EDITOR'S NOTE: US policymakers should collaborate with Japan's new government on energy-related and economic issues, Sheila A. Smith writes. Smith is senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. For the full article, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:

On August 30, Japanese voters decided they are ready to entrust their government to an untested political party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After being in charge for almost half a century, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faced its first true challenge for power, and lost. But a DPJ victory was years in the making. After dealing a devastating blow to the LDP in the Upper House election in 2007, Japan's political newcomer set its sights on the prime minister's office. Opinion polls prior to the August 30 balloting revealed a rising level of support for a DPJ win, and in the cities and towns throughout Japan, an intense electoral battle was in full swing. Talk of this grand drama of postwar Japanese politics foreshadowed the end of an era, and in this narrative, the demise of the 1955 system's grand old dame is as significant as the emergence of the new ingenue.

The impact on Japan's diplomacy

Changes in governance practices will affect Japan's foreign policy. The DPJ argues for a more "equal" relationship with the United States, and this is a sentiment shared by many in Japan. More specifically, the DPJ has taken issue with how U.S. forces on Japanese soil are managed. They have called for a review in policies such as host nation support and a review of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States. The DPJ has also suggested it would end the refueling mission that its Maritime Self-Defense Force conducts in the Indian Ocean and amend the current plan to realign U.S. forces in Okinawa. More recently, party leaders have suggested the need to reconsider how U.S. nuclear forces would be allowed to operate in and around Japan.

The Obama administration will need to be patient. Political transitions take time, and Washington does not have much experience with the Japanese version. It will take the new DPJ government time to refine its foreign policy priorities. Likewise, it will be important for the DPJ to articulate the areas in which it wants to work with Washington. To date, it is only the DPJ's critiques of past alliance management practices that has garnered attention. Several issues will require immediate attention. The first is the ongoing effort to develop a regional approach to containing North Korea's efforts at nuclear proliferation. UN sanctions continue to put pressure on Pyongyang, but the longer-term task of denuclearization remains. A second ongoing challenge for Tokyo and Washington is the G20 effort to resuscitate the global economy. Japan's own economic recovery will be indispensable, but its continued activism in the area of global financial reform is also important. Finally, the UN-sponsored climate change summit in September and the Copenhagen convention in December suggest that Tokyo and Washington have much to gain from working more closely on climate change and energy issues. Japan's own technological advantage in this area, as well as its record of achievement in energy conservation, should provide ample opportunities for collaboration with the Obama administration.

The challenges ahead

The outcome of this election will not end Japan's effort at political reform, but it will usher in a new phase. With its victory at the poll, DPJ's success or failure at governance will have future electoral consequences. Several more elections will be required if Japan is to have a viable system for the regular transfer of power. Until the next Upper House election in 2010, the DPJ will have to tread carefully to sustain the coalition that allows it to shape that legislative body's views. Finally, just as the DPJ will need to become accustomed to governing, the LDP will need to become accustomed to being the party out of power.

This may sorely test the Japanese public's patience, but it will also test the patience of those outside Japan. Japan's laborious process of political transformation seems out of sync with the increasingly harsh pacing of global events. The ability to generate options for Japan, and the capacity to translate ideas into policy, will be key requirements for Japan's political leaders in the days and months ahead. But their most difficult challenges may not be found within. Rather, Japan's new government may find itself severely tested by events abroad, and thus it would do well to work quickly to develop the global and regional relationships that will sustain its vision of Japan's future.

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