Japan Throws the Bums Out

But does the new crowd have better ideas?

It was inevitable that even the Japanese would eventually get fed up with patronage politics, governance gaffes and decades of economic drift.

Yesterday’s election victory of the Democratic Party of Japan and party leader Yukio Hatoyama is no small thing. It undermines nearly 54 years of Liberal Democratic Party dominance in Tokyo. The last time this happened—in 1993—a motley coalition of eight parties held power for merely 11 months. The DPJ, by contrast, has been a party for more than a decade and wants to stay for the Lower House’s full four-year term.

Mr. Hatoyama also wields the biggest popular mandate in more than a decade after winning a resounding majority in the Lower House yesterday. The DPJ and its allies now control both legislative houses. Such a political earthquake was last witnessed in 2005, when former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called a snap election to get a popular mandate to reform Japan’s economy and oust antireform MPs.

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Democratic Party of Japan new leader Yukio Hatoyama

Mr. Hatoyama follows three lackluster LDP governments. He is—as Barack Obama was to George W. Bush—the anti-Koizumi. His political mantra is yuai, or friendship and love. Mr. Koizumi touted reform. Mr. Hatoyama is an anticapitalist. Mr. Koizumi embraced competition. Mr. Hatoyama wants to embrace Asia and the United Nations. Mr. Koizumi drew closer to the U.S. Mr. Hatoyama thinks China’s rise is inevitable and that Japan should resign itself to making do with the prosperity it accumulated in the past. Mr. Koizumi took a firm line toward Beijing and wanted Japan to start growing again to support a strong defense.

These are not small differences, nor are they marginal to American interests in Asia. At home, Mr. Hatoyama’s Keynesian worship may spell another lost decade of growth for the world’s second-largest economy. He stands for agricultural protectionism, higher minimum wages, higher taxes in the name of environmental responsibility and more handouts to the elderly, parents and unemployed. He wants to protect small- and medium-sized businesses from competition. His pledges to cut taxes are minimal; his goal to cut fat from the budget, vague; and his commitment to free trade, marginal. The phrase “economic growth” scored nary a mention in his campaign pledges.

Mr. Hatoyama’s big reform idea is to attack the bureaucracy, which is a worthy goal and scores big points with voters. But he won’t touch the shibboleth of Japan’s political establishment—the postal service. He wants politicians to make policy, which in any other, normal democracy would seem banal. But if the policies themselves aren’t better, will that really matter?

On foreign policy, too, the DPJ marks a change from the Koizumi era. Mr. Hatoyama, like other U.S. allies in Asia-Pacific, maintains that the relationship with Washington will continue to be the cornerstone of Japan’s security. He doesn’t have much choice in the matter; Japan has yet to fully normalize its military, and even if it did, it’s unreasonable to think Tokyo could match China’s single-minded military buildup and raw numbers. The DPJ, like the LDP before it, needs the U.S.

But Mr. Hatoyama is intent on scoring populist points at home by talking about distancing Japan from that very alliance. The first thing he’s likely to do is stop Japanese self-defense forces in the Indian Ocean from refueling the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. That won’t have much practical effect, but the symbolism matters. The DPJ also wants to renegotiate U.S. basing agreements and do more with the United Nations, that most effective of fighting forces. Like Mr. Obama, the Japanese leader also likes the utopian idea of a nuclear-free world. North Korea’s recent tests and missile launches make that kind of thinking seem naive.

The remarkable thing is that the Obama administration seems almost wholly unaware of this anticapitalist, anti-U.S. turn of events in its cornerstone ally in North Asia. This is a mistake. Mr. Hatoyama has little experience governing and could use some guidance from Japan’s best and closest ally.

Ms. Kissel is editor of The Wall Street Journal Asia’s editorial page.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574381700306393382.html