from Asia Unbound

Kan’s Kiheitai-Japan’s Militia

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Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Issei Kato

On June 4, the national legislators of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gathered to select Naoto Kan as their party’s new leader, and thus as Japan’s new Prime Minister. Along with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Kan was one of the original founders of this new political force in Japanese politics. As Mr. Hatoyama’s first effort to turn an opposition party into a governing one collapsed, Naoto Kan soon emerged as the obvious successor. In accepting his party’s nomination, Kan seemed to understand that this moment would make or break the DPJ, and laid claim to hopes of many in Japan that the DPJ could actually turn its slogan of reform into a capacity to solve Japan’s complex  economic and social challenges.

Japan’s new prime minister quickly turned to those who had the skill set needed for the DPJ’s second chance at governance. The governance team was as important as his party leadership team. He picked as his Cabinet Secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, widely respected within the party as their leading policy wonk, and for his network of contacts within the bureaucracy. Sengoku’s intelligence was often on display in televised political debates, and he assumed the post Kan himself occupied, head of the National Strategy Council, when Kan moved into the Finance Minister’s job last year. He is deeply committed to reforming the institutions of governance, including drafting new guidelines for the more diminished role in policymaking assigned to Japan’s civil servants. He can also talk about the broad vision of DPJ social and domestic policy with great clarity and conviction.

The only person who can better articulate the DPJ’s agenda is Mr. Kan himself. Upon accepting the role of Japan’s prime minister, Kan delivered a clear statement of his views on the role of government, and on his own sense of purpose. For Kan the aim of government is “to create a society where pain and suffering are diminished as much as possible.” Poverty should be ameliorated, and war should be prevented. He then went on to talk about Japan’s inability to overcome its contemporary difficulties, and the lack of hope that makes 30,000 Japanese commit suicide each year. Japan’s stagnation, he argued, resulted from 20 years of economic confusion, and his goal is to bring back Japan’s vitality by rebuilding it from the bottom up.

Kan’s agenda is primarily domestic. His program is to focus on a troika of inter-related policy goals: to stimulate economic growth, to get Japan’s fiscal house in order, and to build the social welfare capacity that Japan’s aging society desperately needs. The suggestion here is that tax reform is coming soon, and that he wants to be aggressive about creating new economic growth opportunities.

On the foreign policy side, Kan very directly addressed the unease in Japan regarding the DPJ’s stance on the U.S.-Japan alliance. He clearly stated that the U.S.-Japan alliance was the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy, and then went on to add that he would abide by the May 28 U.S.-Japan agreement on relocating Futenma Marine Air Station. In parallel with that, he noted, he will work to ensure the reduction of the burden on the people of Okinawa Prefecture. Prime Minister Kan also understands that his country’s diplomacy with China is equally important to Japan’s future. Thus, while he has left no room for doubt as to the importance of the bilateral alliance, he continues to hew to the same policy stance as his predecessors when it comes to dealing with China.

When Kan introduced his new Cabinet, he obviously took great pride in his selection of Japan’s next generation political leaders. He will look to them for the success of his government, and indeed there were some relatively young faces in the group. Many of the members of the Hatoyama Cabinet – who are in their late 40s and early 50s -remained. Notable changes were his replacement at Finance, Yoshihiko Noda, a former Vice Minister and future party hopeful. He picked the telegenic and razor-sharp star of the budgetary hearings, Renho, as the next Administrative Reform minister, and he picked Masahiko Yamada, another former Vice Minister, to lead the Agriculture Ministry’s handling of the foot and mouth disease tragedy currently confronting Japan’s southern livestock farmers.

As important to the new leadership of the government is Kan’s selection of party leadership. The post of Secretary General went to the young reformer Yukio Edano, a much respected leader in the DPJ government’s initial efforts to rationalize government spending and institute reform of the civil service. One of the first things Mr. Edano did was to announce a policy of transparency for DPJ political contributions, suggesting the party would manage its internal affairs in a manner consistent with its efforts at governance. Another key person is Koichiro Genba who will head the Policy Affairs Committee of the party, a committee that was resurrected by Kan to lead the party’s internal policy deliberations. Genba will also have a Cabinet-level portfolio so as to bring internal party debate to the government policy conversation.

This rebirth of the DPJ government has created a striking boost in public support for the ruling party. While polling results vary by media, the Yomiuri Shimbun yesterday carried a detailed survey of public opinion that gave 64% support to the new Kan Cabinet. That is quite a bump up for a party that only garnered 19% of public support in the final days of the Hatoyama Cabinet just two weeks ago. Yet it doesn’t compare to the early support numbers for other recent Japanese Cabinets – 87% for Koizumi, 75% for Hatoyama, and 70% for Abe. Nonetheless, it is quite a recovery for a new party that was deeply wounded by its top leadership’s inability to translate the public confidence into a strong record of governance.

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