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From the ranks

Published : Jul 02, 2010 00:00 IST

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in Singapore

ONE may look at the portal of the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo as the revolving door of Japanese politics. Or as the remodelled threshold of possibly new-style political stability and administrative dynamism.

Either way, the spotlight on Japan's new Prime Minister, 63-year-old Naoto Kan, need not necessarily be short-lived. This possibility is heightened by an important reason. Unlike several of his predecessors, Kan has no political lineage to commend him for the post. He does not belong to any of the many political dynasties in post-imperial Japan's democratic order. Having begun his public career as a civic activist, he has risen to the helm in circumstances that almost defy description.

And these circumstances have nothing much to do with him at all beyond the coincidence of his succeeding four Prime Ministers, each of whom resigned or lost power after just a year or less at the summit. All these four leaders Yukio Hatoyama, Taro Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe in reverse chronological order of their terms in power brought with them their respective dynastic experience in high governance.

Before the processional entry and exit of these four leaders began, the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi governed Japan for over five consecutive years and created a niche for himself in Japanese politics. In any case, the era of Koizumi, in which he was known for his high popularity at home and low ratings in Japan's immediate neighbourhood of China and the two Koreas, is a unique political study in itself. However, the triumph of Koizumi's charisma over Kan's credentials during the 2003 election does not at all disqualify the latter for his post.

Viewed in this perspective, the political context of Kan's emergence as Prime Minister is actually defined by the rise and fall of his immediate predecessor, Hatoyama, at the highest echelons of power.

As this is written, the procedural formalities for the assumption of office by Kan's Cabinet have not started. There was, of course, no question mark over his status, with each of the two Houses of the Diet (Japanese Parliament) having separately elected and designated him as Prime Minister on June 4. He was earlier chosen as president of the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the main constituent of the ruling coalition.

With the DPJ having lost the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as a coalition partner during what turned out to be the countdown to Hatoyama's exit over a foreign policy issue, Kan is now left with only the People's New Party (PNP) as an ally in the Diet. Both the SDP and the PNP have minimal presence in the powerful House of Representatives. For the DPJ, therefore, the value of these two parties is traced to their robust presence in the upper chamber, the House of Councillors. An early test of Kan's electoral strategy as Prime Minister is, therefore, expected during the scheduled elections to the senior chamber in July.

In succeeding Hatoyama, who bowed out citing his failure to stay attuned to the people's wishes, Kan began his prime ministerial tenure in a countrywide climate of immense popular scepticism about the style of the Japanese political elite as also the substance of governance agendas. And this aspect gives Kan, originally a socialist-democrat in his first-time role as Representative, a rare opportunity laced with enormous challenges. In a sense, and because of his humble start in public life, he does not belong to the classical political elite at all despite his father's white-collar experience in business. This, by itself, translates into a rare opportunity for anyone in Kan's position to try and win the hearts, and perhaps also the minds, of the general population.

Critics do point to what they tend to portray as Kan's politically risky short temper. Not to be forgotten as a contrasting image, though, is the way he endeared himself to the general public by quitting as the DPJ leader in 2004 over his alleged non-payment of some public dues. The allegation itself was later settled to his satisfaction. All the same, soon after giving up the top job in the party, he undertook a well-publicised Buddhist pilgrimage in what was portrayed as a show of genuine atonement for his alleged acts of omission or commission.

Like Hatoyama, whose grandfather was associated with the founding of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is now in the opposition, Kan, too, has a political career graph that is not without any link with the LDP. In the mid-1990s, he was the Health Minister in an LDP-led coalition by virtue of his being a member of a junior party in that ruling alliance. In that ministerial position, he won much public attention when he exposed and apologised for the way in which a previous administration had allowed the use of tainted blood products that led to thousands of patients getting infected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

On the negative side of Kan's political ledger was a whiff of an alleged scandal in his personal life in the late 1990s. But the allegation was not proved, and hence left no political scar on him.

On balance, the absence of a political scar or even a politically resonant lineage does not signify the absence of burdensome baggage in politics at the start of a prime ministerial career such as Kan's. This aspect constrains him in more than just the commonsensical way of looking at the political theatre in a democracy like Japan's. With Hatoyama having failed to clean up Japan's money politics and steer Tokyo away from a monotonous orbital path around the United States in foreign policy, Kan's commonsensical challenges acquire a critical mass of volatile political proportions.

Hatoyama's departure

By leading the DPJ to a landslide victory in the general elections last August, Hatoyama unmistakably blazed a trail of unusual political promise in Japan. He convinced the electorate of the need to transform the country, with an acutely ageing population and old social habits, into a postmodern society. In particular, he promised to do this by practising centre-left policies as different from the capitalist and neoliberal practices of the conventional kind that the people had got so used to. Apart from the promised cleansing of politics at home, his potential agenda spanned a number of other must-do priorities. These included the infusion of well-considered egalitarian values, including child care and home welfare, into government policies. On foreign policy, Hatoyama wanted a sense of balance, even equality if possible, in Japan's 60-year-long military alliance with the U.S.

In the event, as Hatoyama resigned on June 2 in a near-tearful farewell to the people, he was still reeling from the sheer intensity of the popular protest over his perceived act of caving in to U.S. pressure over the latter's bases in Okinawa. It was not as if he could not or did not anticipate the depth of popular sentiment, across Japan in general and in the Okinawa prefecture in particular, against the seemingly interminable presence of U.S. bases and forces. However, Hatoyama was simply blown away by the indefinable force of people power that was manifest in the protest.

Seasoned Japanese observers say that the anti-U.S. sentiment among the general population is articulated and sustained by a vocal minority. This may well be true, considering Japan's geopolitical and geo-economic reality of having to nestle comfortably under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. However, a man like Hatoyama, who proved himself adept at feeling the pulse of the voters hardly a year ago, now felt that the people power sentiment on the issue of U.S. bases was larger than what was evident in the size, decibel level or display impact of the demonstrations in Okinawa or in Tokyo. In a sense, therefore, he discovered that the political impact of the people's sentiments over the U.S. issue was not a matter of computerised virtual reality that could be manipulated by a leader to his advantage. For him, the strength and substance of the protest were not just a matter of multiple images in a house of mirrors.

Such a theatrical impact of people power over a foreign policy issue was traceable to some basic but profound facts on the ground. As prime ministerial candidate, Hatoyama had promised to get the incredibly unpopular U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa shifted out of that prefecture or even out of Japan altogether. After trying for nearly eight months, he admitted to a dismal failure on this score, when the U.S. and Japan announced on May 28 that the American base would now be relocated within Okinawa itself, at the same new site as originally agreed to in 2006.

The only reward for Hatoyama's efforts at seeking equality in Japan's ties with the U.S. was of a technical nature with no scope for beneficial political fallout for him. He managed to convince the U.S. of the need to redesign the runway and some other technical parameters of the base at this proposed site. In a sense, this was not a totally insignificant gain for the people of Okinawa. There was no change, though, in their continuing circumstance of being held hostage to the politics of U.S.-Japan grand bargain in a region being dominated by the relentless rise of China as a possible or potential global superpower in the economic and political domains.

The only real gain for the people of Okinawa, long opposed to the noise and other environmental aspects of the U.S. bases as also the misconduct of some American personnel outside those sites, was the so-called green alliance that Washington and Tokyo agreed to on May 28. Shorn of the in-vogue phraseology, this implied a commitment by the U.S. to adopt eco-friendly practices in building and operating the facilities at the proposed new site in a less populated slice of Okinawa.

Accepting the logic of people power, Hatoyama resigned, willingly or unwittingly, but only after accepting what the U.S. now portrays as a fait accompli the continued presence of American bases and forces in Okinawa, except for the proposed reduction of troops as originally agreed to in 2006 by a non-DPJ government in Tokyo.

Ozawa the shadow

As of June 7, it was evident that such a foreign policy fait accompli and the unresolved issues of money politics on the home front might soon begin to challenge the ingenuity of the new Japanese leader. Both Hatoyama and his key lieutenant in the party, Ichiro Ozawa, were variously accused of complicity in the alleged irregularities relating to political donations. Such funds were alleged to have been mobilised and accounted for in ways that were inconsistent with the relevant laws.

Ozawa was widely seen as the shadow Shogun who actually called the political shots during Hatoyama's tenure at the helm. Unsurprisingly, the man who contested against Kan for the party's top job in succession to Hatoyama was a political maverick, Shinji Tarutoko, who was believed to be Ozawa's proxy.

Given such stark and also nuanced political and foreign policy circumstances, Kan will need more skills than his reputation for decisiveness and his uneventful tenure as Finance Minister under Hatoyama. Otherwise, the evocative story of Kan's rise from the ranks of those outside the charmed elite circles may just fade away.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 02, 2010.)

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