Japan after Kan
Implications for the DPJ's Political Future

Interview with Richard J. Samuels
August 19, 2011

Japanese domestic politics expert, Richard J. Samuels, provides insight into the DPJ, its political strategy, and the challenges the next administration will face. Dr. Samuels is currently Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

An Interview with Richard J. Samuels

By Chris Acheson
August 19, 2011

In the face of record-low approval ratings and continuing public backlash regarding his performance following the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has agreed to step down after three key pieces of legislation pass through the Japanese Diet. Although Kan’s resignation may assist the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in rebuilding public trust in its ability to lead, questions remain about the future of the DPJ and the political structure of Japan as it stands today.

Japanese domestic politics expert, Richard J. Samuels, provides insight into the DPJ, its political strategy, and the challenges the next administration will face. Samuels is currently Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Naoto Kan has expressed his willingness to resign, creating concern for the DPJ’s unity after he steps down. How will the DPJ respond to Kan’s resignation?

What unity? One often speaks of “center-left” as a single position on an ideological spectrum, but in the case of the DPJ, the hyphen should be read as a plus sign. Those who came to it from the center and those from the left have never really found common ground on many important issues. So, while some say that the DPJ has always been a “mutt,” I think a “menagerie” of cats and dogs may be more apt. Internal leadership challenges are common in political parties in every competitive democracy, but the DPJ must be among the most fractious of the world’s ruling parties.

It was not a great surprise that Ozawa Ichiro began hammering on Prime Minister Kan’s leadership failures less than one month after the March 11 catastrophes. After all, they had gone to the mat in a struggle for control over the party just eight months earlier, and the DPJ had just done poorly in the nationwide local elections, its first electoral test after March 11. But when DPJ elders Nishioka Takeo, president of the House of Councillors; Sengoku Yoshito, the deputy chief cabinet secretary; and Sakurai Mitsuru, deputy minister of finance, all joined the chorus—and when DPJ backbenchers formed their own task forces to address the disaster response—one knew there was something very dysfunctional within the party. In the end, only two DPJ lawmakers voted for the no-confidence motion last June, but party members extracted his promise to pass the torch to the next generation. They turned him into a lame duck and may have rendered the party itself nonviable.

How have the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear crisis altered the DPJ’s political strategy, and what changes to domestic policy do you foresee?

Asking about the party’s political strategy in the wake of the March 11 catastrophes is a bit like wondering if the items in your upstairs closet will be destroyed while your entire house burns down. In theory, this ought to be a moment of great change for the entire nation, not just for the DPJ. After two decades of social and economic malaise—as well as considerable political and administrative dysfunction—the triple disaster has pierced every corner of Japanese government, economy, and society. Widespread policy failures, many the result of inadequacies inherited from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), have been on full display, and nearly everything seems ripe for reform and reconstruction: local government, the party system, the influence of big business, the energy supply mix, national finances, the regulatory structure, immigration policy, agricultural production, diplomacy, and the political class, inter alia. The nation and all its component parts are at a historic moment, poised once again for epochal change. All one needs to do is read the monthlies and the editorial pages of the daily media to see that change is the meta-narrative; everything is in play, and the outcome is far from certain.

So March 11 may provide the disjuncture necessary for substantive political, economic, and social change in what has been a long-stagnant Japan. Certainly, the weeks and months after March 11 have been filled with calls for wholesale change across a very broad institutional horizon. But it is too soon to know what sort of change, if any at all, will occur. We see clues about how this may come out in the battle for control of the shape, pace, and direction of the political narrative. This battle has now been joined, and we will have to wait to see whose villains and whose heroes will prevail.

Everything has been up for grabs in the party as well. The DPJ had already abandoned several core elements in its manifesto even before March 11, most notably its tilt toward China and its insistence on Tokyo becoming a more “equal” partner in the Japan-U.S. security alliance. After March 11, it has had to cede even more ground, particularly in social policy, where the opposition forced the DPJ to abandon its program of allowances for children and high school tuition subventions. One also gets the sense that many party leaders, though perhaps not the prime minister himself, have realized they went too far in rejecting the assistance of career bureaucrats.

Kan recently stated his preference for reducing and eventually eliminating Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy. However, this does not appear to be the common view within the DPJ. How will the energy policy of the DPJ change after Kan’s departure, and what role will energy play in the next election?

Energy policy may face sweeping institutional reforms as a result of March 11. It is one of the very few areas where Kan and public opinion are fully aligned. The Japanese public has, after all, been treated to a torrent of stories about the villainy of TEPCO and its sibling utility companies. It has been told of the cozy relations between regulators and the regulated and between the utilities and the LDP in Japan’s “nuclear village.” Had Kan been a more skilled politician, he might have capitalized on this, and his plans for a fundamental shift in energy policy could have paved a path back to popularity. He could have used nuclear power much as former prime minister Koizumi Junichiro used postal reform to sustain his power.

And that is what Kan has tried to do. During the crisis, he announced plans for a bottom-up review of Japan’s nuclear-centered Basic Energy Plan. Constructed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) with considerable input from TEPCO and the other private utilities, this plan called for the construction of fourteen additional nuclear power plants by 2030. Kan’s announcement was unequivocal and well received: Japan must “start from scratch” on a new national energy policy. But Kan is no Koizumi. His move was undercut first when Yosano Kaoru, his own minister for economic and fiscal policy (and a former Japan Atomic Power Company employee) opposed it. It was weakened further when he—typically, many say—failed to coordinate his nuclear policy pronouncements with Kaieda Banri, his minister of economy and industry, who promised to resign over the gaffe. And the Rengo trade union federation, the main support base of the DPJ, supports nuclear power. In American parlance, Kan talked the talk but tripped over himself when he tried to walk the walk.

Still, the idea of a wholesale re-examination of Japan’s energy policy—including shutting down nuclear reactors in precarious locations, moving the regulatory National Industrial Safety Agency out of its home within METI (which is tasked in part with promoting nuclear power), separating generation from transmission, and eliminating the highly controversial fast breeder reactor program—has been welcomed by editorialists and by public opinion as a whole. So was businessman Son Masayoshi’s initiative to work with governors and mayors to build renewable power plants across the nation. The best that nuclear power advocates in the DPJ can do now is reassure investors that Japan’s nuclear plants will be phased out slowly, as they reach the end of their 40-year life cycle and as Japan transitions to alternative power sources. Even if the changes are less sweeping than what Kan proposes, it will be difficult for his successors to return to the energy policy status quo ante. Energy policy, and nuclear power in particular, will be an important electoral issue for a long time to come.

There are a number of foreign policy issues—one example being the U.S. base relocation in Okinawa—that have not been resolved since the DPJ came to power in 2009. What changes can we expect to see to the DPJ’s foreign policy strategy with a new prime minister?

This depends on who becomes prime minister. If we know one thing about the DPJ’s foreign policy, it is that it has been inconsistent. The Hatoyama tilt toward China was abandoned in favor of a hug with the United States. Prime Minister Kan abandoned his vigorous support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership amid the rhetorical chaos after March 11.

This is hardly an alliance in crisis, certainly not after the largest joint operation in the history of the relationship—”Operation Tomodachi” (friendship)—was so successful and generated such widespread public support. But, as your question suggests, several fundamental problems have yet to be resolved. The basing issue is surely at the top of the list. Japan’s stalled reforms and fiscal problems leave Washington dealing with a system in which defense and alliance issues are highly politicized. Reliable and efficient outcomes require grace and dexterity that are difficult to produce when everyone’s heels are dug in.

Perhaps the best one can hope for is a new prime minister with fresh ideas about relocating the Marines. Yet, regardless of who succeeds Kan, no one in Tokyo thinks it will be possible to resolve the Futenma issue without the buy-in of the Okinawan population and its governor. Since the replacement runway plan has been modified, a new environmental impact assessment is now required, and the governor must sign off on it, as well as on landfill plans. In the meantime, Marine aircraft continue to fly from Futenma, posing a serious safety risk for the surrounding town. Now the Marines have announced they are bringing the MV-22 Osprey to Okinawa, the deployment of which will produce additional uncertainties about the political viability of a Marine Corps air station located anywhere on the island. The U.S. and Japanese governments have recommitted to the Henoko relocation in the north of Okinawa, even though they acknowledge construction will not begin any time soon. Privately, many simply wait for the inevitable accident in Futenma to dislodge stakeholders from their stubborn and unimaginative positions. It is tragic that they await a tragedy.

Who do you believe are viable candidates for leading the DPJ? Do you see them having the capacity to unite the party, and what do you think are the biggest challenges for the next administration?

Several years ago NBR asked Pat Boyd and me to think about generational change in Japan. We adopted Mannheim’s idea of a political generation and looked for galvanizing events that might have shaped orientations toward politics and policy among Japanese politicians. We focused on the cohort that came of age during Japan’s high-growth period—a “sweet spot” in Japanese history when it was both rich and secure—and named them “Prosperity’s Children.” [1] This group, many of whom have come through the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, now forms the core of DPJ leadership. Some came of age between 1975–88 and have already experienced party leadership. Maehara Seiji and Okada Katsuya, for example, mishandled it the first time around, and each is poised for a second chance. Mabuchi Sumio, Edano Yukio, Genba Koichiro, Noda Yoshihiko, and Hirano Tatsuo are others in that cohort with ministerial experience. But there are also some younger stars, such as Hosono Goshi, who distinguished themselves in managing the March 11 crisis and may soon eclipse their elders. Indeed, the catastrophe reminded us that political leaders sometimes emerge from the crucible of crisis.

Governing Japan effectively, which above all means achieving fiscal stability while reconstructing Tohoku, will be the greatest challenge for Kan’s successors. Since the opposition controls the House of Councillors, this will require compromise with the LDP, something Noda, Okada, and Maehara have openly advocated. But compromise with the LDP, of course, increases the likelihood of two outcomes that Kan and his allies have been resisting vigorously. First, it holds the possibility that the DPJ will lose whatever remains of its identity as a party of the center-left. Second, it hastens the day when the DPJ—and possibly the LDP—ceases to exist altogether. Neither has much public support anymore, but amazingly the LDP now enjoys twice the support of the DPJ. If ever Japan or the DPJ needed leadership, it is now.


[1] J. Patrick Boyd and Richard J. Samuels, “Prosperity’s Children: Generational Change and Japan’s Future Leadership,” Asia Policy, no. 6 (July 2008): 15–51.

Richard J. Samuels’s most recent book, Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, was named one of the five finalists for the 2008 Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in international affairs. He is currently writing a book on the impact of the March 2011 catastrophes on Japanese public policy.

Chris Acheson is an Intern at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He is a recent graduate of the University of Washington and will be entering the London School of Economics in fall 2011.

This interview was produced by the Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, NBR’s public email forum on Japanese affairs.