NPR Story
3:09 am
Mon December 17, 2012

Japanese Voters Return Conservatives To Power

Originally published on Mon December 17, 2012 1:49 pm

Japan's Liberal Democratic Party won resoundingly in parliamentary elections Sunday that both Washington and Beijing were watching carefully. The conservative LDP's hawkish leader, Shinzo Abe, will become Japan's prime minister for the second time and has pledged to take a harder line on China.

Speaking on Japanese TV, Abe had a message for Japan's most important ally, America, and another for Japan's biggest rival — China.

"First, we should restore the Japan-United States alliance, a trusting alliance — that's the first step. Based on that, we'd like to improve our relationship with China," he said.

Then, Abe reiterated his unwavering line on the Senkaku Islands. A bitter dispute over the island chain in the East China Sea led to massive protests in China this fall and has plunged relations between the two countries to its worst level in years.

"We'd like to show our strong intention that we will never change this current situation that Senkaku is Japanese territory," Abe said.

In a commentary, Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency, warned Abe's party against militarism: "Respect the postwar world order; curb rightist extremism," it said.

The United States, which has a treaty to defend Japan, welcomed the victory by Abe's party but encouraged both countries to keep talking.

"We would like to see in-depth dialogue, close cooperation between these two most important economies, and a concerted effort to build a region together which works to the benefit of all concerned," said Kurt Tong, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

Frustration With The DPJ

The campaign was marked by nationalistic rhetoric, and some analysts worry that Japan could be heading to the right.

But Koji Murata, who teaches political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto, says the LDP's win said less about its policy toward China and more about the failings of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ. "The LDP did not win — the DPJ lost," he said.

"I don't think this is a shift of Japanese politics to a more nationalistic direction. This is a reflection of Japanese frustration with the DPJ government," Murata said.

Naomi Mabashi felt that frustration. She's a mother of three who works for a jewelry manufacturer north of Tokyo. Mabashi supported the DPJ in the last election in hopes it would turn around Japan, after two decades largely marked by political and economic malaise.

But the DPJ failed to fix the country's fiscal problems, and the economy appears to have slipped back into recession.

Mabashi says the DPJ also failed to tame Japan's powerful bureaucrats, often blamed for holding the nation back.

"They were just no good. They said they would get rid of the bureaucrat's control, but eventually they just couldn't do it," she said.

Mabashi's vote was not entirely in protest. She says she supports Abe because she thinks he will stand up to China and better manage Japan's crucial security relationship with the U.S.

"For years, more and more Chinese military aircraft have come very close to Japanese territory," she said. "China's power is growing, and I want Japan and the U.S. to have a good relationship."

U.S.-Japanese relations suffered after the DPJ tried to move an American Marine base off the island of Okinawa because of residents' constant complaints.

One issue that did not get as much attention in the campaign is the future of nuclear energy and the fate of those who lost their homes to last year's earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.

Etsuko Watanabe, a retired school chef, fled her home near the reactor last year. Twenty-one months later, she's still living in an abandoned high school outside Tokyo.

"It's a very lonely life," says the 68-year-old Watanabe. "The hardest thing is we have nothing to do."

Watanabe is still waiting for a settlement from Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the reactor. She didn't vote for a major party Sunday — she backed the Japanese Communist Party because, she says, it seems more concerned with helping disaster refugees.

Watanabe says she wonders if politicians have forgotten about folks like her.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There was also voting in Japan over the weekend. Japan's Liberal Democratic Party won a resounding victory yesterday in parliamentary elections that both Washington and Beijing were watching very carefully. The LDP, as it's known, is actually a conservative party. Its hawkish leader, Shinzo Abe, will become Japan's new prime minister for the second time, and he has pledged to take a harder line on China. NPR's Frank Langfitt has this story from Tokyo.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Speaking to Japanese TV last night, Shinzo Abe had a message for Japan's most important ally, America, and another for its biggest rival, China.

PRIME MINISTER-ELECT SHINZO ABE: (Through translator) First, we should restore the Japan-United States alliance, a trusting alliance. That's the first step. Based on that, we'd like to improve our relationship with China.

LANGFITT: Then Abe reiterated his unwavering line on Senkaku Islands. A bitter dispute over the island chain in the East China Sea led to mass protests in China this fall that has plunged relations between the two countries to its worst level in years.

ABE: (Through translator) We'd like to show our strong intention that we will never change this current situation, that Senkaku is Japanese territory.

LANGFITT: In a commentary, Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency, warned Abe's party against militarism. Quote: "Respect the post-World War order, curb rightist extremism," it said. The United States, who has a treaty to defend Japan, welcomed the victory by Abe's party, but encouraged both countries to keep talking. Here's Kurt Tong, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo.

KURT TONG: We would like to see in-depth dialogue, close cooperation between these two most important economies, and a concerted effort to build a region together which works to the benefit of all concerned.

LANGFITT: The campaign was marked by nationalistic rhetoric, and some analysts worry Japan could be heading to the right. But Koji Murata says the LDP's win said less about its policy towards China and more about the failings of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ.

KOJI MURATA: The LDP, they do not win. The DPJ lost.

LANGFITT: Morada teaches political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

MURATA: I don't think this is a shift of Japanese politics to a more nationalistic election. This is a deflection by Japanese frustration to the DPJ government.

LANGFITT: Naomi Mabashi felt that frustration. She's a mother of three who works for a jewelry manufacturer north of Tokyo. Mabashi supported the DPJ in the last election in hopes it would turn around Japan after two decades largely marred by political and economic malaise. But the DPJ failed to fix the country's fiscal problems, and the economy appears to have slipped back into recession. Mabashi says the DPJ also failed to tame Japan's powerful bureaucrats, often blamed for holding the nation back.

NAOMI MABASHI: (Through translator) They were just no good. They said they would get rid of the bureaucrats' control, but eventually they just couldn't do it.

LANGFITT: Mabashi's vote wasn't entirely in protest. She says she supports Abe because she thinks he'll stand up to China and better manage Japan's crucial security relationship with the U.S.

MABASHI: (Through translator) For years, more and more Chinese military aircraft have come very close to Japanese territory. China's power is growing, and I want Japan and the U.S. to have a good relationship.

LANGFITT: U.S.-Japanese relations suffered after the DPJ tried to move an American Marine base off the island of Okinawa because of residents' constant complaints. One issue that did not get much attention in the campaign is the future of nuclear energy and the fate of those who lost their homes to last year's earthquake, tsunami and meltdown. Etsuko Watanabe, a retired school chef, fled her home near the reactor last year. Twenty-one months later, she's still living in an abandoned high school outside Tokyo.

ETSUKO WATANABE: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: It's a very lonely life, says the 68-year-old Watanabe, who wears a purple down vest and blue crocs. The hardest thing is we had nothing to do. Watanabe is still waiting for a settlement from Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the reactor. She didn't vote for a major party yesterday. She backed the Japanese Communist Party, because she says it seems more concerned with helping atomic refugees. Watanabe says she wonders if politicians have forgotten about folks like her. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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