The increasingly unpopular DPJ government lost over one-third of its seats after imposing a new sales tax despite winning nearly half of all seats at the previous election in 2009.
The faction-ridden LDP - which has long dominated Japanese politics, ruling almost uninterruptedly from its creation by the US occupying forces at the end of World War II until it was ejected in the 2009 election - is led by Shinzo Abe. His right-wing grouping won the leadership in September this year. His previous stint as Prime Minister saw privatisations, deregulation and a sharp fall in living standards.
In the campaign leading up to last weekend’s election his platform focused on anti-Chinese rhetoric, especially over the disputed Diaoyu islands, and on pressuring the Bank of Japan to generate inflation. He also promised to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which holds the graves of war criminals responsible for the massacre of 300,000 Chinese in Nanjing and the slaughter of millions of other Asians during what is euphemistically called ‘the conflict in the Pacific’. Abe has even asserted that there is ‘no basis for compromise’ on territorial disputes.
Alongside the election of the LDP on a rightist, revanchist platform, the election was striking for the advance of the recently founded extreme right Restoration party, which fell just three seats short of becoming the leading opposition party behind the ousted DPJ.
The Restoration Party is led by the notorious Mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara (dubbed the Japanese Le Pen), whose proposal that the city of Tokyo purchase the Diaoyu Islands, in order to develop them, launched the current diplomatic stand-off with China .
‘Restoration’ refers to restoring Japan’s former imperial greatness. Its virulent xenophobia extends to all Japan’s former colonies in China and Korea, as well as antagonising Russia with claims to ownership of the Kuril Islands. It combines this with strident racism towards all foreigners but particularly to Korean and Chinese origin residents of Japan.
There was no equivalent advance for the left, with both the Communists and Social Democrats registering a further fall in their tiny share of the vote to less than 8% and less than 1% respectively. The Communist Party lost one of its 9 seats and recorded 4.7million votes.
The overall outcome, in a highly undemocratic voting system, is that the LDP-Komitei alliance controls 325 of the 480 seat lower house, on just 45% of the vote. This is enough to push through legislation without reference to the upper house of the Diet, which has no overall control.
As well as lowering real wages by promoting inflation, it seems likely that the new government will attempt to revive the nuclear industry and to seek to alter the constitution to remove the restrictions on non-defensive Japanese military operations in pursuit of a new nationalist foreign policy.
Clearly, the US has gained a new more aggressive ally in its ‘pivot’ towards Asia, which has the central aim of curbing China’s rise.
The US ‘pivot’ has also been boosted by the 19 December Presidential election result in South Korea, itself formerly occupied by Japan. The conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party candidate, Park Geun-Hye, was elected as South Korea’s first female President. Park Geun-Hye is the grand-daughter of Park Chung-Hee, military dictator of South Korea in the 1960s. She defeated Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, who argued for the resumption of talks with North Korea.
With South Korea about to start a two year term on the UN Security Council, the US will be delighted by this further shift to the right in the region.
However, the election result in South Korea was extremely close, and despite the advance of the right in Japan, the political situation is becoming increasingly unstable.
The sabre-rattling with China over the Diaoyu is not the confrontation with China that the US would have particularly chosen, given both the 100 per cent popular unity in China on the issue and its strong claim in international law.
At the same time, falling real wages and rising joblessness mean the LDP’s revived popularity is unlikely to last. Entirely new parties won nearly one quarter of votes in the latest poll and there have been 21 different prime ministerial terms since the beginning of the ’lost decades’ in 1989.
Political instability is a reflection of the economic and social crisis. The economy which is being hollowed out by prolonged stagnation. Employment has fallen by nearly 5 million since 1997, which is disguised by low eligibility for unemployment benefits and by growing proportions of women and youth who are excluded from the workforce.
Unlike in Washington and Wall Street, the capitals of Asia will see no rejoicing over Japan’s shift to the right. Increasing xenophobia, militarism and the disastrous costs of the nuclear industry offer no solution to Japan’s economic crisis. Instead the US will be the main beneficiary of the LDP’s policies.