, this time against China and Korea, in close military alliance with the USA.
PRC's new leader Xi Jinping, considered to be close to the People's Liberation Army, seems to have benefited from the two incidents over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, to obtain the vice-chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in October 2010 and the chairmanship of the same Commission as well as the post of Secretary-General of the Party in November 2012. He successfully eliminated Hu Jintao from the Central Military Commission in midst of (or, thanks to) the mounting nationalism in China. But the same incidents have aroused Japanese nationalism and may also benefit the conservatives in Japanese politics.
DPJ's Strategy as a Pro-Asia Party
While the LDP is to identify itself as anti-China and anti-Korea in the same way as it was anti-communism during the Cold War, it is quite natural for the DPJ to take the other side: pro-China and pro-Korea or, to be short, pro-Asia. This may be a strategy for the DPJ so that they could avoid a catastrophe on December 16. Indeed, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano had a meeting on November 20 with the Korean and Chinese trade ministers and declared that they will start negotiations early next year for a trilateral free trade agreement. It was a little odd to see a DPJ minister to make an international agreement, the implementation of which should depend on the new government after the December 16 election. But if it is to be seen as an expression of political conviction, it makes sense: he wanted to tell Japanese voters that the DPJ is committed to cooperation with the PRC and ROK.
Japanese voters are now wondering who to choose. There are very little policy differences between major political parties, except the foreign policy. So far the very assertive attitude taken by the Chinese government has been helping the LDP. But now the power transition is over, we cannot expect much of nationalistic moves from Beijing. Are the Japanese really scared by the People's Liberation Army? Or do they quickly forget about the Senkaku (Diaoyu) dispute and think that economic cooperation with China should help Japanese economy? One thing unlucky for the LDP is that Obama got re-elected. Unlike Mitt Romney, Obama is not eager to support an anti-China policy of the Japanese government. The Japanese public might feel it a little dangerous to be anti-China without the US support. In any way, we will see in two weeks whether and how much the emerging new Cold War paradigm affects Japan's domestic political configuration.
 Available at http://jimin.ncss.nifty.com/pdf/seisaku_ichiban24.pdf (only in Japanese).
 The Japan Daily Press, "Abe will not yield islands to China" (16 November 2012) available at http://japandailypress.com/abe-will-not-yield-islands-to-china-1618497.
 China Daily, "Poll shows strains in China-Japan-S Korea ties" (26 November 2012) available at http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2012-11/26/content_15956905.htm, visited 29 November 2012.
 The Mainichi, "Japan, China, S. Korea to start 3-way FTA talks early next year" (20 November 2012), available at http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20121121p2g00m0dm030000c.html.
Author: Tetsuya Toyoda, Associate Professor, Akita International University; Visiting Professor, School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University.