Naoto Kan's first few months as Japan's prime minister have been as sticky as the gooey rice cakes that again choked several pensioners to death over the recent New Year's holidays.
The press and a bloodthirsty opposition have pummelled Kan over perceived leadership deficiencies. Perhaps heeding this criticism, on Tuesday he set out an ambitious agenda for the new ‘Year of the Rabbit.’ The question now, though, is whether the beleaguered premier can deliver and win back a public that's tiring of his Democratic Party of Japan-led administration.
At a televised press conference yesterday, Kan set out three principles to guide his government—the 'opening up' of the country; the minimisation of adversity in society; and the correction of absurdities of today's politics.
His first stated principle alludes to Japan's emergence in the mid-19th century from more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. But more pertinently today, it concerns his determination for Japan to enter free trade agreements, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with its trading partners. While only Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore have joined the TPP to date, nations such as Australia and the United States are in negotiations to join. South Korea, a country that has overtaken a typically procrastinating Japan to sign deals with America and the European Union, is also considering membership.
Kan said that Japan should make its stance clear by June. But he faces several obstacles to membership, notably from Japan's overprotected agricultural lobby. Votes in rural areas often carry a heavier electoral weight than urban votes and for years, Liberal Democratic Party regimes pandered to farmers through pork-barrelled clientelism. This made the sector highly unproductive and in need of defensive policies.
Kan needs to stand his ground and push to open Japan's markets up to outsiders, while at the same time finding ways to help the nation’s aging farmers adapt to new trading conditions. Overcoming this resistance will be tough, but the striking of new trade deals would provide Kan with a lasting legacy.
His second principle of minimising adversity is clearly aimed at securing revenue to help pay Japan's soaring pension bills and other social security costs stemming from the country's demographic conundrum.
At the press conference, Kan said there was a need to discuss tax reform, notably a possible consumption tax hike. The mainstream media attributed the DPJ's loss of its upper house majority in July to a remark by Kan prior to the poll that he was considering raising consumption tax—pre-election suicide. However, the public's apparent umbrage with Kan's comment seems a little misplaced given that the LDP had practically the same idea for rebuilding the nation's finances.
It’s clear that the government needs to rejig the tax system. It's unsustainable to rely more on bond issuances than tax receipts (as Japan will do for the second consecutive year in fiscal 2011) to pay for state expenditure. With other (barely mentioned in the press) options available, such as increasing income tax or finding alternative revenue sources, the government would be wise not to focus solely on consumption tax and look at the bigger picture.
This brings us to Kan's third stated principle: correcting the absurdities of politics.
With opposition parties able to maliciously asphyxiate the passage of bills in the upper house, and the government coalition short of the two-thirds majority in the lower house needed to bulldoze bills through the Diet, the government is struggling to implement legislation.
In his speech on Tuesday, Kan stated he wanted to overcome this incongruity through closer cooperation with the opposition parties. It’s doubtful, however, that the LDP will be compliant, especially as its lawmakers are refusing to enter Diet debates while Yoshito Sengoku, the government's top spokesman, remains in the Cabinet.
Kan also called for the eradication of 'money politics.' While corruption has overshadowed many post-war governments, this comment was clearly a dig at Ichiro Ozawa, a former party leader who has been filling Kan's boots with sand throughout his premiership. Kan went on to urge Ozawa to resign and concentrate on an upcoming indictment over a shady funding scandal.
With other issues such as a rambunctious China and the relocation of a contentious US airbase also on his plate, Kan has a lot to chew on over the coming months.
He now has to stand by his principles and convince the public he's not a choker.