The truly handsome victory of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in Sunday’s general election has been hailed by East Asian pundits as a political tsunami, a seismic power shift, and a historic change. In parallel, the defeat of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party is seen in conventional political terms as a drubbing for Japan’s overstaying conservative ideologues. Viewed in the same milieu, the poll outcome reflects an ascendance of centre-left politics in a country often considered inhospitable to such a theory of the state.

As Japanese experts and external governments come to terms with the DPJ’s landslide victory, its architect Yukio Hatoyama has sounded a rather pragmatic note of celebration. He sees the results as reflecting the people’s yearning for a three-dimensional change. They are “a change of government,” “a smooth transition from the old to the new” as also their “fusion,” and “a change” in the substance of people’s “sovereignty.”

A nodding acquaintance with Japanese politics will suffice to recognise the historic proportions of “a change of government.” The LDP has headed governments in Japan for over a half-century except for a hiatus of less than a year in the early 1990s. So, the prospective transfer of power to the DPJ, which has two small parties as allies, signifies a tectonic shift in the template of Japanese politics. After all, the LDP had acquired an enduring profile as a coalition of big business and grand bureaucracy besides the farming and other rural lobbies. By contrast, the DPJ, itself a forum of politicians with either a vintage LDP background or socialist ethos, has not yet acquired a smart tagline of political identity. However, Mr. Hatoyama is no stranger to the Japanese electorate. He and Ichira Ozawa had left the LDP at a previous defining moment in Japanese politics. It was the time when the economic superpower’s “miracle growth” began fading before the “bubble economy” finally burst. If Mr. Hatoyama’s political choices in the early 1990s did not create the kind of groundswell of popular support that he now has, the reason is not far to seek. One of his grandfathers was an LDP founder; and dynastic politics has been strong in Japan.

Laser-like focus

The political and economic complexion of the latest change of government will be determined by Mr. Hatoyama’s promised focus on “people” as the only purpose of public administration. The DPJ’s poll manifesto was infused with a sense of mission to create a caring society. Conspicuous was the laser-like focus on such aspects as child-rearing in a fast-ageing society, education for the young, and care of the elderly too, besides the usual economic concerns.

Outwardly, a plain platitude is his reading of the latest poll result as a vote for change towards a “fusion” of the old and the new. However, his own gravitation away from the LDP moorings and his accent on “a fresh perspective” may indicate a more thoughtful remark. Similarly, he conveys a message by identifying a third dimension of change — the vindication of people’s “sovereignty.” He wants to “reconsider the relationship between the people, politicians, and bureaucrats.”

In his view, such a basic quest for reinventing Japan is an ideal, whose time may have come. The current global economic crisis, which has deeply hurt a highly networked-economy like Japan’s, is obviously seen by him as a good time for such an ambitious exercise. After all, the LDP’s “shogun politics” of factionalism, linked to the business and other lobbies, has discredited the present system.

The outgoing Prime Minister, Taro Aso, acknowledges that the LDP’s latest loss of power, for only the second time in over 50 years, requires “a fresh start” under a new party leader. A string of corruption scandals did sully the LDP’s image. Moreover, Mr. Aso’s verbal gaffes against the elderly pensioners and Japan’s external patron, the United States, played no mean part in devaluing his leadership. He patted himself for the stimulus packages that he unveiled in recent months to try and put the Japanese economy back on course. By the polling day, unemployment figures hit a new high. On balance, there has so far been no sign of a reversal of Japan’s economic slide from a pinnacle in the 1980s, when the U.S. felt “threatened.”

The U.S. has been on the minds of Japanese politicians for many other reasons, too. The LDP in general and Mr. Aso in particular have been accused of placing Japan in a geostationary orbital path around the U.S., as it were. And, Japan’s ties with China, the rapidly rising neighbour, have often remained rocky.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Mr. Hatoyama has signalled a foreign-policy quest for a balanced equation with the U.S., Japan’s long-time military ally. In parallel, he intends to navigate a course in line with the growing importance of China in global politics. In all this, he is guided by the perception of a potential sunset on the globalism that the U.S. has so far presided over.

As he engages U.S. President Barack Obama, himself a “new-era” leader, Mr. Hatoyama may need to sort out a puzzle. Does the U.S. need Japan more than the other way round? A relevant factor, rarely articulated in a stark fashion, is that the U.S. still holds the trump card of a nuclear umbrella, which continues to “protect” Japan. And, this aspect is linked to Tokyo’s “pacifism,” which the new Japanese leader may wish to retain, revise, or redefine. At the least, Mr. Hatoyama is, however, keen to take a close look at America’s military and geostrategic footprint across Japan and its neighbourhood. Overall, East Asian diplomats do not expect the U.S. to let Japan unilaterally set new terms for their future ties.

This is so, despite expert opinion, such as that of Paul Kennedy that a “global tectonic power shift, towards Asia and away from the West, seems hard to reverse.” An alternative viewpoint, recently articulated by Josef Joffe and others, is the U.S. remains at least “the default power” in the absence of any other country in a comparable position.

Where does India figure in such a milieu, as Mr. Hatoyama begins his quest of foreign policy? He has some familiarity with India, having visited the country some years ago.

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