[Viewpoint] Will Japan ‘return to Asia’ at last?

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[Viewpoint] Will Japan ‘return to Asia’ at last?

The Democratic Party of Japan’s landslide victory over the long-governing Liberal Democrats in Sunday’s elections is as colossal and revolutionary as the landmark election last year that produced the first black president in American history.

In unusually high numbers, Japanese voters ousted the conservative party they had indulged for more than a half-century, with the exception of a brief 11-month trial with the opposition in 1993.

A lack of leadership - Japan has had a new prime minister every year for the last three years - along with the highest unemployment in postwar history at 5.7 percent, signs of deflation after decades of recession, intensified social inequality under the economic policies of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and a chain of verbal and policy blunders by incumbent Prime Minister Taro Aso: All of these contributed to the Liberal Democratic Party’s self-destruction.

The Liberal Democrats have been graded on the state of the world’s second-largest economy in past elections and managed to survive, even though Japanese industry and finances have been unraveling for the last two decades under their unpopular leadership. This time things were different because of a fundamental change of the atmosphere among voters.

The Japanese population, at last, has voted for change.

The same desire for change across the Atlantic brought forth the first black American president.

This transformation was not provoked merely by frustration or weariness with the Liberal Democrats’ years of dominance. It was caused more by trepidation and fear, that the Japanese national brand may no longer be regarded as the best in the world amidst the challenges of the 21st century if the country continues to be dragged down by its status-quo rulers.

To Japanese citizens, Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama came as a fascinating option, someone who offered a new vision and direction for Japan. His concepts and plans were often equivocal and abstract, but falling upon the ears of frustrated and exhausted Japanese, they seemed refreshing, like rain after a long dry spell.

Japanese voters likely cast their ballots for Hatoyama’s domestic policies, based on liberal ideas such as a stronger social safety net and less social inequality. His party promised giveaways: monthly cash allowances to families of $270 per child, toll-free highways and cuts in corporate taxes to 11 percent from the current 18 percent.

Hatoyama says his reforms spring from the principle of “fraternity.” That philosophy has in fact been the cornerstone of the entire four-generation Hatoyama political dynasty, founded by Yukio’s grandfather Ichiro, a three-time prime minister in the 1950s.

Its basic tenets include a divorce from bureaucracy and a moderate balance between a market-dictated economy and social equality.

A feeling of fraternity, a concept bred from mutual understanding of each other’s differences, is necessary to coexist in a global community where a diverse range of people live side by side.

On the foreign affairs front, Hatoyama advocates Japan’s return to Asia. His national goal for the next 50 years is to establish a European Union-like community in East Asia. He has promised not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where convicted war criminals are honored - a major source of tension among neighboring countries - and to give ethnic Koreans in Japan the right to vote in local elections.

His “fraternity” mantra even stretches to North Korea: He believes in honoring the different nature of the North Korean political system.

His foreign policies call for less dependence on the United States and closer ties with Asian neighbors, suggesting the end of the chapter of Japanese history based on the editorial “Datsu-A-Ron,” or “Leaving Asia” by Yukichi Fukuzawa, who in 1885 called for Westernization and disassociation with Asia - a philosophy that shaped the modern Japan.

Hatayoma’s thoughts on bilateral relations with the United States resemble those of late Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Korean-U.S ties. Hatoyama believes in a more equal diplomatic footing, and in the realignment of U.S. troops in Japan.

He also plans not to renew Japan’s pledge to run refueling missions in the Indian Ocean for U.S. forces in Afghanistan when it expires in January.

He takes his example from his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, who changed course from the policies of his predecessor Shigeru Yoshida, the first postwar prime minister, by restoring ties with the Soviet Union to weaken Japan’s dependence on the United States.

There are even similarities between the weekend elections and the 1955 election when Ichiro Hatoyama beat Yoshida, who is coincidentally Taro Aso’s maternal grandfather. At that time, the elder Hatoyama’s Democratic Party overpowered Yoshida’s Liberal Party 185 seats to 112.

After gaining power, the senior Hatoyama merged the conservative groups to give birth to the Liberal Democratic Party, which has remained in power almost uninterrupted ever since. It’s a twist of historic irony that Ichiro’s reform-minded grandson Yukio Hatoyama has now put an end to the LDP legacy by purging a descendent of the old family rival.

We have great expectations for this changed Japan and hope it will be more thoughtful toward its neighbors. The advent of the Hatoyama government portends a departure from parochial bureaucracy and other radical changes, bringing opportunities and challenges for Korea.

The Hatoyama team’s work has only just begun. In order for their reforms to work, they must motivate the Japanese people to change their old lifestyles, open up the rigid agricultural industry and dismantle the bureaucracy. We will watch their progress with great interest.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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