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The Rhetoric of Change in Japanese Politics ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By John W. Maerhofer. Axis of Logic Exclusive
Axis of Logic
Friday, Nov 13, 2009

Yukio Hatoyama heads the Democratic Party of Japan.

On August 30th 2009, The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yukio Hatoyama, won Japan’s Lower House election by a landslide, establishing 303 seats in the 480-seat chamber. The victory by the DPJ ended more than 50 years of almost continuous rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP, founded in 1955 by war criminals like Yoshio Kodama whose ties to the Japanese Yakuza and the CIA were used to eliminate leftist-leaning union leaders in the immediate postwar era, has been the favored party of the US, one of the main reasons it has maintained its political dominance from the 1950’s to the present. With the ousting of the LDP, Hatoyama and DPJ executives started preparations for launching a new administration, adding that talks were also planned to form a coalition government with two of its allied parties, the Social Democratic Party (Shakaiminshu To), which historically has been on the right of the Japanese Socialist Party, and the Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) which is a right-wing conservative party that formed in 2005.

Hatoyama and the DJP have promised to end the decade-long recession and to redefine Japan’s relationship to what Hatoyama calls “US-led globalization.” In an article titled “My Political Philosophy,” Hatoyama argued that Japan must “shake off US-led globalization” and “put an end to market fundamentalism and financial capitalism that are void of morals or moderation in order to protect the finances and livelihoods of our citizens.” While acknowledging that Japan needs to maintain some economic and security relations with the US, Hatoyama argues that by building what he calls an East Asian economic block or ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations): led by Japan and including China, and South Korea, and Taiwan, the group would “surpass” what he terms “American unilateralism” and help stabilize the economic and security issues that the region faces in much the same way that the European union has done:

“I believe that integration and collective security in the Asia-Pacific region is the path we should follow toward realizing the principles of pacifism and multilateral cooperation advocated by the Japanese constitution. It is also the appropriate path for protecting Japan's political and economic independence and pursuing our national interest from our position between two of the world's great powers, the United States and China.”

There are two aspects that can be drawn from Hatoyama’s commentary here:

  1. It reveals the precarious position of Japan in the inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China: Hatoyama’s East Asian Community would create an anti-US economic block without the military commitment that would go along with such a model, which is why Hatoyama and the DJP have backed away from recent moves towards Japanese re-militarization by war mongers in the LDP, favoring instead the language of pacifism that is enshrined in Japan’s 50-year old constitution (written by US occupation forces in the 1950’s). Hatoyama’s hope of remaining neutral in the context of inter-imperialist competition is unsustainable and will most likely lead to Japan’s realignment with either the US or China, both economically and militarily. Despite the rhetoric of change by Hatoyama, Japan has already agreed to “make up” for its military withdrawal by “sharply increasing its non-military aid” to US operations in Afghanistan, as reported in the New York Times on November 12th, 2009.

  2. The second aspect of Hatoyama’s stance and the DJP victory is that it demonstrates the alluring effects of reformism, the rhetoric of change that defined Obama’s campaign, and which shows a considerable lack in working-class organization and leadership in Japan, even with the institutional Japanese Communist Party whose interest is also in reforming the existing economic conditions, albeit more radically than the ruling-class parties. We can see from the composition of the DJP itself that chance of real reform is an illusion: many of its members are ex-LDP officials, such as the head of the party Ozawa Ichiro who is the powerhouse behind Hatoyama; many members are graduates from the right-wing Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a private political education center set up by the late Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of Panasonic; others, still, are ultra-nationalists and historical revisionists who want to have an official rewriting of the Nanking Massacre and Korean Comfort Women narratives in Junior High School and High School textbooks, something which teachers have struggled to incorporate in Japanese classrooms for decades.

The growth of the working poor has been a shock to a country that was once the stronghold of economic equality. Over 200,000 workers have been laid off since October of 2008. Immigrant workers from South East Asia, China, and Latin America are also used for super-exploitative factory jobs that used to be done by unionized Japanese workers who made a “liveable” wage, something which is used by the fascist right in their racist attack immigrant workers increasing sharply in recent years. Contingent labor has become the reality for young Japanese workers; an unknown number of workers now survive for varying periods by sleeping nightly in internet cafe cubicles, which cost a fraction of what even a cramped one room apartment would run in Tokyo. Those who are poorer still, both homeless and workless, live in the “cardboard cities” of the major towns and are often are subjected to vicious attacks by the police during roundups and evictions. The rising phenomenon “Karoshi” or death from overwork has become very real for workers at capitalist giants like Hitachi: many workers are compelled to work from 60-80 hours a week in order to safeguard their positions.

Hatoyama and the DJP have vowed to solve the crisis in capital by reorganizing Japan’s geo-political position, namely its relationship with China and the US. Yet it is clear that the DJP’s Hatoyama, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Japan, is using the rhetoric of change as a way to mask ruling-class interest in disciplining the rogue capitalists, to smooth out the rough spots so that accumulation won’t stagger. Hatoyama is also responding to the turn to the “left” by workers and students who have had it with the empty promises of the ruling class. Japanese workers and students should ignore the false hopes of reform so that they can build upon the recent momentum for radical change.


John W. Maerhofer lived and worked in Japan for over four years. He is the author of Rethinking the Vanguard (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009) and is currently working on a book-length work on Modern Japanese Intellectual History.

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