First Among Equals, New Japanese Prime Minister Faces Tumultuous Year Ahead

On August 30, Yoshihiko Noda was chosen as the 95th prime minister of Japan, one day after being elected president of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Noda had held the powerful position of finance minister in the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who resigned on August 26. Noda was chosen as president of the DPJ over Banri Kaieda, an economic commentator turned politician who held the post of minister of economy, trade and industry in the Kan administration. He triumphed in the DPJ vote despite the facts that Kaieda was supported by party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa and that third-place finisher Seiji Maehara enjoyed the most popular support.

“The strategy worked,” said Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the DPJ, who played an instrumental role in bringing Noda a victory. Maehara initially was reluctant to run in the DPJ presidential election, having stepped down from his post as foreign minister last March, just days before the Great East Japan Earthquake, because of a scandal over a political donation. In recent weeks, however, Maehara was convinced by his close colleagues and constituency that at such a critical time, amid earthquake reconstruction and economic uncertainty, Japan needed a strong leader. Seeing that Maehara would declare his own candidacy rather than support Noda, the Noda camp, and for that matter the Maehara camp, tried to blunt Ozawa’s influence by blocking Kaieda from gaining a majority of votes, thus forcing a run-off that would most likely pit Kaieda against Noda. In the first ballot, Noda and Maehara together received 176 votes―with Noda ahead of Maehara―whereas Kaieda earned 143 votes, out of a total of 395. In the run-off vote, in which the Noda camp was able to count on Maehara’s supporters and others, Noda won by a margin of 38 votes, gaining 215 votes over Kaieda’s 177. Noda and Maehara both fought their best to win the second position in the first round of voting, but ultimately they succeeded in denying Kaieda a victory.

The DPJ presidential election is held once every two years, and this last one was held only because of Naoto Kan’s resignation as president before completing his full term. Therefore, the next election for DPJ president will take place according to schedule, in one year, and Noda has no time to bask in the glow of his election victory. Rather, he must quickly build a positive record of accomplishments and convince his colleagues and constituents that he can bring his party to an electoral victory in the next general election (for the House of Representatives, or lower house of the Diet) which must take place no more than four years after the previous election, or by September 2013.

Noda, 54 years old, is known to be a solid, generous, and patient man—quite a contrast from his predecessor Naoto Kan. As prime minister, Noda stands amidst a mishmash of power factions over which he does not have firm control; in this situation one of his strong points―his sympathy and understanding of divergent voices―could become a weak point in that it might exacerbate the stalemate that has characterized recent Japanese politics. At the same time, there are expectations that Prime Minister Noda might be humble and reserved enough to carefully craft his administration and party so that his opposing colleagues can be brought to join forces with him. By embracing them Noda can position himself as first among equals.

The priorities of the Noda administration are clear. In his campaign Noda set out his policy agenda to be: resolving the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident, carrying out recovery and reconstruction following the Great East Japan Earthquake, implementing countermeasures to deal with the strong yen and deflation, and embarking on fiscal reform which is long overdue for Japan. Koichiro Gemba, who was replaced by Maehara as the DPJ’s policy research director on August 31, and who became the new foreign minister on September 2, had said that for an incoming prime minister to achieve anything, he would need to focus on and prioritize his key agenda items. Gemba said that one of the regrets he had as the head of policy for the party, and thus for the government, during the Kan administration was that the administration had tried to tackle too many policy issues and did not have a clear enough focus.

In light of such suggestions from Gemba and other party members, and given his background as a politician who has worked on domestic issues such as administrative and fiscal reform and education, it is less likely that foreign and defense policy will be at the top of Prime Minister Noda’s agenda. It is more likely that Noda will consult closely on foreign and defense issues with Gemba, new Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, and the chief cabinet secretary and relevant Cabinet members. Noda will probably feel especially comfortable relying on Gemba and Maehara’s foreign and defense policy recommendations as the three men share the same basic political orientation: more conservative on foreign and defense policies and reformist on domestic policies. Noda, Gemba, and Maehara all took similar paths to politics and all are alumni of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a post-college institution which aims to “develop and promote leadership for the 21st century.” This shared background makes it easier for them to relate to each other and work together.

In order to make progress on his priorities related to earthquake reconstruction, not only does Noda need to gain the overall support of his party, he needs to have adequate cooperation from opposition parties, namely from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the former ruling party. This is especially so given that the DPJ does not control the majority in the House of Councillors, and thus is not capable of passing bills unless they invoke special measures in the House of Representatives, which has more power and is currently controlled by the DPJ. The LDP so far has expressed favorable views toward Noda, acknowledging that they have more in common with his policies than with his predecessors’. On August 30, Sadakazu Tanigaki, president of the LDP, speaking in front of LDP members, said that he intended to cooperate on policy measures necessary for resolving the nuclear power plant accidents and for reconstruction, though he did not forget to add that he would seek to bring back the LDP regime by calling on the Noda administration for an early dissolution of the parliament.

Some observers believe the stakes of political instability are becoming even higher as Japan is surrounded by an increasingly volatile environment: nuclear and missile threats from North Korea; tensions with China, which were heightened over the Senkaku Island incident last September; and a wake-up call from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when he paid a sudden visit to the disputed Northern Territories last November (just before attending an APEC meeting in Yokohama). Some critics have said that it is the lack of political stability and leadership in Japan that has made provocative acts by foreign parties―be it an individual, institution, or government―possible, pointing out, for example, that the Chinese fishermen’s attack on the Japan Coast Guard ship last September took place during the DPJ’s presidential election. So, although Noda would like to concentrate on the overwhelming domestic challenges during his term, which may only last one year, he might be in a situation where he, together with his relevant cabinet ministers and party executives, needs to face and address difficult regional issues.