Rarely has so huge a victory been followed by so short a honeymoon. Even before the Democratic Party of Japan trounced the Liberal Democrats on Aug. 30, pundits were warning that the DPJ didn't have what it takes to govern well. Experts argue that the Democrats lack experience, are internally divided, have no ideological coherence, and favor policies that may worsen Japan's crisis. There is something to the charges—but they overstate the case.
During the campaign, the LDP tried to paint its opponents as novices unfamiliar with real-world policymaking. Many commentators also noted that key Democrats were former LDP members, suggesting the new party wouldn't be able to govern effectively. It's true that many DPJ leaders, including Yukio Hatoyama, the prime-minister-to-be, and Ichiro Ozawa, Hatoyama's predecessor, began their careers in the ruling party. But this could prove to be a source of strength, not weakness. For one thing, it undermines the charge that DPJ members are all inexperienced. Leadership is in Hatoyama's blood; his grandfather was a key advocate of liberal democracy in Japan's early postwar years. Naoto Kan, meanwhile—the DPJ's cofounder—proved his chops in 1996 as health minister, when he championed the needs of Japan's HIV/AIDS patients. And while opinions are divided about Ozawa, no one can dispute the fact that he's a political veteran.
The bigger question is how the DPJ will use its experience. With a third of Japan's citizens heading into retirement in the next decade, the country desperately needs a better social-insurance and health-care system. Japanese are also worried about their economy, and rightly so. To address these concerns, the DPJ's short-term plan is to put more money into consumers' pockets by cutting taxes, reducing government spending, and providing greater support for education and health.
In the long term, the DPJ has also promised to modify ex–prime minister Juni-chiro Koizumi's reform agenda—which, with the exception of reducing bad debt and otherwise restoring credibility to Japan's banking system, no longer makes sense. Voters bemoan the way Koizumi's changes have increased Japan's rich-poor and urban-rural divides, and are convinced that their country now needs a more humane version of capitalism. The DPJ has promised to address these issues by shifting the economy's focus to the consumer instead of the producer, using consumer spending to drive growth rather than an export strategy that's let big business pocket the bulk of Japan's profits.
The DPJ also plans to revamp the country's top-heavy government to grant more local entities more autonomy, which should inject competition and creativity into a society long dominated by Tokyo, and to rein in the all-powerful civil service. And Hatoyama has pledged to continue trimming the fat off Japan's public sector, eliminating many of the amorphous semigovernmental agencies that seem irrelevant to most citizens.
Contrary to Washington's fears, meanwhile, the DPJ is unlikely to make revolutionary changes to Japan's foreign policy. In the run-up to the vote, the opposition often spoke about rebalancing the U.S.-Japan relationship and investing more energy in Asia. But there is little evidence that the DPJ is anti-American or interested in undermining Tokyo's alliance with Washington. After the election, Hatoyama quickly met with the new U.S. ambassador, John Roos, and then phoned President Barack Obama to start building trust in his new government.
And the idea of bringing greater balance to Japan's foreign policy is hardly radical. For some time, Washington has been worried about Tokyo's isolation and periodic confrontations with Seoul and Beijing. The region needs to collaborate to address common threats like North Korea's nuclear program and to promote better economic integration. A Japan more willing to cooperate with its neighbors is thus in everyone's interests, and needn't threaten the U.S.-Japan partnership.
Perhaps the biggest reason to be optimistic about the DPJ, however, lies not in the party itself but in the voters who handed it an enormous victory. The DPJ's huge majority means it will likely be able to serve a full term, unlike the last non-LDP government, which quickly collapsed. This means the DPJ should have enough time to actually implement its bold agenda. If anything, this election proved that Japan's long--frustrated and apathetic citizens are finally ready for change. Having taken the plunge on an untested party, they know there will be bumps along the way. The DPJ must now use the skill and energy that got it elected to govern well. But it is also up to the Japanese people—including wary bureaucrats and cynical pundits—to help it meet this goal.