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Yet another Premier

Print edition : Oct 07, 2011 T+T-
Yoshihiko Noda (left) with outgoing Prime Minister Naoto Kan (centre) and Trade Minister Banri Kaieda in Tokyo on August 29. Noda defeated Kaieda in the run-off vote.-

Yoshihiko Noda (left) with outgoing Prime Minister Naoto Kan (centre) and Trade Minister Banri Kaieda in Tokyo on August 29. Noda defeated Kaieda in the run-off vote.-

Factionalism in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan helps Yoshihiko Noda become the country's new Prime Minister.

THE Japanese people, still reeling from the after-effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, have yet again witnessed a leadership change at the top. On August 30, they got a new Prime Minister when the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) elected Yoshihiko Noda its leader, replacing Naoto Kan, who was in office for the past 14 months.

Noda, 54, is the sixth politician to hold the Prime Minister's office in the past five years. The Finance Minister in the outgoing Cabinet, he defeated Banri Kaieda, the Trade Minister. Kaieda lost in the second round, despite being backed by DJP strongman Ichiro Ozawa. Five candidates, including Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, contested in the first round, splitting the votes and therefore necessitating a run-off. Maehara, who has high public approval ratings, stood third in the first round, winning 74 votes. Kaieda got 143 votes and Noda 102 in the preliminary round. Noda turned the tables in the second round by garnering the support of party factions opposed to Ozawa.

The DPJ is a loose conglomeration of factions, which are divided on core domestic and foreign policy issues. The contest for the party's leadership showed that the party remains sharply polarised. Noda, a black belt in judo, will need all his combative skills to stay in office for a longer period than his immediate predecessors.

In order to settle intra-party rifts, Noda has appointed a close confidant of Ozawa's, Azuma Koshiishi, as the secretary-general of the DJP. A recent survey by a leading Japanese newspaper showed that only 9 per cent of the people wanted Noda as the Prime Minister.

Kan's ouster

Naoto Kan took a long time to leave despite losing the confidence of his party in June this year. Kan's domestic approval rating had plunged mainly on account of the public dissatisfaction over the government's handling of the nuclear disaster. The recovery efforts that the government had implemented after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have not been able to put the country back on track. Many people affected by the catastrophe are still living in makeshift camps. There are serious power shortages as the government has shut down many of the country's ageing nuclear plants. Radiation levels continue to be high in and around Fukushima. Kan had described the Fukushima disaster as the worst crisis the country had faced since the end of the Second World War.

In July, Kan announced the Japanese government's decision to phase out nuclear energy. He had earlier ordered the shutdown of the controversial Hamaoka nuclear reactor situated near Tokyo. But many of his own Cabinet Ministers immediately undercut his position by openly saying that Kan's views on the phasing out of the nuclear power industry were his own and not government policy. Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power stations were providing one-third of Japan's total electricity requirements.

In his first statement after being elected, Noda declared that nuclear power was essential for the well-being of the Japanese economy and that restarting three-quarters of the country's 54 reactors, which had been shut down for safety inspections, would be his immediate priority. Local communities are against the reopening of the old nuclear plants.

Kan became Prime Minister in June 2010 after the ouster of Yukio Hatoyama. Hatoyama was the man credited with engineering the DPJ's landslide victory in the 2009 elections, ending the long-term monopoly of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over Japanese politics.

Okinawa base

One of Hatoyama's main campaign planks was the termination of the United States' military basing facilities on the island of Okinawa, located on the southern tip of Japan. He had started the eviction process when he was stabbed in the back by prominent leaders in his own party. The Barack Obama administration, angered by Hatoyama's position on the Futenma base in Okinawa, also signalled that it wanted a change of guard at the top. Washington had refused to negotiate with Tokyo on the issue of vacating the Okinawa base.

It must never happen that we accept the existing plan, Hatoyama had said, referring to a 2006 agreement with the U.S. according to which the Futenma base would be shifted to a coastal area on the island by 2014. The U.S. had also agreed to relocate 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam. But the Okinawans demanded that the base be moved lock, stock and barrel from the island, which is far away from the country's main population centres.

After Hatoyama was forced to renege on his pledge to start serious negotiations on the relocation of the Okinawa base, his domestic popularity ratings plummeted from 70 per cent to a dismal 17 per cent at the time he quit office.

Kevin Maher, a senior U.S. State Department official who until earlier this year was in charge of America's Japan policy, has warned that the U.S. will not reduce its troop presence in Japan unless the government there agrees to relocate the American base within Okinawa. Half of the 47,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa. Maher had to quit his U.S. State Department post after he allegedly made disparaging comments about Okinawans. Maher, who was in Japan in August to promote his book The Japan That Can't Decide, was very critical of the Japanese government's handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. After the earthquake, the focus quickly shifted to the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant and it was very clear to me as coordinator of the task force that no one was in charge. No one in the Japanese political system was willing to say, I am going to take responsibility and make decisions', he told the media.

The U.S. considers the Okinawa base as one of its key bases worldwide. It has more than 700 bases located in 130 countries around the world. Now with friendly governments in Libya and South Sudan, the numbers could go up in the near future.

The rising tensions in the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea over disputed islands have made Japanese policymakers insecure. Minor incidents between the Chinese and Japanese naval units in the past couple of years have swayed public opinion outside Okinawa in favour of continued close security relationship with the U.S.

The newly appointed Defence Minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, said that Japan would restart negotiations with the U.S. on relocating the Okinawa base on the basis of the 2006 agreement. This means that the U.S. military base will remain in Okinawa. Ichikawa is a close associate of Ozawa. During Ozawa's leadership challenge to Kan last year, he had said that he wanted the U.S. base out of Okinawa.

The U.S. has installed anti-missile defence systems in Japan and provides a nuclear umbrella for the country. After the Second World War, the U.S. has become the guarantor of Japanese security. Before leaving office, Hatoyama had hazarded a prediction: Someday the time will come when Japan's peace will have to be ensured by the Japanese people themselves.

Ozawa and his supporters want Japan to have a closer and cordial relationship with neighbouring China while maintaining the traditional security links with the U.S. Noda, on the other hand, is a vocal proponent of even closer strategic and military ties with the U.S. He has described the alliance with America as the greatest asset the country has. China is Japan's biggest trading partner.

Even while expressing a desire to forge stronger links with China, Noda described the neighbouring country as a potential threat and warned that it might take provocative action against Japan.

Japan's neighbours are also not happy with the new Prime Minister's glorification of Japanese Class-A war criminals, convicted for crimes against peace during the Second World War. Noda is a regular visitor to the Yasukuni shrine which honours them as well as other Japanese killed in the War. However, after he was elected Prime Minister, he has refrained from visiting the shrine. Previous visits by serving Prime Ministers in the last decade had infuriated the Chinese and Korean people, leading to protests outside Japanese embassies and consulates. The last Prime Minister to visit the Yasukuni shrine was Junichiro Koizumi, just before he stepped down from office in 2006.

The fiscally conservative Noda seems all set to carry out an austerity drive to tackle the growing economic crisis in the country. In late August, the international rating agency Moody's had downgraded Japan's credit rating from Aa2 to Aa3, which is below that of Spain and Italy, which are also engulfed in a debt crisis. Japan has a huge public debt of $12.2 trillion.

Noda has indicated that the unpopular consumption tax will be further increased to finance the reconstruction of areas ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami. The other major factions in the DPJ led by Ozawa and Hatoyama want the government to implement a stimulus package to revive the economy and, at the same time, increase social spending. A major promise of the DJP during the 2009 election campaign was to increase social spending.