Japan's New Prime Minister
August 29, 2011
Q1: Who is Japan’s new prime minister?
A1: Yoshihiko Noda won the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) presidential race today by defeating Trade Minister Banri Kaieda in a runoff after none of the five candidates secured a majority in the first round. He is set to be named prime minister on August 30. Noda has a relatively low profile among the Japanese public but is well respected among Japanese politicians, officials, and business leaders. As finance minister under Naoto Kan, he has championed pragmatic steps to put Japan’s economy back on track, including support for trade liberalization (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP) and fiscal steps, including consumption tax increases, to deal with an aging society and mounting debt. His positions on foreign policy and defense are generally center-right. His father was a member of the Ground Self-Defense Forces, and he has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance. At the same time, he is known as a good listener and is less ideological than some other pro-defense Diet members of his generation. For these reasons, he is expected to work on quiet diplomatic resolutions to territorial disputes with Japan’s neighbors.
Q2: Why did Naoto Kan step down?
A2: Japan has had five prime ministers since the popular Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006 after serving over five years in the job. The main reason for this rapid turnover and Kan’s own resignation is voters’ growing angst over the stagnant Japanese economy. When the DPJ swept into power in 2009 under Yukio Hatoyama, there was great hope for change, but the DPJ’s lack of experience, poor governance, and unrealistic populism brought down Hatoyama within a year. Kan tried to move in a more pragmatic direction, but he was continually hobbled by the party’s lack of internal decisionmaking mechanisms and by the influence of Ichiro Ozawa, the former party boss who criticized Kan’s performance and maintains a faction of over 100 DPJ Diet members, despite his suspension from the party earlier this year after being indicted in a funding scandal. Kan was about to step down when the triple earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster struck on March 11 and the public’s need for leadership kept him in place. However, dissatisfaction with Kan only mounted, and he stepped down with low double-digit support.
Q3: Does it matter who is next?
A3: The next prime minister is widely viewed as a caretaker. The Diet is paralyzed between the DPJ-controlled lower house and the upper house controlled by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Younger members in both the ruling DPJ and the opposition LDP are growing restless for change. The public’s attitude toward politicians and the Diet in Japan is as bad as the American public’s view of the U.S. Congress. Most political analysts are betting that Noda will be out in a year too, given the insurmountable political and economic challenges he faces. The paralysis in Japanese politics reflects the weakness of the DPJ as a governing party and the residual unpopularity of the LDP. The DPJ will almost certainly lose the next general election, which has to be called by the summer of 2013. The betting is that there will have to be a major shake-up in Japanese politics, a realignment that brings together the 60 percent or so of Diet members who agree on a program of reform and opening but are now scattered between the DPJ and the LDP. That is not a certainty, however.
Meanwhile, it does matter that Noda won. His main rival, Banri Kaieda, was a competent manager of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and an internationalist, with slight leanings toward Beijing but no hostility toward the U.S.-Japan alliance. However, in order to win support, Kaieda turned to Ozawa, who in turn forced Kaieda to retreat from his support for TPP and to support the DPJ’s original 2009 promises of economic redistribution contained in the party’s original “Manifesto.” Kaieda’s personal policy instincts are good, but the Ozawa factor would have constrained him and accelerated his unpopularity with the public. The other major candidate, former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, still had a small whiff of scandal of his own since he was forced to resign as foreign minister in March 2011 over revelations his office had received political donations from a non-Japanese citizen. He also tried to win support from Ozawa, a move that did not play well with reformers within the DPJ. Maehara has always favored robust foreign and defense policies for Japan and is the most popular of the three leading candidates. His defeat saves him from the DPJ’s sinking fortunes in the near term and preserves him as a strong candidate for leading Japan under new political realignment in the future.
Noda’s quiet competence could be rewarded by the public if he begins to lead recovery from 3-11 in a way that Kan could not. Noda is also the most anti-Ozawa candidate in the field. His victory, which was not expected going into this DPJ race because he had advocated an unpopular consumption tax increase, shows that the party’s politicians are ready to support a clear alternative to either Ozawa or the LDP. Noda has pledged to work with the opposition on key legislation and boost unity within his party, an uphill battle but one he appears intent on fighting to end the logjam in Japanese politics.
Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director in the Office of the Japan Chair.
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