Knives Out (Again) in Japan

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Knives Out (Again) in Japan

Naoto Kan’s days as premier look numbered, says veteran Japan watcher Karel van Wolferen. But who comes next is much less clear.

What did you make of the memo agreed between Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Yukio Hatoyama arranging for Kan to step down, once ‘certain actions’ have taken place, in return for support in fending off a no-confidence motion?

It was quite clear that if a significant segment of the Democratic Party of Japan had joined the opposition by voting in favour of the no-confidence motion, this would have meant the end of the Kan Cabinet. It would also almost certainly have split the party.

Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama had been virtually excluded by Kan, and their policy input, which had been so important from the founding of the party onward, was as good as being ignored. A dejected Ozawa, who saw the best chance for genuine political reform slipping away, had been contemplating another option for realizing what he had worked for since 1993. His idea was to take those loyal to him – roughly half the DPJ members of parliament – out of the party and seek an alliance with other reformist minded groups, including bits and pieces of the gradually disintegrating Liberal Democratic Party.

To save the party for the time being, Kan had to be given an opportunity to give up the prime ministership without too great a loss of face, and without having to suffer the indignity of being ousted by a no-confidence motion. The compromise memo about Kan stepping down after a number of bills related to post-calamity recovery have been passed was an obvious choice for the ruling party politicians who still hope to be able to patch things up, and who wanted to avoid any risk of Kan fighting his way out from under a no-confidence vote by calling for a general election.

Pressure seems still to be mounting on Kan to step down. How much longer do you think he can hold on?

There’s no question that those party members who have supported the compromise memo will expect him to step down some time in July. Kan would lose even more support from those who had earlier lined up behind him, as the assessment that he wasn’t handling the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami well enough has become pretty widespread throughout party ranks.

Who do you think is likely to succeed him?

As far as I know, the succession is up in the air. And it’s a difficult issue. Very much unlike changes from one prime minister to another when the LDP was in charge, the person who forms a DPJ cabinet is expected to come up with genuine policy adjustments, and to try to implement those. What the first DPJ cabinet under Hatoyama (with Ozawa very much behind it) was trying to do, in line with the original party thinking and policy programmes, was being sabotaged by several groups of career officials in various ministries. Important also was that Washington reacted strongly to the intentions of the new government to work towards a more independent Japan, which could at the least take initiatives for better relations with China and greater involvement in regional East Asia projects. Hatoyama was brought down by the machinations that followed. Kan, making sure that this wouldn’t happen to him, adopted a much more servile attitude toward the United States, a stance that if continued, would undoubtedly have long-term repercussions.

The candidate being pushed forward by those who are now running the show, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, isn’t likely to heal the rift in the party, as he’s more of a throwback to the old style politics of policy subservience to the career officials. This can clearly be seen by the way he has followed Kan in bowing to the ideologically inspired policy programme of the Ministry of Finance. Especially in the context of what ought to happen with post-disaster reconstruction, which as many have commented is simultaneously an opportunity for significant economic rejuvenation, this choice would be unfortunate. Opportunistic politicians, who weren’t a part of the original impulse for fundamental political reform, have risen through the ranks to high positions, and if their influence prevails the DPJ will become an LDP-like party incapable of providing new, politically inspired, responses to the changing circumstances that required a new kind of government to begin with.

There's been talk about a grand coalition. What do you make of this idea?

A grand coalition would make it easier for important bills relating to the reconstruction effort to pass. But whether it’s likely to come about, and whether it would in fact be a feasible arrangement for any length of time, depends on lots of circumstances that at the moment aren’t yet predictable. Ozawa has long played with the idea of a grand coalition in which the most capable politicians would team up to bring about a credible rearrangement of political forces at the top, dealing with Japan's weaknesses stemming from the absence of a centre capable of carrying out genuine initiatives.

Polls show the government is unpopular, with large percentages of the public critical of its handling of the crisis. Can you see the DPJ recovering its popularity in time for the next election?

Not if there’s insubstantial change after Kan. We must remember that the Japanese electorate brought the DPJ to power because it believed that the policies it said it stood for were long overdue. A beginning with those policies has been made; and it’s unlikely that Japanese politics will revert to quite the same as they were under the LDP. But the number one problem for further developments in this vein is the power of embedded interests that are essentially fighting for the preservation of status quo politics.

Japan's main newspapers, which have always had an extraordinary influence on creating Japan's political reality, are at best extremely ambivalent about the fundamental rearrangements that are necessary. And because Ozawa has been the single biggest threat to Japan's political status quo for the past 18 years, the editors have, together with the public prosecutor, led a character assassination campaign with regular flare-ups, which has been quite successful.

But from what I understand about recent public sentiment, another attempt at setting out what the DPJ was meant to do, very much guided by the original reformist forces of the party and the younger members who have learned from them, could create another surge of popularity. That is, if the big newspapers allow it to happen.


Karel van Wolferen is Emeritus University Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of numerous books, including ‘The Enigma of Japanese Power’. His website in English is karelvanwolferen.com