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Sunday, Sep. 4, 2011
Test awaits Mr. Noda's Cabinet
New Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda inaugurated his Cabinet Friday. Its lineup and the composition of the Democratic Party of Japan leadership point to his utmost efforts to ensure unity in the ruling party, which has suffered from conflict between forces supporting former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa and forces opposing the spread of his influence. The Cabinet lineup does not seem strong enough to give out a clear message as to what kind of nation the new administration would like to build.
The Cabinet must prove that it is determined to carry out best possible policies to steer Japan out of its current difficulties, such as the effects of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and of the fiasco at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, threats from the strong yen and deflation and the weakening of social safety nets.
Mr. Noda's efforts to bring unity to the DPJ was best shown by his choice of Mr. Azuma Koshiishi, chairman of the DPJ's Upper House caucus who is close to Mr. Ozawa, as party secretary general. The secretary general controls the funds and personnel affairs of the party. It is unprecedented that an Upper House member becomes party secretary general.
In a clear attempt to strike a balance with Mr. Koshiishi, Mr. Noda appointed former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, an ally of Mr. Noda and a vehement opponent of Mr. Ozawa, as chairman of the DPJ's policy research council. Mr. Noda has accorded strong power to Mr. Maehara.
From now on, bills and policy matters need to be approved by Mr. Maehara before they are endorsed by the Cabinet. Conflict could develop between Mr. Koshiishi and Mr. Maehara over the treatment of Mr. Ozawa and of the DPJ's election manifesto. Mr. Ozawa and his forces are eager to keep the manifesto intact as much as possible.
Mr. Noda on his part is trying to reconciliate with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito and is flexible about accepting their call for changing the party manifesto. How to treat the manifesto can cause intraparty conflict. Mr. Noda must keep in mind that if he compromises the principal ideas of the party manifesto in an attempt to get cooperation from the LDP and Komeito, the DPJ would lose its political identity.
Conflict could also develop between Mr. Noda and Mr. Maehara. While Mr. Noda is eager to eventually raise taxes to pay for the reconstruction from the March 11 disasters, Mr. Maehara is careful about tax raises because they could weaken the foundation of the Japanese economy.
Mr. Noda had a difficult time in forming his Cabinet. Mr. Katsuya Okada, former DPJ secretary general under Prime Minister Naoto Kan, firmly declined to become a Cabinet member although Mr. Noda first asked him to serve as chief Cabinet secretary and then as finance minister. Mr. Noda had no other choice but to choose Mr. Osamu Fujimura, a close ally of him, as chief Cabinet secretary.
Both Mr. Noda and Mr. Fujimura first became Lower House members in the 1993 election as members of the Japan New Party. But Mr. Fujimura is almost unknown to the public. He must prove his ability in his new job, which requires him to be a spokesman for the prime minister and the Cabinet, to coordinate policy matters among Cabinet members and bureaucrats and to deal with the opposition parities.
Mr. Noda, Mr. Maehara and Mr. Fujimura all share negative experiences dating back to 2006 when Mr. Maehara was DPJ chief and Mr. Noda and Mr. Fujimura were respectively DPJ Diet affairs chief and acting chief.
In February that year, DPJ Lower House member Hisayasu Nagata assailed the LDP and the Koizumi administration in the Diet on the basis of an email message allegedly hinting at inappropriate ties between then Livedoor President Mr. Takafumi Horie and then LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe's second son. But the email was later found to be bogus, causing political damage to the DPJ, and Mr. Maehara, Mr. Noda and Mr. Fujimura resigned from their positions. It highlighted their lack of prudence and of ability to manage a crisis. It is hoped that they will not repeat a similar mistake in their future decision making. (Mr. Nagata killed himself in 2009.)
In his news conference, Mr. Noda gave priority to the reconstruction from the March 11 disasters and the mitigation of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. He retained postdisaster reconstruction minister Tatsuo Hirano and state minister for nuclear accident settlement and prevention Goshi Hosono for the sake of continuity. Since Mr. Noda appears to support continuation of nuclear power generation, his moves should be closely watched.
Mr. Noda must seriously consider whether the reconstruction and tax raises he calls for are mutually compatible goals. The reconstruction efforts, with a large amount of money poured in, can not only revive the disaster-hit areas but also help pull Japan out of deflation. But tax raises would shrink economic activities and thus even tax bases, working against financial reconstruction.
Mr. Noda picked Mr. Jun Azumi, the party's Diet affairs chief under Mr. Kan, as new finance minister. It is not known whether he has sufficient knowledge about finance policies. He should be careful not to play the parrot of bureaucrats.
Mr. Noda appointed former national policy minister Koichiro Genba as foreign minister. Diplomacy is a new field for him. He needs to prove his ability to enliven Japan's diplomacy, which has stagnated especially after the March 11 disasters.