Japan’s New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance

US Council on Foreign Relations

Electoral reform in the early 1990s ended single-party dominance in Japan and promised an era of new politics in which political par- ties would alternate control of the government. In the two decades that followed, Japan’s foreign and domestic policy priorities were subjected to greater scrutiny and debate as Japan, like so many other nations around the globe, sought to reorient itself in a new post–Cold War world. The U.S.-Japan alliance that anchored Japan’s postwar foreign policy was not immune to these domestic political reforms. For half a century, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prided itself on managing the relationship with Washington.

But its ouster in 2009 by the reformist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led many to expect that even Japan’s alliance with the United States would be subject to serious review. 1 In the two decades since political alignments began to shift in Tokyo, new parties have come and gone. The dreaded divided Diet (nejire kokkai) that had confounded governance since 2007 was brought to an end when the LDP, led by Shinzo Abe, claimed victory in the 2013 upper house election. Although some of the dominant bureaucrats in Japan’s foreign policy–making process continue to wield considerable influence, new currents of contention have emerged outside of government to contest some official choices. As important as these domestic pres- sures are, Japan must also contend with an unprecedented set of exogenous challenges to its foreign and security policy decisions. Popular anxiety coupled with more unsettled and contentious electoral politics will continue to complicate U.S.-Japan alliance policy.

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