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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010


Mr. Kan keeps his job

Prime Minister Naoto Kan saved his job by beating Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, former secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, in Tuesday's election of the DPJ president. In a big win, he got 721 points from DPJ Diet lawmakers, local assembly members, and registered party members and supporters against Mr. Ozawa's 491 points. But he should not be disillusioned into thinking he enjoys strong positive support or feeds strong expectations.

The race was between a prime minister who has not yet demonstrated leadership and a leader dogged by a negative image of a tainted politician despite his rich political skills and ideas. Mr. Kan must prove his worthiness by leading the nation in solving the problems that Japan faces, including deflation and the steep rise in the yen's value. As a year has passed since the DPJ came to power, more important for Mr. Kan than just tackling immediate problems is to think again about what was significant in the change of government and to show the kind of country the DPJ wants to build and how to achieve it.

Although the approval rating of the Kan Cabinet has been rising since around the July 11 Upper House election, in which the DPJ was defeated, it is not based on any concrete achievements by Mr. Kan. It rather reflects people's desire to avoid seeing Japan's prime minister rotate in a short time. Mr. Kan has been in power only for some three months.

The rise in the approval rating also reflects people's dislike of Mr. Ozawa, who is suffering from a bad image stemming from a scandal over suspected political funds reporting irregularities. This is reflected by the fact that (some 138,000) registered party members and supporters gave Mr. Kan 249 points against Mr. Ozawa's 51 points (from some 90,200) and that local assembly members gave Mr. Kan 60 points against Mr. Ozawa's 40 points. Mr. Kan profited apparently from the persistent public suspicion about Mr. Ozawa's involvement in the scandal.

In the vote by DPJ Diet members, Mr. Kan received 412 points from 206 lawmakers and Mr. Ozawa 400 points from 200 lawmakers. The fact that the DPJ Diet members' support for the two candidates is split almost equally points to a deep schism in the party. It also shows that Mr. Ozawa will continue to maintain a certain degree of influence in the party. Mr. Kan must tackle a difficult task of bringing unity to the party and to creating a party setup conducive to getting cooperation from DPJ Diet members across different groups.

The DPJ presidential race created a political void for two weeks. But it gave people a chance to hear Mr. Kan and Mr. Ozawa speak about their thinking and policy proposals and to judge them. Mr. Ozawa called for faithfully implementing policy promises contained in the DPJ's 2009 Lower House election manifesto, including doubling the child allowance to ¥26,000 per child per month from fiscal 2012. He also called for removing strings attached to grants given to local governments. But the question of how to finance his proposals remained hard to solve. Mr. Kan said that given the current financial conditions, the policy promises contained in the manifesto should be revised if necessary. He also called for a full-scale reform of the tax system, including the consumption tax. Now that he has retained his job, he must develop and present a concrete road map for tax reform.

On the issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a populated area of Ginowan, in the central part of Okinawa Island, Mr. Ozawa hinted that he will start new talks with the United States and Okinawa. Mr. Kan said that he will push the May accord with the U.S. to move the Futenma functions to Henoko in Nago in the northern part of the island while trying to reduce the burden on Okinawan people. But he should realize that just sticking to his position may not solve the problem as Okinawan people's opposition to the accord is mounting as shown by the results of the Nago assembly election on Sept. 12.

Mr. Kan cannot rest on his laurels. In the Diet, he must develop political ability and mobilize the DPJ's political resources to get bills passed in the Upper House, which is controlled by the opposition forces.

More basically, he must closely examine himself as prime minister. His flip-flops about his proposal to raise the rate of the consumption tax during the Upper House election campaign betrayed that he did not deeply think about the issue. It only hinted that he was co-opted by bureaucrats and just repeated what they said. The fact that he dropped the slogan "From concrete to humans" from the DPJ's Upper House election manifesto shows that he had no understanding of what the DPJ tried to achieve through the change of government after its victory in the 2009 Lower House election.

As Japan faces a rapidly graying population as well as fierce competition from emerging economies, Mr. Kan must show ways to make Japan economically and culturally vibrant, even if economic growth is not so high, and assuage the worries that people have about their future.

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