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Domestic instability behind Japan's foreign policy

Publication Date : 01-09-2012

 

Instability in domestic politics appears to be leading Japanese politicians to toughen their stance in territorial and historical spats with Korea and China.

As parliamentary elections draw near, politicians from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) alike are apparently seeking to ride on the nationalist sentiment that has grown amid long-running economic malaise and repercussions from devastating natural and nuclear disasters in 2011.

They have been spewing out provocative remarks, denying Japan’s wartime atrocities and increasing territorial claims to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo and a chain of islands in the East China Sea, claimed by China.

Japan has seen five prime ministers resign since 2006, when charismatic leader Junichiro Koizumi of the LDP stepped down, ending half a century of almost unbroken rule by his party.

After the elections, expected as early as October, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda could leave office. His party now maintains a slim majority in the 480-member lower house of the Diet amid the widespread predictions that it may face a debacle in the upcoming elections.

The frequent change of the leadership apparently makes it difficult for the country to maintain a stable, consistent policy line, experts pointed out.

“Now, the elections are the crucial factor in the country’s political stability. If its politics were stable, then (its politicians) would also talk in a more stable manner on foreign policy issues,” said Chin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at the think tank Sejong Institute.

With the political tide against him, Noda may continue his strong stance in historical, territorial spats with Korea to avoid looking soft or weak, Chin added.

The DPJ has been teetering on the verge of collapse amid an escalating factional rift over a consumption tax hike, the use of nuclear energy and other policy issues.

The tax increase has been the major bone of contention within his party, and triggered the July defection of Ichiro Ozawa ― a kingpin reputed as skillful election strategist who led the party’s triumphs in the polls in 2007 and 2009 ― and dozens of his followers.

Ozawa has long championed “more universal welfare without a tax hike,” which was effective in winning the hearts of the common people disgruntled over economic polarisation, which they argued worsened under Koizumi’s economic policy focusing on global competitiveness.

For Ozawa, siding with Noda in his pursuit of a tax increase apparently means undermining his crucial political base formed under his mantra of “people’s livelihood first.”

“Koizumi had worked as a binder of unsuitable political groups within the DPJ. When Koizumi’s legacy was disappearing, the rupture of the DPJ was inevitable,” said Lee Jung-hwan, assistant professor at the School of International and Area Studies of Kookmin University, in a recent research paper.

“Koizumi’s era is finally ending with the DPJ’s split.”

Putting the already beleaguered prime minister deeper in a crisis, the upper house of the Diet adopted a censure motion on Wednesday against Noda in protest of his failure to keep a promise to hold the elections soon and the DPJ having unilaterally passed a set of bills at the lower house earlier.

“Whether the Japanese leader is conservative or liberal, there should be a stable partner for better Korea-Japan relations,” a Seoul government source told media, declining to be named. “We both need time to coordinate our policy.”

Amid the political crisis, Noda said that there was no evidence that the Japanese military forcibly mobilized Korean women during World War II, which drew sharp criticism from Seoul, which has stressed that the issue is a broader human rights issue that goes beyond the bilateral relationship.

Noda’s remarks also infuriated the Chinese. Xinhua News Agency reported on Tuesday that Japan tried to warp history rather than facing up to its past, and that there was clear-cut evidence concerning the wartime atrocities.

Underscoring that Japan is being diplomatically isolated, a news report by Japanese broadcaster TBS said that the Beijing government refused to accept Noda’s diplomatic letter addressed to Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Some observers said that the refusal appears intended to display Beijing’s anger over the continuing dispute over the islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

Seoul also returned Noda’s letter last week. In the letter, Noda expressed his displeasure over President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the Dokdo islets on August 10 and his call for Emperor Akihito’s apology for Japan’s colonial atrocities.

 

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