TOKYO — Japanese voters gave Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Democratic Party of Japan a decisive slap in the face Sunday, sending a message to the country’s new ruling party that the past 10 months have been more about missteps and empty promises than effective reform and economic recovery, political experts said Monday.
On Sunday, the party won only 44 seats of 121 contests for the Upper House, a situation that leaves Kan weaker but still in charge. The vote also leaves Kan facing a Diet with less inclination to amicably support the prime minister’s ideas about shoring up the economy, redefining Japan’s role in a changing Asia, and resolving the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps air station on Okinawa.
“This was a bloodbath,” Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan, said Monday. “It was a very clear rebuke from the voters for Prime Minister Kan and the DPJ, showing just how unhappy the voters are with how the DPJ has been handling things.”
The proposed move of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma was not a deciding factor in the elections, Kingston and others said.
But the months-long discussion about Futenma — whether to move it to a rural part of the island or push the United States to rethink base alignment plans altogether — is a vivid example of the DPJ’s challenges and failures since taking control of the country nearly a year ago.
“The DPJ misunderstood the voters’ will when they won the election last summer,” according to Kazuya Sakamoto, a professor of international politics and Japan- U.S. relations at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Law and Politics. “What people wanted was a change, not revolution.”
It also shows how much work Kan — the party’s second prime minister in 10 months — has before him while facing a disappointed electorate.
Early last month, Yukio Hatoyama resigned after facing a financial scandal and failing to produce a new plan for Futenma. Now, Kan must move that plan forward, an effort that will take deft political work from both countries to satisfy Okinawans, who host about half of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, according to Gerald Curtis, a political science professor at Columbia University.
At the end of the summer, both countries are expected to release more details about building the new air station on Okinawa’s rural northeastern coast.
“Then the hard work begins for both the U.S. and Japan,” said Curtis, who spoke Monday in Tokyo. “There is no way this is going to happen quickly.”
Kan clearly has his work cut out for him. On Okinawa, anger over the Futenma relocation issue scared the DPJ so much that it didn’t even field a candidate, Kingston said.
A governor’s race this fall could pose an even greater litmus test for the DPJ and Futenma. In Japan, governors have the authority to block public projects involving construction over water. The new Marine air station includes a proposal to build onto landfill on Okinawa waters.
Sunday’s election may push the DPJ even closer to its former adversary, the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party, who ruled Japan almost continuously for nearly five decades, according to Sakamoto.
That could bode well for the United States, Sakamoto said. Until 10 months ago, it was the LDP that oversaw all major decisions about national security and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
But it could also make some Okinawans even angrier. An LDP candidate won the only open seat in Okinawa after promising to break with her party’s stance and fight to move Marine operations off the island.
“Okinawa’s will is clear and unchanged,” said Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations and director of the Institute of International Okinawa Studies at the University of the Ryukyus.
The irony is that the relocation of Futenma is meant to permanently move more than 8,000 Marines off Okinawa. And the longer some in Okinawa fight the relocation, the longer Futenma — a busy air base crammed into an urban setting — remains open.
“The upshot is this is a very tough issue,” said Curtis. “And the longer this takes, the longer the Marines remain at Futenma. This is a disaster waiting to happen.”