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Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010


Mr. Kan picks new Cabinet

Prime Minister Naoto Kan got off to a fresh start Friday, three days after his re-election as head of the Democratic Party of Japan in a contest with former DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa. He extensively reshuffled his Cabinet by replacing 10 of the 17 members. Before that, he installed new party executives.

The new setup of the Cabinet and DPJ leadership shows that Mr. Kan is determined to fulfill his job while shutting out the influence of Mr. Ozawa, a political heavyweight who had controlled the DPJ until his resignation in early June, together with that of then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, over political funds-related scandals.

But the path lying ahead for Mr. Kan will be rough. He has to tackle such tough issues as preventing a second dip in the economy and combating deflation against the backdrop of a strong yen, improving employment, reconstructing state finances and strengthening social welfare.

Meanwhile, opposition forces, which control the Upper House, will be able to block the Kan administration's and the DPJ's attempts to pass bills through the Diet.

On the diplomatic front, he has to solve the issue of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a populated area of Ginowan in the central part of Okinawa Island, and contain friction with China, which is taking a increasingly strident attitude against Japan these days.

He also cannot ignore the fact that 200 DPJ Diet members supported Mr. Ozawa in the DPJ presidential election against 206 others who supported Mr. Kan. As Japan is facing pressing problems, Mr. Kan will have to prove his competency as a national leader within several months.

To check Mr. Ozawa's influence, Mr. Kan chose politicians who have kept a distance from Mr. Ozawa and are critical of his style of concentrating political power in his hands. He retained Mr. Yoshito Sengoku as chief Cabinet secretary, Mr. Yoshihiko Noda as finance minister and Koichiro Genba as the DPJ's policy chief (concurrently serving as minister of national strategy). He shifted Mr. Katsuya Okada from foreign minister to DPJ secretary general (the No. 2 party position after party president) and Mr. Seiji Maehara from land, infrastructure and transport minister to foreign minister.

During the DPJ presidential race, Mr. Okada criticized Mr. Ozawa's candidacy, saying he was uncomfortable with the possibility that a person who could be indicted in connection with a political funds-related scandal would become party head and prime minister. At one point, Mr. Kan tried to appease Mr. Ozawa by offering him the post of DPJ acting head, which does not carry much power, but Mr. Ozawa declined the offer.

Mr. Okada is now in a key position to manage the ruling party and make deals with the opposition forces in the Diet. He is often called "fundamentalist" for sticking to his own principles and not showing enough flexibility. Under the Constitution, the DPJ, which controls the Lower House, can enact a budget without Upper House approval, but theoretically the opposition- controlled Upper House can scrap other bills. Mr. Okada will have to demonstrate the ability to successfully strike compromises with the opposition parties.

Mr. Maehara is known for attaching importance to the Japan-U.S. alliance and for criticizing China's military buildup. The retention of Mr. Toshimi Kitazawa as defense minister as well as the appointment of Mr. Maehara as foreign minister indicate Mr. Kan's desire to resolve the Futenma relocation issue without fail.

Mr. Kan, Mr. Maehara and Mr. Kitazawa should realize, however, that vigorously pushing the May Japan-U.S. accord to relocate Futenma's functions to the less populated Henoko area of Nago in the northern part of Okinawa Island will further strengthen opposition by Okinawan people. They should have the courage to seek a new approach if necessary.

Mr. Kan gave Cabinet posts to only three politicians who had supported Mr. Ozawa in the DPJ presidential election, but they are not members of the Ozawa group: Mr. Banri Kaieda will serve as economic and fiscal policy minister; Mr. Akihiro Ohata, as trade and industry minister; and Mr. Yoshiaki Takaki as education minister.

Mr. Kan also picked Mr. Yoshihiro Katayama, who as Tottori governor pushed information disclosure and administrative reform, as internal affairs and communications minister — apparently to advance devolution. And he expanded the jurisdiction of government revitalization minister Ms. Renho, a popular and skillful politician, to include civil service reform.

It is clear that Mr. Noda, Mr. Kaieda, Mr. Ohata and labor and welfare minister Ritsuo Hosokawa must quickly take steps to stop deflation, stem pressures for a stronger yen, prevent a further downturn in the economy and create new jobs.

More importantly, Mr. Kan needs to present a long-term vision of the kind of national system he wants to create that will increase economic stability for people while supporting their pursuits of a culturally vibrant life.

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