The Evolution of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

December 29, 2009

On 30 August 2009, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost the general election.1 In most democracies, such an event would produce familiar political postmortems and speculation about what the winners will change. In Japan, it represented a seismic change in national politics; the LDP had not a lost general election in its 54-year history. For decades, the Liberal Democrats had held onto power by lavishing jobs and money on their districts. Dozens of opposition parties have come and gone, but none had been able to break the LDP’s hold on the ballot box—until now.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seems to have finally tapped into voters’ anger and disappointment after nearly two decades of economic stagnation. Some analysts suggested that people voted against the LDP more than they voted for the DPJ.2 However, the Democrats worked hard during the campaign to draw distinctions between themselves and the incumbent party, suggesting that they will substantively change the way Japan is governed. DPJ leaders argued for greater openness and transparency, vowing to wrest power away from the unelected bureaucrats who control government ministries and to allow greater public scrutiny of decision making processes. The DPJ took a populist tone on foreign policy, promising to stand up for Japan’s interests abroad and pay more attention to public opinion. The week before the election, Yukio Hatoyama, who is now the prime minister, said, “Japan-U.S. relations should be on an equal footing so that our side can strongly assert Japan’s will.”