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Perspectives

February 16, 2009
Clinton plans for a rare meeting with Japan’s opposition

Japanese opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro.

In a sign of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso’s waning popularity, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to meet with Ozawa Ichiro, the leader of Japan’s opposition party. 

Many expect that Ichiro’s Democratic Party of Japan will oust Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party in Japan’s upcoming national elections, though the latter has dominated Japanese politics for more than half a century. Aso’s own approval rating has plummeted to less than 10 percent, largely in reaction to Japan’s economic troubles. 

Tobias Harris is a graduate student in political science at MIT who worked for a member of the Democratic Party of Japan in the national legislature for two years. He writes at “Observing Japan” and describes what the meeting means for the U.S.-Japan alliance and for internal Japanese politics as the election approaches.

The Clinton-Ozawa meeting

After some waffling, Ozawa Ichiro has agreed to accept visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s request to meet. They will meet on Tuesday.

Jun Okumura wonders how Mr. Ozawa will handle the range of issues on which he has criticized the alliance, leading some American Japan hands to dismiss Mr. Ozawa as an unreliable friend of US-Japan relationship.

I do not expect any drama on this occasion. Mr. Ozawa himself has said, “There are no particular subjects of discussion; it’s just an introduction.” With that in mind, MTC is right to question the DPJ’s leadership’s initial response to the US request. Once the request was public, the DPJ should have not hesitated to say yes. Mrs. Clinton is under no compulsion to meet with Mr. Ozawa, but she and the administration in which she serves are clearly trying to illustrate symbolically that the Bush era is over. She is also acknowledging the importance of the DPJ in looking to meet with its leader, an acknowledgment the DPJ should have rushed to pocket and parade about.

Dithering has reinforced the image of a DPJ incapable of leading or, even worse, a DPJ incapable of managing the alliance, which in turn enables DPJ critics like Nakagawa Hidenao to argue that Mr. Ozawa is anti-American.

This whole debate will likely pass over the heads of the general public; I do not expect the DPJ to lose any votes for hesitating to accept the US request. But the DPJ is mistaken if it thinks that public relations only involves the voting public. The DPJ also has to convince the Japanese establishment that it is a reliable ruling party, which means playing the part of a potential ruling party. Part of playing the part of a potential ruling party means accepting the theater of the US-Japan alliance. The challenge for the DPJ is reconciling appearing to be a responsible steward of the alliance while still presenting to the public a poignant critique of how the LDP-Komeito government has mismanaged the relationship, a critique that cannot simply be dismissed as anti-Americanism.

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