This “landslide victory” is “really a historical event.” That’s what Kenji Kunitomi, a long-time socialist activist told us after the ruling coalition’s defeat in Japan’s elections last weekend. It’s easy to see what he means: the LDP – Japan’s conservative party – have enjoyed over a half-century of almost unbroken rule. For years it has felt like, whatever the problems ordinary people have had to face, those in the corridors of power were going to be able to stay there. That’s changed. For veteran peace activist and trade unionist Masumi Mukai, this change is what matters: “At least people’s No to the Liberal Democratic Party’s politics was heard.”

The new ruling party, Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party, may not prove any better for workers, students and the poor than the discredited LDP. But their victory over the LDP shows that political masters can be defeated and this lesson, whatever the actual programme of the DPJ now it is in power, is what should give hope to progressives in Japan and abroad. “We have no illusions in the DPJ”, Kenji Kunitomi says, “we think that the DPJ will not be able to change fundamentally Japan’s political course under this very severe crisis of capitalism.” The DPJ has a broadly neo-liberal orientation, and some of its MPs are even ultra-nationalists. Still, Kunitomi thinks that “the victory of the DPJ has the possibility to open spaces for working people and social movements to resist capitalist offensive.”

Feeling the Strain

Homelessness, mass layoffs, casual contracts and falling living conditions are some of the issues facing Japanese workers. The country came out of a decade of sluggish economic activity only then to face the impact of the recent economic crisis. As Scottish socialist and Japan scholar Jamie Allinson notesGDP has shrunk at an annual rate of 14.2 percent. Recent reports have suggested a small recovery in the Japanese economy but exports, vital to the Japanese economy, are around 35 percent lower than last year and unemployment remains the highest it has ever been.” This combination, along with the neo-liberal attacks of past LDP governments, adds to the bitterness and despair building up across Japanese society.

The election results reflect this despair. Although some NGOs, unions and left groups backed the DPJ – Rengo, Japan’s biggest trade union federation, are energetic supporters – the general feeling is that people voted against the LDP instead of voting for the DPJ. But it is important not to mistake this sentiment. The Financial Times reported a Japan where voters acted “without illusions” and quoted an academic claiming that voters had opted for “change they don’t believe in and a leader they are not all that crazy about.”

The reality is sharper class anger than this quote acknowledges. “Accumulation of discontent and disgust about the reality created under the LDP rule and accelerated after Koizumi; the record-high unemployment rate; the high suicide rates for consecutive ten years or more; the unstable status of workers; politicians’ unfaithful financial practices….”: those are just some of the reasons Masumi Mukai gave for why voters rejected the LDP. She should know, working as she does with activist groups to organise solidarity with workers under attack. Kenji Kunitomi agrees, and adds that another factor is the “loss of credibility of the military alliance between the U.S. and Japan because of the total failure of the U.S. led ‘anti-terror’ war in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

With this kind of anger behind their vote, the DPJ may well find their honeymoon short. The issues the election highlighted remain unresolved.

A Gap to the Left

Despite the economic uncertainty and fear afflicting ordinary workers’ lives, the mainstream left failed to make gains in this election.

Japan’s two main reformist parties – the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) – held on to their current positions, but did not manage to translate ordinary people’s frustration into electoral success. They held on to their current positions – the JCP gained 7% of the vote and 9 seats, the SDP 4% and 7 – but no more.

In part this is because the media focussed on the DPJ at the expense of other parties. But the reformist left needs to take some responsibility too. The JCP ran an uninspired campaign, failing to connect to the urgency many desperate workers and casualised ‘working poor’ feel.

But there is great potential for a renewed left-wing movement. The last twelve months have seen a growing radicalism, with demonstration and strike numbers increasing, previously un-organised groups like youth workers and casual workers unionising, and membership of the Communist Party growing. In cultural life there are signs of this radicalism too: a manga version of Marx’s Capital is a surprise bestseller, as is a once obscure piece of proletarian literature, now turned into a major film.

So the elections and their background present a challenge for the left. It’s a challenge Masumi Mukai welcomes. She thinks the left “will need to ‘create’ our power to address international issues properly rather than to keep saying ‘No to the government.’ We will need to learn more and propose more on our own.” More conservative commentators see a similar potential. Hidekazu Kawai, a professor at Gakushuin University told the Japan Times that “the enormous anticipation for change resulted in a snowball effect, a dangerously momentous snowball effect and the election showed people were “fed up.” The left’s job now is to turn that “momentous snowball effect” into action.

For Kenji Kunitomi, the task now is to “build real left alternative based on mass movement to the left of JCP and SDP and to seek broad alliance of left and progressive forces.”

The defeat of the much-hated Aso LDP administration may well give workers, students, unionists and others some much-needed extra confidence and determination as they approach that task.

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