Japan’s new Diet session is not even a week old, and political reports abound of an impending ‘March crisis’ facing Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The betting here is that he will squeak by.
The end of March is likely to be a critical point, as Kan struggles to win Diet approval for a national budget. Particularly important will be legislation to raise the national debt ceiling (technically, to allow for the issuance of more deficit-spending bonds). Also in the mix are local elections to be held across the nation in early April, setbacks in which could again cast the Kan-led DPJ in a weak political light.
In recent weeks, Kan has not exactly experienced an Obama-like reversal of political fortune, but he has to some extent improved his political status from that of beleaguered figure seemingly destined for a short stay in office.
Kan still faces very stiff head winds, as he tries to revive a limp economy while also working to restructure the nation’s troubled finances. All must be accomplished with a divided Diet, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led opposition bloc out to bring him down, and considerable disquiet in the ranks of his own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
A deadlock over the budget could force Kan’s political hand, leading to his calling a general election (not likely), or his resignation and the handing of power to a DPJ successor (possible). But having reworked his political team’s lineup, and given better focus to his policy agenda, the odds have grown considerably that Kan will be able to make the political deals needed to weather the storm, and he could manage to stay in office perhaps another 12-18 months.
No mood for election
The key factor working in Kan’s favor is the lack of real momentum in the country for another round of Lower House elections.
The country remains very tired of the revolving door at the prime minister’s office. Kan is far from a popular figure, but the mood among voters favors political stability and concentrated efforts among political leaders to actually get something done.
The opposition LDP talks a big game of trying to force elections. But party insiders acknowledge the LDP is woefully unprepared for a national election. The party is especially short of money. Estimates are that among the country’s 300 single seat constituencies, the LDP is prepared to run in only 210 or so. The LDP is having trouble attracting good candidates, as many do not want to be associated with a damaged “brand.”
Ironically, the LDP to some extent is a victim of the DPJ’s foibles. After having been thrown from office in the 2009 Lower House elections, the LDP felt the need for genuine internal renewal. But as the DPJ has faltered, the drive for change inside the LDP has slowed, and the “LDP” brand continues to suffer.
The LDP’s nominal electoral ally, New Komeito, also has big qualms about an early Lower House election. Komeito places enormous importance on local elections, particularly in the Tokyo area. The party’s priority is local elections, then perhaps Lower House elections. The outlines of a DPJ-Komeito deal over the budget seem to be taking shape, in which Komeito would vote to raise the national debt ceiling, and in exchange would extract from the DPJ changes in the nation’s social welfare system that would be popular with Komeito voters.
Meanwhile, a big portion of the DPJ’s Lower House Diet membership consists of first-time winners who will be very vulnerable in a new election because they have not had time, or shown sufficient skill, to consolidate a support base in their respective districts.
Inside the DPJ, disgruntled former leaders Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama could potentially stir up trouble for Kan by working together to encourage one of their respective nominal followers to mount a challenge for the party presidency. One of the most troublesome scenarios for the DPJ could be several Ozawa followers in the Diet suddenly becoming “sick” on the days of critical votes, denying Kan a victory.
But for differing reasons both Ozawa and Hatoyama have declining clout, and the DPJ lacks a consensus on the post-Kan leadership, so many within the party are aware that a premature challenge to Kan could severely damage the DPJ overall.
Thus, the backdrop favors Kan, but not by much. And at least some notable DPJ members, including former Internal Affairs Minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi, favor allowing Kan (and the DPJ) to survive the upcoming tumultuous budget process, but only with the intention of challenging Kan over the summer.
People and policies
For now, Kan has improved his prospects by changes he made at the top of his political team, and by his related decision to focus on a major trade-opening initiative and an overhaul of the nation’s finances as the policy highlights of his administration.
Kan may not be the most steady and consistent of leaders, but he has a very strong independent streak that makes him open on occasion to bold action. He largely keeps his own counsel, but the betting among those around him is that Kan, feeling his political back up against the wall, hopes to rally public support for his administration by demonstrating real gumption and willingness to fight for his agenda.
In the process, Kan will largely be depending on former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, now Acting President of the DPJ; new Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano; and, new Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
Here’s a look at their respective political and policy assignments.
Despite his nominal demotion from chief cabinet secretary to acting DPJ president in the recent Cabinet shakeup, Sengoku remains the indispensable figure in the Kan administration. As ‘Acting President’ of the DPJ, Sengoku’s three main jobs will be: entice the opposition, especially New Komeito, to cooperate on passage of the budget, to quell unrest in the DPJ ranks, and to help his protégé, new Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano, with the always-huge task of coordinating day-to-day affairs of the national government.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Sengoku to Kan and the DPJ. Sengoku is comfortable wielding enormous power, and his tell-it-like-it-is personality, lack of ambition to be prime minister himself, and super-realist approach to political maneuvering all serve to magnify his influence.
Perhaps most important to understanding Sengoku is to know his deep desire to forge the DPJ into a competent governing organization. For that, the DPJ needs to be in power for at least several budget cycles.
Sengoku is also on a mission to usher in a new generation of DPJ Diet members into positions of leadership, giving the party depth and experience. He is mentor to many of the DPJ’s younger rising stars, including Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.
Sengoku and Kan go way back, but are not particularly close. In the early 1990s, they schemed to back current Justice Minister Satsuki Eda in a move to take over the fumbling Socialist Party, from which Eda’s moderate socialist father had previously bolted. Eda, a judge and conciliator, did not have the required ‘fire in the belly’, and the effort faded. (Eda remains perhaps Kan’s closest personal confidante. Kan recently caused headaches for his security detail when he took Eda to his favor after-hours drinking spot, a tiny bar in Ginza.)
Sengoku went on to be a key founder of the DPJ in 1996, an effort that Kan secretly backed while still a member of LDP-led coalition cabinet of the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
Kan and Sengoku differ in many ways, including in personality, with Kan somewhat short-tempered and aloof, and Sengoku with more of a country lawyer’s logical, steady manner. Sengoku was also an activist, while Kan was more of an activist ‘sympathizer’ – a subtle but important divide between them.
Nevertheless, Kan and Sengoku occupy the same political boat, with a shared determination to fully put to rest the LDP’s single-party grip on power. At this point, that means keeping Kan in office.
In the recent cabinet reshuffling, Sengoku thought until the last minute that he would be staying on as chief cabinet secretary, but the opposition had demanded his removal on nakedly-political grounds, and Kan wanted him to lead the inter-party negotiating effort. Sengoku agreed, but pretty-much demanded that Edano be his successor.
Many media accounts have it that Sengoku’s move over to the DPJ headquarters has ruffled the proud feathers of DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada, who literally had to give up his prime office space to make way for Sengoku. Sengoku laughs off the supposed tension with Okada, and points out that he is sharing his new office with former deputy chief cabinet secretary Motohisa Furukawa, who moved over with him from the Kantei.
Still, as ‘acting president’, Sengoku outranks the secretary general. Each Wednesday, the Kan Cabinet meets with the DPJ party executive team, to help ensure smooth government-party coordination. In Kan’s absence, Sengoku, not Okada, will chair the meeting.
Okada remains a DPJ star, of course, often mentioned as a future prime minister. His close ties with New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi will be helpful in efforts to forge Komeito-DPJ cooperation. But Okada has a somewhat stiff style that will not be much of a strength in the upcoming Diet session’s wheeling and dealing.
Sengoku will have the particularly important job of leading up the efforts to communicate with New Komeito during the current Diet session, and some personal connections will come in handy. Sengoku was a law intern with Komeito Diet Affairs Committee chairman Yoshio Urushibara after the two passed the bar exam, and he served as legal counsel to a close relative of Komeito Secretary General Yoshihisa Inoue.
New Komeito’s position is tricky. The party’s priority is upcoming local elections, and party leaders do not want to appear too close to Kan before then. But lack of cooperation could trigger a national election that Komeito wants to postpone. Thus the incipient steps toward DPJ-Komeito tactical cooperation.
With Edano working as chief cabinet secretary, Kan and Sengoku have essentially reformed the troika that took charge when Kan became prime minister in June 2010. Edano stepped down as DPJ secretary general after the party’s poor showing in the Upper House elections last July, but his extraordinarily close ties with Sengoku guaranteed that Edano’s return would be just a matter of time. The Kan-Sengoku-Edano troika was primarily responsible for the internal DPJ moves last year to limit the influence of former party chief Ichiro Ozawa.
Edano is known and well-liked by many bureaucrats, and he has already begun to quell quiet concerns that he might be too young to effectively function as the chief orchestrator of national affairs. Edano is the youngest ever to hold this critical post.
Edano will be principally responsible for pushing forward Kan’s agenda on fiscal reform (together with Economics Minister Yosano), and on the linked effort to adopt a free trade stance (the TPP trade initiative) and to reform Japan’s beleaguered agricultural sector.
He is also in charge of the vexing issue of the US Marine presence on Okinawa.
On fiscal issues, Edano has brought in as a deputy chief cabinet secretary 78 year-old former Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii, who is widely-regarded as among the most knowledgeable in the field among Japanese politicians. Fujii served as finance minister in both the Hatoyama and Hosokawa cabinets.
Fujii’s mere presence serves to emphasize the importance Kan attaches to the issue of fiscal reform, but Fujii doesn’t get around as much as he used to. To assist him, Edano has brought in Goshi Hosono, one of the DPJ’s rising starts. Hosono is also interested in foreign affairs, and has developed good ties in Washington, but his primary role in the prime minister’s office (Kantei) will be to assist Fujii.
Another key figure working for Edano is Tatsuo Hirano, an Upper House member who hails originally from the Ministry of Agriculture. Hirano, despite his agricultural roots, has come fully on board with Kan’s idea to join the TPP free trade initiative, which has as a major component the full opening of Japan’s agricultural market. Hirano was initially stunned when he heard that TPP would mean total elimination of tariffs on Japanese agriculture, but he knows the dire need for reform of the sector, and quickly came on board. Hirano is working on measures that would help revitalize agricultural communities in the wake of market opening.
Edano and Sengoku have a history of together working with opposing forces on issues of critical national importance. In the late 1990s, they collaborated with young LDP Diet members Nobuteru Ishihara, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, and Yoshimi Watanabe (now of Your Party fame) on groundbreaking measures to resolve Japan’s banking crisis.
Nothing better represents Kan’s decision to wrap himself in the flag of fiscal restructuring that his appointment of Kaoru Yosano, formerly of the LDP and the defunct Sunrise Party, as economics minister. For a decade at least, Yosano has made fiscal reform a personal crusade, and together with Hirohisa Fujii, knows every key button to push in Tokyo, including staff appointments, to move the issue forward.
Yosano is the grandson of two famous poets, and is a real intellectual who has an air of somehow being above the political fray. In that sense Kan may be disappointed if he expects Yosano to deliver much in the way of classic backroom political deals. Moreover, Yosano has previously leveled harsh criticisms at the DPJ, so his appointment to a cherished cabinet post unsettled quite a few ambitious DPJ members who long for more of the limelight. But Yosano brings so many practical and intangible assets to the table that Kan understandably made the move.
So that’s the political lineup. And beyond the ‘March Crisis’ the new lineup is supposed to manage lies a summit in Washington that could help stabilize and even energize US-Japan relations; the TPP trade initiative, which is more of a geostrategic vision in the context of a rising China than a mere trade policy; and, a major overhaul of Japan’s fiscal and social welfare structures which, if the envisioned increase in the consumption tax does not first knock down the economy, could provide a stronger foundation for Japan’s long-term growth.