Thursday, June 10, 2010

Seven might be the lucky number

 Japan’s new Prime Minister Naoto Kan has made a good start in reviving the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. He has pledged policy continuity, consultations with bureaucratic experts, and confirmed to President Obama that he is committed to honoring the controversial Marine Corps Air Station Futenma relocation agreement. Key cabinet posts have gone to politicians who emphasize fiscal discipline. 

Further, Kan wanting to project a clean image and recover public confidence in the DPJ, acted swiftly to remove the influence of former Party Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa. His party and cabinet appointments represent a clean sweep for the “Seven Magistrates*,” an outspoken anti-Ozawa DPJ group of legislators. Most are well known to American policymakers and are generally more socially conservative than their predecessors.

Former Position
New Position
Seiji Maehara
Transportation Minister
Transportation Minister
Katsuya Okada
Foreign Minister
Foreign Minister
Yoshihiko Noda
Senior Vice Foreign Minister
Finance Minister
Koichiro Gemba
Lower House Finance Committee Chairman
DPJ Policy Research Committee
Yukio Edano
Fmr. DPJ Policy Research Committee Chairman
DPJ Secretary-General
Yoshito Sengoku
State Minister for National Policy
Chief Cabinet Secretary
Shinji Tarutoko
Lower House Environment Committee Chairman
DPJ Diet Affairs Chief

[Seiji Maehara is one of the seven instead of Kozo Watanabe, Fmr. Lower House Vice-Speaker, who was the DPJ elder who gathered together seven up-and-coming young DPJ leaders in 2003 and named the group after the old Seven Magistrates of the Takeshita faction back in the late 1980's. So while he's listed as a group member [the eighth and the leader] on the Wikipedia page, he's not one of the seven referred to in the group's name. Ironically, Ozawa was one of the original Seven Magistrates.]

At his June 8th news conference emphasized Japan’s economic and social malaise. He said that “the role of politics is to minimize factors that will make the people of Japan or the people of the world miserable, i.e. to build a "society with the least misery.” He noted that the economy has remained sluggish and over 30,000 people have committed suicide yearly. Kan acknowledged that there has been a growing sense of despair in society and Japan as a whole, finds itself being overcome by a sense of distress. He wants “to rebuild Japan from the ground and make it a more vigorous country.”

The public has responded positively. A series of spot polls by the news media carried out over the weekend find that not only does the public have high expectations of the new prime minister at levels similar to that of then Prime Minister Hatoyama last September – a median of 60% -- it is also pleased with Ozawa having resigned – over 80%.  The DPJ’s support rate has jumped in the polls to around 30% or higher, while the opposition LDP’s support rate has dropped or stayed low in the 14 to 16% range mostly.

Kan’s background as a grass-roots civic activist and son of working-class family is similar in many ways to the experience of President Obama. There should be a potential synergy between the two leaders. He has a strong reformist reputation, such as his desire to remove the excessive influence of the bureaucracy on policy by returning decisionmaking to the political level. Yet, he seems to be a pragmatist who will seek consensus on complex, tough policy issues. 

To the relief of many in Washington, Kan said at his news conference that his government will tap the expertise and experience of bureaucrats. "It's a mistake to think that bureaucrats can be completely removed from the policymaking process," he said. "I would like to create a cabinet that capitalizes on the knowledge and experience of bureaucrats by building a strong relationship with them." This is a distinct shift from his predecessor's effort to eliminate their influence in policymaking.

He admittedly has little foreign and security policy experience, nor any apparent advisers on such matters. This makes it likely that the two holdovers, Foreign Minister Okada and Defense Minister Kitazawa, will continue to guide foreign and defense policies. Their retention in the cabinet should assure U.S. policymakers. 

Kan says he will honor the new Futenma agreement with the U.S. His handling of this tar-baby issue, however, still has the potential to make or break his administration. Implementation of the agreement will be fiercely resisted at the local level, as with previous iterations of the relocation plan, and the SDP, which bolted the coalition over Futenma, is bound to continue to make mischief in order to force the agreement to fail.

In great part of the fury in Okinawa at Prime Minister Hatoyama was due to a sense of personal betrayal, that he reneged on his own campaign pledge to move the Futenma base “at least outside the prefecture.” Kan has never made such a pledge and can point to the fact that both the LDP and the DPJ have now signed off on transferring Futenma to Henoko in his discussions with local opponents in Okinawa. Some, like Nago mayor Susumu Inamine, are clearly committed to opposing the relocation. If Kan and the U.S. discuss publicly pursuing some form of burden relief for Okinawans, he may be able to diffuse the situation.

Kan has completely reshuffled the party executive while keeping on 11 members of the cabinet.  What is striking about the youthful new appointees (most in their 40s) is not only their talent and capabilities, as well as ardor for reform, but also the conscious effort by Kan to distance the government and party from the influence of Ichiro Ozawa, as seen for example in the elevation of Yoshito Sengoku to chief cabinet secretary. Yet, the appointment of Shinji Tarutoko, marginally a member of the Seven Magistrates and who is reportedly close to Ozawa and now head of the Diet Affairs in the DPJ keeps an important tie to the exiled election boss.

Yukio Edano, the forceful new DPJ secretary general, and the articulate Koichiro Genba, chairman of the revived Policy Research Council in the party and minister in charge of civil service reform are both members of pro-alliance Seiji Maehara’s group in the party.  This team has the potential to get things done, in contrast to the bickering and internal divisiveness that marked the eight months of the Hatoyama cabinet. With PM press conferences to be kept to a minimum and a strong hand managing the Cabinet, a unified message may now be possible.

Prime Minister Kan in launching his new cabinet and party faces an eroded image of Japan as rudderless and apparently policy-less. He is the fourth prime minister in as many years. Perhaps that is why Kan is reportedly seeking an early summit meeting with President Obama as a means to restore the “trust relationship” that Japanese leaders aspire to with U.S. counterparts, confirm the importance of the “alliance of equals,” as one U.S. official puts it, and boost his diplomatic credentials in the eyes of the Japanese and the international community.

At least, that would be a good start. Although domestic concerns dominate Kan’s agenda, he is advised to establish a foreign policy “vision” to serve as a set of guidelines. Just as Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa established the Higuchi Commission to examine national defense strategy, Kan may want to consider doing the same. Such a report could finally take Japan and its new ruling party into the 21st century.

William Brooks, APP Senior Fellow
Mindy Kotler, APP Director
And special thanks to Conrad Chaffee, former APP research assistant

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