In Japan, Election a Symbol of Perpetual Change, Uncertainty

Last month, the United States completed a quadrennial Democratic exercise, culminating more than a year of debates, campaign stops, and speeches with the reelection of President Obama for a second four-year term. After its own general election on Sunday, Japan will inaugurate its seventh prime minister in six and a half years.

For Americans, presidential elections are just a grueling, sometimes ugly political tradition that they endure every four years. Sometimes they choose to reelect a president; sometimes a new one comes to power in a referendum election. But in Japan, every election in recent history has been a referendum.

Japan's next prime minister will be the Liberal Democratic Party's Shinzo Abe. The conservative leader takes over for Yoshihiko Noda, who took over for Naoto Kan in September 2011, who  took over for Yukio Hatoyama in June 2010, who took over for Taro Aso in September 2009, who took over for Yasuo Fukuda in September 2008. Abe himself preceded Fukuda.

Needless to say, the Japanese people have become accustomed to uncertainty.

By Japanese law, if the House of Representatives adopts a "no-confidence" motion against the prime minister's Cabinet, he must resign, unless he dissolves the parliament. Responding to threats of such a motion from his opposition, Noda said in mid-November that he would dissolve the Lower House of parliament and hold the election in a month.

Each election has come with its own political atmosphere in Japan. Noda came to power in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed thousands of people, destroyed part of the country's shoreline, and triggered a triple-meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Among other things, the national crisis has brought into question Japan's energy policy and the country's ability to deal with its all-too-common natural disasters.

The political aftershocks of the earthquake continue to this day, as the Japanese people continue to question their leadership with yet another referendum vote.

But while Noda came to power amid the tragic circumstances of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, Sunday's election results show that the Japanese people are still more concerned about economic and foreign-policy issues than the rapid decommissioning of the nation's nuclear plants.

Abe, a nationalist, resigned as prime minister for health reasons in 2007 after one year in office. Despite a passionate antinuclear push from the public after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, Abe has put down Noda's zero-nuclear goal as unrealistic and said that a nuclear phaseout shouldn't be called for "lightly."  Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has said it would decide on restarting nuclear reactors in three years and work on the best energy mix for the country in the next ten years.

More so than nuclear energy concerns, Abe focused his election platform on foreign policy and economic issues--his party has promised to resolve territorial tensions with China and to move forward with stimulus measures to revive the world's third-largest economy.

Abe has vowed to negotiate with Beijing over territorial issues but stood firm on the control of the Senkaku/Diayu islands in the East China Sea, which both countries claim. "We own and effectively control them. There is no room for negotiations about that," he said in a news conference.

But Abe did recognize the importance of maintaining Sino-Japanese relations, especially as they are crucial to Japanese economic growth: Bilateral trade between the two countries is worth more than $340 billion.

In that regard, Abe has said that his chief "mission" is to turn around the country's struggling economy. This means pressuring the Bank of Japan to bump the inflation target to 2 percent and other easing measures, which include the unlimited purchase of government bonds.

For the United States, Abe represents a shift to the right and toward nationalism.

Abe, who studied English in the United States and holds a degree in political science from the University of Southern California, has always expressed support for the U.S.-Japan alliance, but his nationalist stance toward China and other countries has been alarming to some experts.

"The real problem is not that Japan is becoming too powerful in international affairs, but that it may become too weak and inward-turning. The question is whether Japan wishes to continue to be a great power nation, or if it is content to drift into second-tier status," Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and former administration official wrote in a recent op-ed about Japan's nationalism in Financial Times.

"China has passed Japan as the second-largest economy, and Japan faces a debt to gross domestic product ratio of more than 200 percent, an aging population and a declining birth rate. If this means that Japan turns inward to a reactive populist nationalism rather than play an active role on the world stage, the world as well as Japan will be worse off. Japan has much to contribute," warned Nye, who served as assistant secretary of State in Jimmy Carter's administration and as president of National Intelligence Council and assistant secretary of Defense in Bill Clinton's administration.

Despite such concerns, President Obama congratulated Abe on his party's success in the elections.

"I congratulate Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe on his party's success in the elections in Japan," Obama said. "The U.S.-Japan alliance serves as the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, and I look forward to working closely with the next government and the people of Japan on a range of important bilateral, regional and global issues," he continued, also acknowledging the work of current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

If history is any indicator, it might not be the last time Obama issues a statement from the Oval Office congratulating a new Japanese leader. This election represents the fourth time that Obama has called Japan with such congratulations in his first term as president. Junichiro Koizumi, who served at Japan's prime minister from 2001 to 2006, was the third-longest serving prime minister in the history of Japan. Since Koizumi, Japan has had a new leader every year.