Japan's election this Sunday may be the first in its postwar history in which voters directly turn out a sitting government. For a parliamentary democracy that muddled along for decades under virtual one-party rule, this would be a political revolution, much like Mexico's ouster of its longtime ruling party, the PRI, in 2000.
But the expected winner, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), may also usher in a second revolution once it is firmly in control: Revising the country's close ties with the United States and shedding many postwar shackles in hopes of turning Japan into a "normal" nation – one that can say "no" to the US.
Despite having the world's second largest economy, Japan has been held back in becoming a global leader by a scarcity of real competition in its politics. Powerful bureaucracies have largely guided Japan in its main postwar goal – building a strong economy – while the US largely took care of Japan's defense. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled for most of the past 54 years, focused on getting reelected, relying on big yen from big business – thus the country's moniker "Japan Inc."
Now, after years of a stagnant economy, the normally risk-averse voters appear ready to break up this cozy system, as the opposition promises to do, ushering in a true two-party system with bureaucrats put under the firm control of elected officials.
The Japanese are worried about their job security – unemployment is nearing a postwar high – as well as the costs of an aging society and a huge national debt. Younger women are seeking more equality in society. Polls signal the DPJ will win about 300 seats in the powerful 480-seat lower house, with voter turnout likely to be unusually high. The party already won control of the weaker upper house in 2007.
Doubts remain, however, over whether the DPJ can overcome its internal divisions once in power and make good on its lofty campaign promises, such as paying parents nearly $3,300 a year for each child.
And it's unclear how much the DPJ would try to rewrite agreements with the US on the number and deployment of some 50,000 American soldiers in Japan. With China and North Korea posing a rising threat in East Asia, Japan may need the US defense umbrella more than ever.
But such questions are secondary to Japan's first invigorating its democracy with peaceful changes of government and more transparency and accountability for its leaders. The Japanese never had a popular revolution for democracy – the reformist samurai in the 19th century and then the Americans in 1945 imposed it.
Now voters may decide to shape the country more assertively and profoundly. While this enhanced democracy may diminish US interests – which include using Japan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" in Asia – there are long-term benefits to rooting Japan's future more deeply in the wishes of its people.