Tokyo Notes

Kan Clears Joker From Deck

Was Japanese Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida fired over last week’s gaffe? And will more heads roll?

Japanese Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida, an unwelcome joker in the Kan Cabinet deck, stepped down Monday after playing a terrible hand in office.

Yanagida resigned after a tactless remark in a speech last week in which he stated that his job was easy, a gaffe that handed his opponents an easy stick with which to beat him and the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

The Liberal Democratic Party was quick to seize the opportunity to attack the government, and had a non-binding censure motion up its sleeve to play against the minister had he not stepped down. The largest opposition party also threatened to boycott debate on a 4.4 trillion yen ($53 billion) stimulus package (delaying the economic fillip until mid-December) if Yanagida was not defenestrated.

Yanagida reportedly wanted to hang on to his job to oversee reform of the prosecution system after a recent scandal, but told the media that he resigned after speaking with Kan because of the ‘need to pass the extra budget as soon as possible for the sake of people’s livelihoods.’

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If this is true, it looks very much as if the prime minister effectively fired Yanagida. But with Kan and his lieutenants (notably Democratic Party of Japan No. 2 Katsuya Okada) procrastinating on a decision for the best part of a week, Kan’s aptitude to lead will likely be called into question once more. And while it’s right that Yanagida is pulled from the Cabinet table, the timing suggests the prime minister was bowing to opposition pressure in the (hopeful) assumption it will play ball in getting the stimulus passed quickly.

In a bid to boost his Cabinet, Kan pulled in Yoshito Sengoku, the government spokesman, to serve as a caretaker justice minister. But while Sengoku is seen as a safe pair of hands (he’s even seen by some as pulling the government’s strings), he has also been under fire recently. The LDP submitted a (failed) no-confidence motion against Sengoku last week to hold him responsible for a leak of footage of the now infamous collision in the East China Sea.

Later in the week, Kan’s right-hand man also appeared to drop a clanger in the Diet by describing Japan’s Self-Defence Forces as an ‘instrument of violence’–a phrase traditionally used by peacenik leftists who believe that Japan shouldn’t possess a de facto army. But given Sengoku’s socialist background, his seamless delivery and cool apology appeared to be manufactured to test the reaction of the house at a time of much debate regarding the future identity and role of the SDF.

While the foundations of Kan’s Cabinet may be portrayed in the press as being as shaky as a house of cards, it’s still standing (albeit with an approval rating of 26 percent in Mainichi poll reported Monday). And sensationalist speculation that there might be a domino effect of ministers falling one after another seems misplaced given that much of the criticism it receives is speculative politicking from the opposition.

Once the stimulus is passed, the government will be able to start drawing up a new budget for the next fiscal year, beginning April 1. The LDP will undoubtedly try its usual negative tactics to try to delay this key budget in a bid to force Kan to go to the ballot box early to win a mandate afresh.

Such a snap election is unlikely anytime soon, given that the LDP lags the DPJ in many polls and the fact that the DPJ has such a thumping majority in the lower house. Yet Yanagida’s gaffe should serve as a reminder to Kan and his Cabinet ministers to play things a little more cautiously.