Turbulent Changes
No. 4 2010 October/December
Tetsuo Kotani

Tetsuo Kotani is a leading research officer with the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo.

The Democratic Party Government and Japan’s Foreign Policy

Japan has been at the center of international attention lately as Tokyo searches for solutions to challenging geopolitical changes in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan’s geopolitical rival, China, is rising rapidly, while its security guarantor, the United States, is in decline. Furthermore, the tension around North Korea has been intensifying recently. Global interdependence has made the possibility of large-scale armed conflicts remote, but non-traditional challenges to security have emerged. For almost two decades Japan has been suffering from slow economic growth along with an aging and shrinking population. Moreover, it has lost its status as the second-largest global economy to China.

Amidst the troubling international environment Japan has been swept by feverish domestic policy changes. In August 2009, Japan experienced its first real change of government when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled the country since 1955, lost power. However, the new ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has failed to meet its ambitious plans and break down the vicious circle of the country’s stagnation. On the contrary, the Democratic Party’s na?ve foreign policy that called for an “equal alliance” with the United States has damaged the alliance, which formed the backbone of the country’s global positioning for more than a half of a century, and has made regional countries worried about the direction of Japan’s foreign policy course.

Why did this happen? Can we expect a change in the Democrats’ policies in the future?

The Democratic Party of Japan, established in 1998, is a diverse group of smaller parties that merged together. It gained influence in 2003 when Ichiro Ozawa’s Liberal Party was integrated into the DPJ. The amalgamation embraced former socialists, LDP-defectors, grassroots NGO activists, former bureaucrats and former corporate executives.

The DPJ wants to transform Japan’s democracy into a true two-party system and has steadily increased its presence in both legislative houses since 1998. The only major exception was the September 2005 Lower House election, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won an impressive electoral victory for the LDP by running against the old guard in his own party. However, the Koizumi reforms soon met with a rollback from within the LDP as they blamed the reforms for Japan’s widening income gap.

A mismanaged pension program, an unpopular health care system, corruption scandals involving cabinet ministers and controversy over historical issues combined with high oil prices, the world financial crisis and support of the unpopular U.S.-led war in Iraq consistently put the LDP on defense before the voters. Koizumi’s successors – Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso – had difficulty keeping public support. After the DPJ took control of the Upper House as a result of the August 2007 election, Japanese politics came to a gridlock. This continued until the Democrats, led by their new leader Yukio Hatoyama (Ozawa resigned as party president in May 2009 due to a financial scandal), won the Lower House elections in August 2009.

Since the Democrats lacked an outright majority in the Upper House they decided to form a coalition government with two minor parties – the pacifist Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People’s New Party (PNP), known for its skepticism of economic liberalization.

Over the nine months of Yukio Hatoyama’s term as prime minister, his initial approval rating plummeted from 70 percent to below 20 percent – mainly due to his mismanagement of U.S.-Japanese relations (especially the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps air station on the Japanese island of Okinawa) and the financial scandals of Hatoyama himself and Secretary General Ozawa. Eventually, the SDP left the coalition in opposition to the DPJ’s policy concerning Okinawa, and Hatoyama stepped down in June 2010 with Ozawa. Naoto Kan replaced Hatoyama as party leader and therefore prime minister, but the DPJ suffered severe losses in the July 2010 Upper House elections. The ruling coalition lost a majority in the Upper House, making it difficult to pursue a consistent policy course.


As a union of former members of ideologically different parties and a new generation of politicians, the DPJ is disjointed and includes competing foreign policy visions. The lack of an outright majority in the Upper House has also forced the DPJ to listen to the diverse views of smaller parties. Nonetheless, to transform Japan’s “passive” foreign policy into a new “independent diplomacy,” which the party declared as its main objective, it needs clear-cut political will.

“Independent” diplomacy suggests being less deferential to U.S. foreign policy. In particular, the DPJ believes in asserting Japan’s position in alliance management and working more closely with the United Nations. A vast majority of DPJ members consider the U.S.-Japanese alliance as an essential stabilizer in the Asia-Pacific region, but are reluctant to work with the United States in ways that involve dispatching the Japanese Self-Defense Forces overseas. The party members are apprehensive of Japanese entanglement in U.S. global strategy and are adverse to the use of force and sharing the cost of military operations.

There are five main tenets of the “independent diplomacy:”

  • pursuing a more “equal” alliance in which Japan is less dependent on and deferential to the U.S.;
  • re-establishing Japan as a member of Asia by creating an East Asian Community based on economic and trade initiatives, historical reconciliation and multilateral institution-building;
  • contributing to international security through the UN, with Japan providing financing, peacekeepers and the impetus for reform;
  • working for nuclear disarmament via international, regional and bilateral diplomatic efforts;
  • modernizing Japan’s national security apparatus to prioritize citizen rights and taxpayer savings.

“Equal alliance.” Prominent DPJ members are reluctant to work with the “unilateralist” United States, especially in dispatching the Japanese Self-Defense Forces overseas. Hence the DPJ demands close public oversight of Japanese security cooperation with the United States. During the election campaign DPJ members called for an immediate withdrawal of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force from the Indian Ocean, as they saw the LDP’s cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan – and the broader war on terrorism – as a sign of obedience to the US.

Yet in calling for an “equal” alliance with the United States the DPJ paid attention only to technical issues. First of all, the DPJ came to power determined to examine the 2006 U.S. base realignment package plan, including the relocation of the Futenma U.S. Marine Corps Air Station. It is regarded as the “most dangerous base in the world” since it is located in the center of the densely-populated city of Nago on Okinawa. There were plans to move it to a less-populated area on the island, with the transfer of 8,000 marines to Guam in return.

The DPJ was against this proposal on grounds that the plan disregarded the opinions of the Japanese public. In particular, the DPJ demanded that the Diet re-examine the $6 billion price tag that the Japanese public would have to pay. Second, the DPJ has called for a review of the Status of Forces Agreement to expand Japan’s discretionary power (that is, the right to act on its own discretion – Ed.). Lastly, the DPJ has hinted as to the need to review and inspect Japanese financial subsidies for U.S. forces in Japan (the so-called host nation support).

East Asian Community. The DPJ envisions building an East Asian Community with free trade agreements and economic partnership agreements. The Community would also improve transnational cooperation on energy, environment, education, public health and law enforcement. The party’s foreign policy platform addresses Japan’s wartime aggression and insists that Japan, as a “member of Asia,” build relations of trust with neighboring countries while deepening diplomatic and economic ties. DPJ politicians have pledged not to visit the controversial Shinto Yasukuni Shrine (regarded in Asia as a symbol of Japanese militarism) and instead push for erecting a secular memorial to honor the Japanese killed in wars.

The DPJ calls for “rebuilding” Japan-China relations as a “top priority” by deepening and institutionalizing dialogue on economics, finance, energy, environment, maritime development and security, while “strengthening” relations with South Korea by concluding a free trade agreement.

The DPJ’s emphasis on engaging Asia is intended to contrast with Koizumi’s emphasis on U.S.-Japanese relations that some DPJ members consider to be detrimental to positive relations with Asian countries. DPJ members would rather see the U.S.-Japanese alliance limited to bilateral cooperation in national and regional security. They tend to shy away from a more international role for the alliance and believe strongly in the need for other mechanisms and efforts to build a regional framework in Asia.

Cooperation with the United Nations. The DPJ calls for weighty contributions by Japan to the UN and seeks a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, as well as the reform of the UN voting rules, spending and institutional organization. The DPJ takes a positive stance on UN peacekeeping operations and the relaxation of rules of engagement so that Japan can be more directly involved in peace-building. Moreover, Ozawa and other DPJ members advocate the possibility of establishing a new “international peace cooperation force” to respond to UN requests.

The DPJ leaders’ views vary in what concerns Japan’s contributions to UN peacekeeping, but there is a general consensus within the party that Japan’s international security contributions should fall chiefly under UN auspices.

Towards a Nuclear-Free World. Prominent DPJ members such as Hatoyama, Okada and Ozawa are generally reluctant to broaden international security cooperation with the United States. There is an important exception, however. They have supported President Barack Obama’s call for a “nuclear-free world.” The party has consistently stressed the need for Japan to lead on the issue of nuclear disarmament. Okada, in particular, has advocated the elimination of nuclear weapons for many years and is one of the founding members of a parliamentary group – the League of DPJ Diet Members Promoting Arms Control – which in 2008 published a draft proposal of a treaty to create a non-nuclear area in Northeast Asia with the goal of strengthening international norms of non-use and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and disarmament. The nuclear-free vision is shared by many Japanese Democrats, but it contradicts the extended deterrence provided to Japan by the United States. In May 2009 DPJ shadow foreign minister Yoshio Hachiro said that a nuclear-free zone is the way for Japan to “escape from the [U.S.] nuclear umbrella.”

Modernizing National Security Policy. The DPJ’s “Basic Policy” clearly states that the party will uphold the principles of Japan’s national security policy: an exclusively defensive doctrine, no collective self-defense exercises, three non-nuclear principles, no use of force abroad, and maintaining civilian control over the armed forces. Many LDP members support the reinterpretation or even revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (which states that the Japanese people renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes) so that Japan could have more flexibility in international security operations. Yet the majority of DPJ members consider Article 9 integral to Japan’s national identity and a shield against U.S. pressure to contribute to international efforts that may not be part of Japan’s vital national interests.

Meanwhile, the DPJ has called for legislation to protect basic human rights from the government in a national security emergency. Despite the enactment of national emergency legislation in 2003, the DPJ platform recommended passing an “emergency basic law” and establishing an “emergency management agency” to respond to armed attacks, terrorism and major natural disasters.

The DPJ policy platform calls for a review of Japan’s military force structure, equipment, and deployment as well as the formulation of a new defense plan flexible enough to deal with various dangers such as missile attacks, terrorism, cyber warfare, spy boats and commandoes. The DPJ takes a positive stance on missile defense and measures to protect Japan’s territory, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, as well as Japan’s claims to the Northern Territories (the Kuril Islands) and the Senkaku and Takeshima Islands. The DPJ does not, however, envision an increase in defense spending. Funding for the new defense posture is said to be secured by reducing other items in the defense budget.


The DPJ election platform put greater emphasis on economics and social welfare than on foreign relations and security. The DPJ’s controversial proposals raised American anxieties by referencing to the cancellation of the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean and the review of the Futenma relocation plan. After the election Hatoyama met with Obama at the UN General Assembly in September 2009 and agreed to strengthen U.S.-Japanese partnership in such areas as nuclear disarmament/non-proliferation, environment/climate change, North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The need for economic recovery, an improved social contract and security concerns, including a threatening North Korea and an ascending China, demanded that the DPJ focus its efforts on domestic policy priorities and keep the U.S.-Japanese alliance strong.

Why then did Hatoyama’s policies nearly bring U.S.-Japanese relations to a crisis? There were several reasons for this.

First of all, Japan was practically unreserved in its support of the Bush administration’s policy when Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister, which largely predetermined the DPJ’s foreign and security policy guidelines as “anything but Bush-Koizumi.”

Second, the DPJ leadership underestimated U.S. determination to implement the Futenma relocation plan, while there was wishful thinking among Japanese observers in the Obama administration that expected political realism from the DPJ. After taking power, Hatoyama’s DPJ began to review Futenma relocation to “at least off of Okinawa.” Washington thought it was a learning process for the DPJ to become a responsible alliance partner and patiently agreed to talks with the DPJ on Futenma. Yet this only made the situation worse. Hatoyama postponed a decision on Futenma until May 2010. In the meantime, a candidate who opposed the relocation of Futenma to his city won the mayoral election in Nago in January 2010. During the nuclear security summit in Washington in April 2010, Obama had only a few minutes to talk to Hatoyama, and a U.S. columnist referred to Hatoyama as “loopy.”

Third, both the DPJ’s partners in the government coalition strongly opposed the U.S. relocation plan. The pacifist SDP demanded the relocation of Futenma to Guam, while the PNP insisted that the agreement be reviewed, although it did not call for relocation overseas.

Fourth, personnel affairs within the DPJ were also significant. Hatoyama appointed Katsuya Okada as Foreign Minister and named Ichiro Ozawa Secretary General of the DPJ. An open question was how Hatoyama would coordinate policy among Ozawa, Okada’s Foreign Ministry and the newly-established National Strategy Bureau headed by Naoto Kan. Furthermore, defense minister Toshimi Kitazawa unexpectedly found the existing Futenma relocation plan appropriate and emerged as the best steward of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Okada, who had a personal passion for nuclear issues, criticized the tacit nuclear agreement that allowed U.S. nuclear-armed vessels to pass through Japanese waters and called for the U.S. to declare a no-first-use (NFU) nuclear posture. As for Kan, he remained silent on security issues so that he could succeed Hatoyama as prime minister with a free hand on security policy.

Ozawa, the veteran politician instrumental in the historic transition from the LDP to DPJ-centered government, wielded considerable power behind the scenes. He rarely made public comments on U.S.-Japanese relations, but hinted at his objection to the existing Futenma plan. He also led a large delegation of 600 politicians and businessmen to China and met Hu Jintao in December 2009. This showed Ozawa’s influence and foreign policy priority.

The DPJ leaders and their advisors had no personal links with U.S. alliance managers. Pro-alliance DPJ members like Seiji Maehara and Akihisa Nagashima were appointed as Minister for Land, Transport, Infrastructure and Tourism and Parliamentary Secretary of Defense respectively, and their personal ties with Washington were not fully utilized.

However, the biggest reason for Hatoyama’s mismanagement of U.S.-Japanese relations was his personal vision. LDP prime ministers such as Abe and Aso tried to strengthen ties with nations such as India, Australia and NATO members based on the shared values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. Hatoyama denied this valued-oriented diplomacy and instead tried to promote diplomacy based on “fraternity” or friendship with nations whose political systems were different. His idea of an East Asian Community reflected this “fraternity diplomacy” and excluded the United States as a member. In other words, Hatoyama envisioned an Asian version of the EU by accommodating Japan and China through the East Asian Community.

Japanese opinion polls suggest that by supporting the DPJ the people voted against the LDP’s domestic failures rather than in favor of the DPJ’s international agenda and a drastic revision of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Also, the SDP and PNP accounted for only 2.5% of the Lower House. This certainly did not indicate that their policies enjoyed broad support among the Japanese. The incident with the South Korean warship sunk by North Korea in March 2010 and China’s demarche with ten Chinese warships conducting a demonstration cruise in Japanese waters in April 2010 came as yet more evidence of Hatoyama’s awkward policy.

Hatoyama finally understood the importance of the deterrent power provided by the U.S.-Japanese alliance in general and the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa in particular. Hence he decided to follow the original Futenma relocation plan to reestablish relations with the United States, even by dismissing SDP party leader Fukushima from the Cabinet in May. However, it was too late for Hatoyama to rebuild trust with Washington due to his mismanagement and the financial scandals involving himself and Ozawa.


In the party presidential election following the resignation of Hatoyama and Ozawa in June 2010, Kan won an overwhelming victory over the pro-Ozawa Shinji Tarutoko. Although he reappointed most of the Cabinet members, Kan tried to weaken the influence of Ozawa in the party. Thanks to his anti-Ozawa behavior, Kan enjoyed high approval ratings at first, but his ratings dropped after he spoke about raising the consumption tax. The DPJ lost 10 seats in the July 2010 Upper House elections and the coalition lost its majority. Kan’s political pledge was entirely directed towards the Japanese people and was aimed at establishing a “minimal unhappy society.” He had no agenda for foreign and security policy except to offer an apology on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea. The Kan Administration even postponed the publication of a defense white paper that claims the Takeshima Islands as Japanese territory. In the run-up to regular party presidential elections in September 2010, the power game between pro- and anti-Ozawa factions within the DPJ dominated Japanese politics in the summer of 2010.

Meanwhile Kan reaffirmed his commitment to the May agreement on Futenma relocation and a U.S.-Japanese working group recommended two types of construction for Futenma relocation at the end of August 2010. On the other hand, Kan’s advisory Council on Security and Defense Capabilities in the New Era concluded its report in August. The report made a list of reasonable recommendations, including the relaxation of a ban on weapons exports, the exercise of collective self-defense, reinforcement of the submarine fleet, and the upgrade of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities such as outer space and cyber space situational awareness, but Kan showed no enthusiasm for these recommendations. Tokyo and Washington also agreed to postpone the announcement of a joint security declaration on the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Kan won an overwhelming victory over Ozawa in the presidential election in September thanks to strong support from general party members and prefectural associations. However, the pro-Ozawa faction was encouraged by the fact that parliament member votes were close, which constrained Kan’s leadership in the party. Kan appointed anti-Ozawa members as Cabinet ministers, including Yoshito Sengoku as chief cabinet secretary and Maehara as foreign minister, while appointing pro-Ozawa members as deputy ministers and to lower posts.

The lack of the Kan administration’s national security vision proved fatal in managing an incident involving a Chinese fishing boat that violated Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands and rammed two Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) patrol boats. The JCG arrested the skipper and his crew under Japanese law, but Beijing protested on the ground the Senkakus are Chinese territory. Beijing pressured Tokyo by suspending the export of rare metals to Japan and arresting four Japanese employees in China. Given the Chinese pressures, the Kan administration released the Chinese skipper, hoping that Beijing would calm down. However, Beijing demanded an apology and compensation from Tokyo, while a series of anti-Japanese demonstrations took place in Chinese cities.

It was obvious that the Kan administration miscalculated China’s intention. The appointment of Maehara, known for his conservative and realistic foreign policy vision, as foreign minister was welcomed by Japanese conservatives and U.S. alliance managers. After the incident near the Senkakus, Maehara reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japanese territory in the East China Sea. However, it is Sengoku, rather than Maehara, who leads the Kan administration’s foreign policy. Sengoku, a former socialist and student activist, is sympathetic towards China and Korea, two former Japanese colonies. Sengoku was the key decision maker on the release of the Chinese skipper. Sengoku also refused to make the video of the incident public, although it was posted on YouTube by a JCG officer.

The Kan administration’s mismanagement of the Senkaku incident provoked harsh criticism from pro-Ozawa DPJ members, the LDP, other opposition groups and the general public for being too soft on sovereignty issues. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri Island (Kunashir in Russian – Ed.) in November 2010 was also considered a result of Kan’s weak diplomacy and his approval ratings plunged. Therefore it was natural for the Kan administration to strengthen partnership with the United States. During the APEC summit in Yokohama in November 2010, Kan and Obama agreed to deepen the U.S.-Japanese alliance cooperation.

The confusion over the DPJ foreign and security policy was disastrous. The DPJ undermined the U.S.-Japanese alliance, the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and fueled Chinese and Russian boldness. On the other hand, the DPJ, both its pro- and anti-Ozawa members, has learned the importance of the alliance. Regardless of who will run the government in next election, the U.S.-Japanese alliance will remain the pillar of Japanese foreign and security policy. It is now expected that the new National Defense Policy Guidelines, announced in December 2010, will foster Japanese national defense posture and cooperation with the United States.At the same time, the Futenma relocation will continue to hinder the alliance’s cooperation. 2010 was an election year on Okinawa. The Japanese government needs to make a decisive decision in 2011. That is the price the DPJ has to pay for its naivety.


The largest strategic challenge for Japan is the rise of China. Japan needs to balance the ascent of China to ensure that it occurs peacefully. Japan has several diplomatic tools to do so, including the U.S.-Japanese alliance and emerging regional architecture such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. An interesting question is whether Japan should strengthen relations with Russia to balance the rise of China. During the Cold War, Japan strengthened relations with China to contain the Soviet threat. Russia is not an enemy any longer and is becoming an important partner, especially as an energy supplier. Is it time for Japan to shake hands with Russia?

There is a serious obstacle to Russia becoming Japan’s strategic partner – the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories. For the Japanese it is obvious that the territories are illegally occupied by Russia. But Medvedev is attempting to justify the Russian occupation of the Northern Territories. Russia conducted the Vostok 2011 naval drill on the island of Etorofu (Iturup in Russian – Ed.)in the summer of 2010. Medvedev also signed a law designating September 2, the day Japan signed the surrender treaty in 1946, as a day of memorial for the end of war. Medvedev announced a joint statement with Hu Jintao during his visit to Beijing in September that condemned attempts to change the history of World War II alluding to Japan. Medvedev’s first-ever visit to Kunashiri was a clear departure from the 1993 Tokyo Declaration between Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and angered the Japanese public.

Medvedev may only be motivated by pre-campaign tactics in the run-up to the 2012 Russian presidential elections. But there is another explanation that Russia and China are synchronizing pressure against Japan to eliminate Japanese influence in the region by taking advantage of the Japanese government’s diplomatic weakness. If so, there will be little possibility of a better Japanese-Russian partnership. Japan will go back to “value diplomacy” and see the United States and other like-minded nations as its reliable security and economic partners. It is important to note that even Hatoyama’s vision for an East Asian Community excluded Russia.

Second, Russian security policy could hinder bilateral strategic partnership. The recent Japanese defense white papers keep watch on the resurgence of Russian military activities in the Far East, especially warships and strategic bombers. Also, nuclear weapons still play a central role under the 2009 Russian National Security Strategy, even though Russia has reached a new START Treaty with the United States. Since the DPJ endorses Obama’s vision for a world without nuclear weapons, the Russian nuclear doctrine prevents the DPJ members from seeing Russia as a strategic partner.

Third, the lack of personal relations between Tokyo and Moscow hinders strategic partnership. Hatoyama, a grandson of Ichiro Hatoyama who normalized relations with Moscow in 1955, had a special interest in Russia. But Hatoyama has now lost his influence in Japanese politics. It is important to note that even Hatoyama demanded the return of all the Northern Territories. Other DPJ members are basically more conservative about territorial issues than the LDP and have little sympathy for Russia in terms of history. Maehara visited the vicinity of Kunashiri in October 2010 and will continue to act without showing any flexibility and diplomatic ambiguity. Sengoku shows no sympathy for Russia either. Muneo Suzuki (the founder of the New Party of Deity – Ed.) and his associate, Mamoru Sato, who played political fixers between Tokyo and Moscow, fell from power due to malfeasance.

It will be difficult to see stronger ties between Japan and Russia in the short term; however, it is important to strengthen these ties in the long term. Japan needs Russia as an energy supplier and for investment, while Russia needs Japanese assistance in its economic reform for sustainable development. The China factor will push Tokyo and Moscow towards strategic dialogue. However, until that happens, it is urgent for Tokyo and Moscow to advance the cultivation of human resources.