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Japan’s Poisoned Chalice

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New Leaders Forum

Japan’s Poisoned Chalice

New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda faces a deeply divided party and dysfunctional system.

A confession: The bulk of this commentary was written before the Democratic Party of Japan held its presidential election. That shouldn’t matter, because the reasons that former Prime Minister Kan Naoto failed so miserably in his job will dog whoever is in office.

Newly-elected Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda must contend with a deeply divided party, a dysfunctional political system, and a public confounded by its choices. The triple catastrophe of March 11 was triggered by the unprecedented (yet predictable) confluence of natural disasters and human failings; Japan’s new prime minister faces an equally formidable ‘perfect storm’ of politics.  

There will be few regrets for Kan, a politician who took office 15 months ago with approval ratings of 65 percent and who exited last week with a mere 15 percent of the public behind him. That is a stunning reversal for a political activist who embodied many of the DPJ’s hopes, and who should have been able to muster the vision and energy to lead Japan out of its doldrums.

Of course, ‘should have’ isn’t enough. Kan’s tenure was crippled by the same problems that undermined the first DPJ government (even without the personal flaws of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama). While it’s improving, the DPJ government continues to have a rocky relationship with the bureaucrats who have experience in running the country. In retrospect, the historical political transition in 2009 was more difficult than anticipated: the DPJ knew less about the substance of issues and how to govern than most observers anticipated. Yet its readiness to attack bureaucrats alienated a key constituency and effectively prevented the new government from functioning.

The nature of the DPJ has contributed to the prime ministers’ difficulties. The party is deeply divided between factions loyal and opposed to kingmaker and former party president Ichiro Ozawa. Despite his recent troubles, Ozawa remains a powerful force in the DPJ, able to cause trouble and block programmes even if he can’t get his own agenda passed. The threat of him and his supporters leaving the party is ever-present.

But divisions in the DPJ transcend the simple divide between pro-and anti-Ozawa groups. The DPJ has, like the Liberal Democratic Party, members who span the political spectrum. Neither party has an ideological centre, and both have been opportunistic when it comes to platforms, moving to capture voters that lack a champion, regardless of policy consistency. This may make sense on a tactical level, but it confuses voters and contributes to growing cynicism and apathy among the electorate. It isn’t clear what either party stands for or believes in.

The DPJ’s troubles are compounded by the ‘take no prisoners’ mentality of the opposition. After the 2009 vote that brought the DPJ to power, a leading member of the LDP confided that his party ‘would enjoy being a bit irresponsible’ now. The record since then suggests they have an expansive definition of ‘a bit.’ Granted, the DPJ has made a hash of things, but the LDP has worked to make governing as difficult as possible. Politics is a competition, but the LDP’s zero-sum approach seems to have completely ignored any notion of national interest. The party seems focused on the destruction of the DPJ government, rather than compromise to get the nation back on its feet.

The greatest challenge for Noda is articulating a vision that can unite the country and lift it out of the swamp it now inhabits – a predicament that predated the triple catastrophe of March 11, but which has become more pressing since that fateful day. That’s difficult if not impossible when a prime minister can’t be sure that his own party is behind him and the opposition is going to torpedo those efforts regardless of merit. Energy is devoted to the day-to-day task of political survival, rather than resuscitating the country.

If Japan needs to chart a new course, then creativity is indispensable to fostering the vision needed to lift the country out of the doldrums. But in this political environment such creativity is instead a liability because it risks alienating important supporters.

All of these difficulties are magnified when the public doesn’t trust its leaders or the political system. That is perhaps the greatest tragedy because if nothing else, the events of March 11 have proven that the Japanese people retain an extraordinary capacity to endure great hardship and maintain the bonds of civility, respect and support for each other. Their quiet dignity and endurance in the face of the triple catastrophe have sobered and impressed the rest of the world.

Twice in their country’s modern history the Japanese people have rallied behind their leaders to change course and overcome pressing and seemingly insurmountable problems. All that’s lacking today is the vision and the leadership to rally them. No Japanese politician seems capable of providing either.

Good luck Mr Noda.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank that focuses on US foreign policy toward Asia.