The landslide election of Japan’s Democratic Party in last weekend’s parliamentary vote parallels the election of Barack Obama to the American presidency last November.

In both cases opposition parties long out of power (in the Japanese case, all but totally excluded from national power during the six decades of the postwar Japanese government’s existence) have been elected at a time of crisis to change the nation’s policy.

Such changes are easier to talk about than think about, or worse, actually to accomplish, as Barack Obama has already found out. In Japan’s case, the main problems are those of Japan’s economy, and of its political and security relationship to the United States: one of tactful fealty to Washington, unchanged since Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

This relationship initially made sense, allowing Japan to become a great economic power in circumstances of security, despite the war in Korea, the tensions that followed, and subsequent political upheavals in China.

It must also eventually come to an end, and this could become a problem for the newly elected Democratic Party government in Tokyo.

The negatives for Japan in this institutionalized subordination to the United States have become heavy to bear, not only politically but in certain ways psychologically, and even spiritually. Japan, after all, from its brilliant successes early in the Meiji era, in its 1904-1905 war with Russia, to its defeat by American nuclear bombs in 1945, was probably the most dynamic, ambitious and nationalistic country on Earth.

The leader of the victorious Democratic Party of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama, has written about two aspects of the American relationship to Japan today. The first is economic. In an essay published prior to the election, first in Japan and then syndicated around the world, he criticized American-led “unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism,” in which “people are treated not as an end but as a means [and] human dignity is lost.”

He wrote of respect for the “local economic practices that have been fostered through our traditions.” This is a sympathetic position, but it is not clear what he means in practice, even though he suggests that America’s world economic domination is waning.

Japan’s economic success during the years of its greatest prosperity was based on innovative and stylish consumer products of very high technology, sold in the advanced global markets. In addition, its heavy industry was a world leader. Today its competition in consumer goods is great, mainly but not exclusively from other Asian countries, and in heavy industry the competition is from Germany, France and Italy. China, of course, is determined to become a world competitor in every sector.

China’s ambition is usually interpreted as first to replace Japan as Asia’s most important economy, which it may soon do in scale. But it is not likely to outstrip Japan in technological and industrial sophistication for a long time. In discussions of China, there is a persistent tendency toward overestimation, because of China’s size and population, but the productivity of the workforce, and the industrial value added, are the relevant measures.

The most important political question faced by a Japan led by the Democratic Party concerns the Japanese-American security relationship. Mr. Hatoyama is deliberately vague on the question, and a Democratic Party colleague says “it’s complete nonsense” to think that the election of the Democrats will hurt U.S.-Japan relations. But he then adds that “there are many things left unchanged from the last 50 years that need to be re-examined.”

Other Japanese observe that at a time when China is developing its military power and enlarging its global reliance on raw materials, the U.S. military presence in North Asia and the Japanese-American security alliance are sources of stability.

There are, however, two issues the Democrats must face. One is public opinion. The subordinate place Japan occupies in the relationship is humiliating: as an advanced base for American military operations in Asia that have nothing to do with Japan’s security, and on which Japan has no voice (the case during the Vietnam war decade, and now with the war in Afghanistan).

The physical burden of the bases, and the social consequences of having some 50,000 foreign troops in your country, occupying bases for which Japan pays 40 percent of the costs, plus 100 percent of associated labor costs, is both onerous and increasingly exploitative.

These troops were first stationed in Japan as a defeated and unarmed country; then as a base of operations in the Korean War; and subsequently as a base for American operations anywhere in the world. The original security treaty in 1951 stipulated that American troops would remain until Japan was able to undertake its own defense. It has been able to do so for many years. Japan’s present military forces number nearly a quarter-million men and women.

The second issue is who profits from the security relationship.

What does the United States really furnish to Japan’s defense?

Putting aside North Korea, which is unlikely to wish to invade Japan (or even to fire rockets at it to attract attention and concessions), the think-tank scenarios of potential war in the Far East relate to the rise of China, whose primary enemy would presumably be the United States — not Japan. It is not evident that being America’s principal ally and base in the region would then be to Japan’s advantage.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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