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Continuity for Japan's Government

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
September 14, 2010

Continuity for Japan's Government - continuity-for-japans-government

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Yesterday's contest for the presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) endorsed the continued leadership of Japan's sitting prime minister, Naoto Kan. Fending off a challenge by DPJ's former Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa, Kan won across the board in all three of the party's membership groups: national Diet members, local legislators, and party members/supporters. Kan will now lead his party, and thus Japan's government, until September 2012, suggesting--finally--some continuity in Japanese governance.

The contest was initially seen as a distraction by a Japanese public impatient for policy leadership from its new ruling party. After a sweeping victory in the Lower House elections last fall, the DPJ stumbled badly in its first attempt to govern Japan. Its leadership, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Ozawa, found itself embroiled in "money and politics" scandals, and the government's inability to identify its priorities and present a unified voice in presenting its policy goals caused deep public misgivings about the party's ability to lead Japan.

This was clearly evident in the devastating outcome of the July Upper House elections, where the DPJ had long sought a majority. The party's internal divisions were particularly noticeable on the campaign stump, where Ozawa openly challenged Kan's version of the DPJ's policy priorities. The contest for yesterday's leadership election, therefore, began some time ago.

The details of the vote count matter. Leading into the vote, the general impression was that Kan would lead amongst party members and supporters, as well as among regional DPJ elected representatives. Less clear was whether or not the prime minister could carry a majority of Diet members. He did, but only by a margin of six. That leaves open the question of how to move forward as a unified force.

Unlike Ozawa, Prime Minister Kan advocates a team approach to leadership, and he promised in his campaign to include all the talent of the DPJ's 411 elected representatives. He will reshuffle not only the Cabinet but also the critical leadership positions in the party. It is in this process that he will need to resolve the question of Ozawa's future role. Ozawa gracefully announced in the aftermath of the vote that he is now "a soldier" in the DPJ's army, yet he also said this in June, when he stepped down as secretary general.

The DPJ has to move expeditiously and purposefully into governing mode. Tolerance for any further divisiveness has evaporated, and this may be the final test of Japan's new party to get their act together as an effective government. The policy agenda is huge--beginning with the economy, of course, and the various impacts of the steady rise in value of the yen, as well as the longer term challenge of providing a sound fiscal basis for Japan's aging society. But Japan also has a broad strategic challenge that must be addressed: China seems to be bent on testing Japanese resolve and pushing Japan into a reactive mode in the current tensions over the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the waters off of the contested islands of the Senkakus (Daiyutai).

Beyond this long list of pressing policy demands, steady and consistent leadership is what Japan needs most. Giving the DPJ's next generation of leaders the experience and the responsibility of governance may be Team Kan's most significant priority.

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