Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Yoshihiko Noda’s Vision for Japan

There is a strong tendency in Washington and other capitals to believe prominent Japanese politicians, who are skilled at telling you what you want to hear, are strong international players, while unfamiliar figures are not.

The foreign media in particular seem to dislike the humility of Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, who described himself as a loach fish during his leadership campaign, and portray him as lacking vision and leadership.

The fact is the new Democratic Party of Japan prime minister and his foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, are experienced politicians, having both been elected for the first time in 1993. Their performance since the DPJ took office in September 2009 suggests they are both capable and intelligent operators.

Noda starts his tenure after two DPJ prime ministers damaged the party’s political relationships with the bureaucracy, business executives and many interest group leaders, which has prevented effective policy making.

After losing control of the upper house, the DPJ must now negotiate with opposition parties to make any legislative progress. A humble approach at this juncture could be a huge political asset. The Japanese public would welcome a bit of political humility and Japanese political culture would certainly benefit from it.

Coping with the strong yen is a pressing political concern. Noda has decided to provide financial support to Japanese businesses and to launch a new economic strategy council composed of top figures from business federations and labor unions and the president of the Bank of Japan. His next task is to gain international understanding of the Japanese currency situation.

Raising taxes to fund reconstruction after the March earthquake and tsunami is another priority. The majority of Japanese voters accept the need for purpose-oriented taxes, but not an increase of the consumption tax.

The need for a revamp of energy policy — reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear power and increasing renewable energy — is another issue of contention. Although a law requiring energy companies to buy all renewable energy at the government-mandated price has been approved, a nationwide consensus on the nuclear issue has yet to be reached. Noda declared in his first press remarks his desire to not construct new nuclear plants and to gradually close aging reactors. This approach matches the public mood. According to polls, the immediate suspension of all reactors is a minority view.

The key to a successful foreign and security policy is to take steady steps toward reinforcing relations with Washington and capitals in Asia and the Pacific. In the current atmosphere of Japanese politics, voters will not welcome new or drastic shifts in foreign policy strategy and will punish diplomatic incompetence. The Noda administration is unlikely to increase the defense budget or reinterpret the Constitution. While it might dispatch Self-Defense Forces for peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, Japan will focus on regional stability and US-Japanese relations.

There are no signs of rapprochement with China. The idea of an East Asian Community floated by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has dissipated. The US base relocation issue in Okinawa is unlikely to prove the political liability it was in the recent past, so long as Washington’s frustration is kept private.

On the other hand, there could be a shift on military technology transfer. The new defense minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, has already revealed his support for reviewing Japan’s “Three Principles on Arms Export,” which most bureaucrats and specialists also support. Ichikawa, however, is in no hurry to push the review forward. Although there is minor party opposition, public opinion supports a review and this could pave the way for the joint development of weapons systems. A final decision might be made within a year.

There are difficulties ahead on trade policy. The government must confront its commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership before the Honolulu APEC summit meeting. There are divided opinions in the new cabinet. The public appears unwilling to accept the deep liberalization of Japanese markets. The March earthquake has intensified worries about the strength of Japanese agriculture and industry.

This sentiment militates against change, and disagreement on the issue within the cabinet will make the Noda administration hesitant to make firm decisions on trade. The media and commentators will target Noda if he vacillates.

Yet if Noda himself shows commitment to liberalization and pushes the issue, especially in the context of the new national growth strategy, he could well bring the nation behind him.

Japan has long had a strong desire for a leader with resolve and a sense of responsibility. The test of Noda’s unexpected premiership will be not whether his policy approach makes a lot of sense, but whether his humble style in fact allows him to deliver the leadership the country still craves.

East Asia Forum

By Ryo Sahashi associate professor of international politics at Kanagawa University in Japan and a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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