A new day, a new PM
A collective sigh of relief from Japan watchers everywhere. After months of “will-he won’t-he” more suitable to a romantic comedy than national politics, the drawn-out charade over former Japanese PM Kan Naoto’s resignation has come to an end. Since announcing on June 2nd his intention to leave office, Kan’s premiership finally ended on August 26th. Taking his place is former Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko, the fiscal hawk with all the charisma of a 1000-yen note.
When Noda first announced his candidacy, some commentators anointed him as the best hope for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to establish a working relationship with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Kōmeitō. The basis for this assessment is, however, also the reason he is unlikely to last long as prime minister: he is unexceptional enough to cause too many problems with the opposition.
Since the trailblazing Koizumi Junichirō’s term ended in 2006, Japan has had a chain of leaders severely lacking in the charisma department. Even those such as Kan willing to take on vested interests have been hamstrung by their inability to gather much personal support. Kan made a valiant effort to subdue the Machiavellian Ozawa Ichirō’s faction within the DPJ, but that only hastened his downfall. The only way to take on the the malicious influence of ‘money politicians’ like Ozawa is by sheer force of personality. This Kan lacked in spades. Noda, too, seems to be no exception from the rule.
Noda has promised to raise the consumption tax to fund the disaster recovery operations and has supported free-market reforms to rescue Japan’s sluggish economy. His economic policy credentials are Noda’s strength, argues Aurelia George Mulgan, and possibly the harbinger of a revitalised Japanese economy.
Foreign affairs, though, are more of a worry. Noda holds doubts over the correctness of the Tokyo Trials, questioning whether Japan’s 28 Class-A war criminals should indeed be labelled war criminals. When asked whether as prime minister he would visit Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 of these men are enshrined, he responded that it would be a “possibility” (in Japanese here). This stance has understandably incensed Japan’s neighbours. A professor from Tsinghua University has called it “tantamount to having the viewpoint that Hitler wasn’t a war criminal.”
While certainly bad for regional relations, the effect of Noda’s position might prove immaterial if Japan cannot quickly resurrect itself from its fiscal quagmire. Historical revisionist politicians – which are far from an exception in Japan – provoke fear in Japan’s neighbours because of a perceived return to Japanese militarism. If the economic woes continue, however, whatever the prime minister’s historical views, China will be watching contentedly as Japan fades from its position of regional power. Any criticism of the Yasukuni position will be merely rhetorical.
Taking the reins of a country burdened with the world’s highest public debt, not to mention a massive disaster recovery operation, is an assignment only a few would wish to be burdened with. We can only hope that Noda is up to the task.