Japan’s Resurgent Power

By: Lauren Webb Almost continuously for 54 years, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) controlled The Diet, Japan’s parliament. But in 2009, amid a rising debt problem and growing public disenchantment with the establishment, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took control. They promised to reduce the control of Japan’s bureaucracy. They promised not to increase taxes. They promised to bring change to a government that seemed stagnant and unresponsive to the people.

Flash forward three years later. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is the DPJ’s third prime minister in just three years.  The first, Yukio Hatoyama, resigned after less than one year over “charges of incompetence.”[1] The country is facing a deficit problem dire enough that Reuters writes that the government could “run out of money by October.”[2] Japan’s public debt is now over 125% of GDP. The restart of nuclear reactors is triggering public protests of the size unseen in Japan since the Vietnam War.[3] And most analysts believe that the DPJ will be out of power before the end of the lower members’ terms in 2013.

So what changed in three years to transform the DPJ from landslide victors, promising a true alternative to the LDP, into a party struggling to hold a majority in the lower house?[4]

The immediate cause is the two-front war which Prime Minister Noda currently faces: one from within his ranks and the other from the public. At the heart of this opposition is resistance to recent decisions by the prime minister that seem more closely aligned with LDP policies than DPJ promises.

This summer, in an attempt to alleviate the deficit problem, Prime Minister Noda called for an increase in Japan’s consumption tax to 10%, double its current rate, by 2015—an unprecedented move in Japanese politics. He succeeded in passing this through the lower house of The Diet in June, but only with the help of the LDP (who had previously pushed for such an increase) and the New Komeito party.[5] Many members of his own party voted against the bill.

In response to the proposed tax increase, Noda has faced a series of defections from the DPJ and the creation of a new party (the Kokumin no Seikatsu Daiichi, or “People’s Life First”) by former DPJ member and longtime politician Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa and his party seek to defeat the bill, which he says violates the DPJ’s campaign pledge not to increase taxes.[6] These defections have significantly reduced the DPJ’s numbers, though as of writing they maintain a slight majority in the 480-seat lower house.

The Japanese public’s dissatisfaction with the DPJ has manifested itself mostly on anti-nuclear energy grounds in response to another unpopular move by Noda. Following the Fukushima disaster in March, nearly all of Japan’s nuclear reactors were suspended. Satisfying the country’s energy needs with oil and gas imports has increased Japan’s energy bill by $100 million a day. In an effort to decrease Japan’s first trade deficit in three decades, Prime Minister Noda restarted two nuclear reactors this summer. However, the people have expressed greater concern for the public safety risks of the reactors than the economic problems. This has resulted in protests throughout Japan, including one in July in Tokyo, where between 75,000 and 170,000 people participated in a “Sayonara Nukes” protest.[7]

The DPJ and its former members are also split on the nuclear issue. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama, still a member of the DPJ, visited one protest to demonstrate his support of the anti-nuclear movement. [9] Ozawa also seeks to promote his party as an alternative to the DPJ through the anti-nuclear protests. He announced that, if the Kakumi no Seikatsu ga Daiichi is elected to power in the next election, he will eliminate Japan’s nuclear power plants within ten years.[8]

It appears that the Upper House of The Diet will vote on the consumption tax bill this Friday, August 10 thanks to pressure placed by the LDP, whose leaders threatened to submit a censure or no-confidence motion against the Cabinet if the vote were delayed.[9] Regardless of the success of this bill, however, Noda’s party has already fractured past being capable of surviving with a majority after the next elections. If the opposition groups have their way, these will not be far off. Even if the LDP is willing to postpone a no-confidence vote to pass the tax bill, seven other opposition parties have already agreed to submit a no-confidence motion later this week.[10]

Lauren Webb is a junior at Emory University majoring in Political Science and History. Her research and academic interests focus on India, China, and Japan, with a particular interest in the U.S.-Asia relationship. Lauren is spending the summer as an Archive Intern with Southwest Airlines and will be studying at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan during the Fall semester.

[1] Saito, Mari, and Tetsushi Kajimoto. “Ex-Japan PM Joins Anti-nuclear Demo Outside PM’s Office.” Reuters. Tokyo, July 20, 2012.

[2] White, Stanley. “Japan’s Government Could Run Out of Cash by October.” Reuters. Tokyo, July 6, 2012.

[3] “Japan’s Anti-nuclear Protests: The Heat Rises.” The Economist, June 21, 2012.

[4] At the time of writing, the DPJ held only a 10-seat majority in the lower house of The Diet, but some analysts have predicted further defections from the DPJ party ranks.

[5] “Politics in Japan: Eyes Right.” The Economist, July 28, 2012.

[6] “Japan Ruling Party Defectors to Form New Party.” Reuters. Tokyo, July 4, 2012.

[7] “Japan’s Anti-nuclear Protests: The Heat Rises.” The Economist, June 21, 2012.

[8] Westlake, Adam. “Ozawa Pledges to Suspend All Nuclear Plants Within 10 Years If Elected.” The Japan Daily Press, August 3, 2012.

[9] “Noda Looking to Hold Upper House Vote on Japan’s Sales Tax Bill Friday”, August 5, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

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