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Is Australia ready for a new look Japan?

By Graham Cooke - posted Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Change has come to Japan. The new Democratic Party of Japan Government, which ended more than half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party with its stunning victory three months ago, is fulfilling its election promise to take the country in a new direction.

And while early moves by the triumphant DPJ are already beginning to cause domestic upheavals, they also present significant challenges for the countries that deal with Japan including, of course, Australia.

This is the verdict of some of the country’s most experienced Japan watchers based at the Australian National University’s Japan Institute. Professor Peter Drysdale spoke for many of his colleagues when he said the days of easily predictable, comfortable relationships between the two countries are over.


“There has been a huge change in the system of government there and that will affect the way we do business with them,” he said. “I don’t think this is well understood in Australia as yet.

“It is going to require a great deal of diplomatic energy and effort to understand what is going on there and I am not sure if we are up to it - whether we have the resources to manage it in government, the universities or in the community more broadly.”

The problem is that during more than 50 years of Liberal Democratic rule, hardly anything changed in the way Japan operated on the political, economic and social fronts. Generations of Australian diplomats grew up knowing exactly which buttons to push, which to leave alone, where to go to get answers and, almost always, what those answers would be.

Relations with our largest trading partner have been running on autopilot. Now we have to take over the controls, but the flight manual is out of date and almost useless.

This complacency was highlighted by another Japan Institute member, Professor Kent Anderson. Speaking during a panel discussion on the new government, held jointly with the ACT Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, he suggested a similar seminar on China would have drawn twice the audience and one on India perhaps half as many again.

He admitted that at the time of the election he had been sceptical. “We expected radical change in 1993 with the Hosokawa Government and again with the Koizumi period, but after they went subsequent leaders returned to the old way of doing things,” he said.


“It is very easy to be radical when you are in opposition, and the DPJ is not the most coherent grouping of people - you’ve got former LDP members on the right and former socialists on the left and the only thing they seemed to be united on was getting the LDP out of power.”

However, time spent in the country since the election has convinced him his early assessment was wrong. “Change is real. I am seeing something I have not seen in all my experience of following Japan.”

Professor Drysdale characterises this as a move away from government by bureaucracy behind closed doors. “We have had situations in the past where senior bureaucrats basically declared government policy with little or no reference to the political process, this has changed. They are now no longer allowed to make independent statements,” he said.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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