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Tremors of Japanese political earthquake will be felt far and wide

Posted on 30 August 2009 | 3:08pm

There are always lessons in other countries’ elections and, in an ever more interdependent world, there are consequences for all of us when one of the major powers changes government. We may not know it from the paucity of coverage and debate of the Japanese elections, but Japan is one such power. Were it not so far away, with language and systems known to so few outside Japan, we might take a bit more interest. We certainly should, and not just we still like buying their gadgets.

For Labour, the obvious claim to make is that it shows in times of economic crisis, the public will steer leftwards to a Party that wants to invest for the future by spending more on education and childcare, and wants to put more power in the hands of people.

For the Tories, they will be pointing out that the new Japanese government has promised to fund new spending programmes by cutting old ones, and hoping that it shows what happens to governments in power for a long time.

Not that either British party has ever been in power for as long as Japan’s Liberal Democrats (this is confusing because their nearest UK equivalent is the Tories) who have ruled for all but eleven months of the last 55 years. So with the Opposition Democratic Party of Japan seemingly on course to take more than 300 of the 480 seats in the lower house, this is a rout even beyond the one I witnessed when Chelsea beat Burnley at Stamford Bridge yesterday.

Yukio Hatoyama will now become the latest Japanese Prime Minister to be not terribly well known in the West. Yet the political classes in the West will be taking a very close interest, not least in the States, because he signalled very clearly in his campaign that he intended to shift Japan’s foreign policy away from positions he views as being too slavishly pro-American. This may seem odd, George Bush having been replaced by the more internationalist Barack Obama, but if followed through could have significant fall-out.

He has even promised a review of aspects of the security relationship with the US, in the interests of pursuing more productive relations with Japan’s Asian neighbours. And even though in all countries, sometimes campaign rhetoric gets ahead of what an elected government might actually do, Hatoyama’s talk of ending the ‘worship’ of the US, and his predictions of an end to American dominance in the world, makes him an interesting new figure at diplomacy’s top tables.

Political leaders will also be fascinated to see how and whether he manages to deliver on his stated aim of loosening the grip of government bureaucrats who have far more power and influence than civil servants in most democracies.

Of course he will need many of those bureaucrats to help him implement the policies on which he has been elected. But one of his first tasks will be to insert elected politicians into positions of authority currently occupied by bureaucrats. If the Japanese civil servants I occasionally had to deal with are anything to go by, it could make the overblown UK controversy over the politicisation of the civil service look very tame indeed.

  • Anthony

    I read in the Economist that he favours closer integration among Asian countries – including a pan-Asian single currency. The world is getting very interconnected and I worry that the UK will be backing off from that co-operation at just the wrong time.

  • Cassie Hall

    It is true that we pay next to no attention to overseas elections apart from America. Even France and Germany, though now so closely bound up with the UK, do not get nearly as much attention here as our elections get there. I knew nothing about this new Japanese PM until now, so thanks – and even though you slipped in a football mensh, thanks for blogging on this and not that!

  • Malcolm T

    Wish him luck in taking on the bureaucrats. I have done business in Japan for years. They certainly wield more power than here, as you say. Also, their culture thinks nothing of those who are in charge of a ministry going on to do private sector jobs in the same field straight after leaving the bureaucracy. We complain about this kind of thing here from time to time, but they are in a different league!

  • Joe Lamar

    Do you think Hatoyama’s chances of being a better-known Japanese prime minister would be helped by spelling his name correctly?

  • Helene Pearce

    Went out and bought a couple of English papers. You’re right. You have to look very hard to find out much about it.

  • Gary Enefer

    Dear Alastair

    This move away from the US Govt may signal a spread of Protectionism?
    It is probably in vogue to dismiss Wall street, Afghanistan or anything to do with bsd news at present. I also noticed that Miss Angela Merkel, the German,Chancellor ‘was’ on her way to a smooth general election in the fall-oops sounding american again! – but has just faired badly locally.

    I still believe the UK General Election is wide open and have backed Labour since April of this year.

    Best wishes


  • CelticHammer

    The result of the Japanese election is no more surprising than the platform the Democratic Party campaigned on. Japanese politics has been dominated by the fall out from WWII.
    The focus of their economic growth was in supplying the needs of their principal war enemy and eventual military conquerer. The decline in the US economy has hit them hard but not merely from a drop in consumer demand for their automotive and electronic exports. For decades the Japanese have bought up massive chunks of US investment firms. Such was the pre war attitude to financial investment in Japan that the country’s finance industry was regarded with virtual derision by agriculture and industry barons.
    When the country entered the begining of its economic boom years there was simply not the financial infrastructure to safeguard and invest the porfits so they turned to the US. The US was seen as a safe and profitable haven for their money and they pumped money into everything from government bonds and bank shares to real estate and manufacturing. With the banking collapse in the US their nest egg was virtually wiped out.
    The Americans had already started turning to China for cheap electronic goods but the final nail in the coffin of the special economic relationship was the White House’s rescue of the American car industry. Not only did they bail out the big boys from Detroit but they forced them to develop smaller more frugal models which puts them directly in the market space which the Japanese had previously had virtually to themselves.
    While I dont think that this election or the succession of Yukio Hatoyama to the office of Prime Minister signals a begining of protectionism on the part of the Japanese I do agree that it will jump start a major shift in the focus of their economic and foreign policy.
    Japan will no likely look to the EU as its preferred trading partner, historical emnity with China would make any major economic partnership between the two difficult to manage, despite China’s need for Japanese efficencies and managerial know how. India offers a massive market in terms of value but its hard to see where the Japanese could exploit the sea of Indian humanity, and the hectic and chaotic manner of Indian culture would be challenging to say the least although the tow countries do share a somewhat similar type of caste system.
    The EU must ready itself to recieve and reciprocate Japanese trade advances.

  • gary Enefer

    Dear Alastair

    Enjoyed your ESPN pundit spot. Hope Burnley get some more points soon.

    My reasons for backing labour to win the GE,stated in this blog in April,is that I firmly believe that the economy,the Labour party and Gordon Brown will all come good.

    best wishes