People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 40

October 02, 2011



Japan: Political Instability


Yohannan Chemerapally



JAPAN witnessed yet another leadership change at the top. A new prime minister emerged on August 30 after the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) elected Yoshihiko Noda as their leader replacing Naoto Kan who was in office for the last 14 months. Noda, 54, now becomes the sixth politician to hold the prime minister’s office in the last five years. Noda who was the finance minister in the outgoing cabinet defeated the trade minister, Banri Kaieda. Kaieda, lost in the second round, despite being backed by the DJP strongman, Ichiro Ozawa. Five candidates including the foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, had contested in the first round, splitting the votes and therefore necessitating a run-off. Maehara, who has high public approval ratings, had stood third in the first round, getting 74 votes. In the preliminary round, Kaieda had stood first getting 143 votes and Noda coming second with 102 votes.


Noda turned the tables in the second round by getting the support of the major factions opposed to Ozawa. The DPJ is a loose conglomeration of factions, which are divided on core domestic and foreign policy issues. The contest for the party’s leadership showed that the party remains sharply polarised. Noda, a black belt in judo will need all his combative skills to stay in office for a longer time than his immediate predecessors. To heal intra-party rifts, Noda has appointed a close confidante of Ozawa, Azuma Koziishi, as the secretary-general of the DJP. A recent survey by a leading Japanese newspaper showed that only 9 per cent of the people wanted Noda to be the next prime minister.


Naoto Kan had taken a long time to leave despite losing the confidence of his party in June this year. Kan’s domestic approval rating had plunged mainly due to the dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the nuclear disaster. The recovery efforts that the government had implemented after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have not been able to bring the country back on track. Many people affected by the crisis are still living in makeshift camps. There are serious power shortages as the government had shut down many of the country’s aging nuclear plants. Radiation levels continue to high in and around Fukushima. Kan had described the Fukushima disaster as the worst crisis the country has faced since the end of World War II.


In a speech in July, Kan had announced the Japanese government’s decision to phase out nuclear energy. He had earlier ordered the shutdown of the controversial Hamaoka nuclear reactor situated near Tokyo. But many of his own cabinet ministers immediately undercut his position, when they openly said that Kan’s position on the phasing out of the nuclear power industry were his own and not government policy. Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power stations were providing one-third of all of Japan’s electricity. In his first statement after being elected, Noda declared that nuclear power is essential for the well being of the Japanese economy and that re-starting three quarters of the country’s 54 reactors which were shut down for safety inspections, would be his immediate priority. Local communities are against the reopening of the old nuclear plants.




Kan had become prime minister in June 2010 after the ouster of Yukio Hatoyama. Hatoyama was the man credited with engineering the DPJ’s landslide victory in the 2009 elections, ending the long term monopoly of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over Japanese politics. One of Hatoyama’s main campaign planks was the termination of US military basing facilities in Okinawa. He had started the process to evict the Americans when he was stabbed in the back by leading personalities in his own party.  The Obama administration, angered by Hatoyama’s position on the US base in Okinawa, had also signalled that it wanted a change of guard at the top. Washington had refused to negotiate with Tokyo on the issue of vacating the Okinawa base after the new Japanese government toughened its stance on the issue after coming into office in 2009.


Under a 2006 agreement, the two countries had agreed to shift the Futenma base to a coastal area on the island by 2014. The US in return had agreed to relocate 8000 marines and their families to Guam. The Okinawans had strongly reacted to this agreement and had demanded that the base be moved lock, stock and barrel from their island which is located in the southern tip of Japan, far away from the main population centres.


Kevin Maher, a senior US State Department official who till earlier this year was in charge of American policy towards Japan, has warned that the US will not reduce its troop presence in Japan unless the government there agrees to relocate the American base within Okinawa. Half of 47,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa. Maher had to quit his US State Department post after he allegedly made disparaging comments about Okinawans. Maher was in Japan in August to promote his book - The Japan that Can’t Decide. The former American official was very critical of the Japanese government’s handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. “After the earthquake the focus quickly shifted to Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant and it was very clear to me as coordinator of the task force that no one was in charge. No one in the Japanese political system was willing to say ‘I am going to take responsibility and make decisions’, he told the media. 




The US considers the Okinawa base as one of its key bases worldwide. In total the US has more than 700 bases in 130 countries around the world. Now with friendly governments in Libya and South Sudan, the numbers could go up in the near future. After Hatoyama was forced to renege on his pledge to start serious negotiations on the relocation of the Okinawa base, his domestic popularity ratings plummeted from 70 per cent to a dismal 17 per cent at the time he quit office. On the campaign trail in 2009, Hatoyama had pledged to relocate the base away from the island. “It must never happen that we accept the existing plan”, he had said referring to the 2006 agreement with the US.


The rising tensions in the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea over disputed islands have made Japanese policy makers insecure.  Minor incidents between the Chinese and Japanese Navy in the last couple of years has swayed public opinion outside Okinawa in favour of continued close security relationship with the US. The newly appointed defence minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, said that Japan would restart negotiations with the US on relocating the US base on the basis of the 2006 agreement. This means that the US military base would remain in Okinawa. Ichikawa is a close associate of Ozawa.  During Ozawa’s leadership challenge to Kan last year, he had said that he wanted the US base out of Okinawa.


The US has installed anti missile defence systems in Japan and provides a nuclear umbrella for the country. After World War II, America has become the guarantor of Japanese security. Before leaving office Hatoyama had hazarded a prediction that: “Someday the time will come when Japan’s peace will have to be ensured by the Japanese peoples themselves”.


Ozawa and his supporters want Japan to have closer and cordial relationship with neighbouring China while maintaining the traditional security links with the US. Noda on the other hand is a vocal proponent of even closer strategic and military ties with the US. He has described the alliance with America as “the greatest asset” the country has. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. While expressing a desire to forge stronger links with China he has also described the neighbouring country as a potential threat and warned that China “might take provocative action against Japan”.


Japan’s neighbours are also not happy with the new prime minister’s glorification of Japanese Class A War criminals. He is a regular visitor to the Yasukuni shrine that honours the Japanese killed in the war. However, after being elected prime minister, he has refrained from visiting the shrine. Previous visits by serving prime ministers in the last decade had infuriated the Chinese and Korean people, leading to protests outside Japanese embassies and consulates. The last prime ministerial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine was by Junichiro Koizumi, just before he stepped down from office in 2006.


The fiscally conservative Noda seems all set to implement an austerity drive to tackle the growing economic crisis in the country. In late August, Moody, the international rating agency, had downgraded Japan’s credit rating from Aa2 to Aa3, which is below that of Spain and Italy, which are also engulfed in a debt crisis. Japan has a huge public debt of $12.2 trillion. The country’s new prime minister has indicated that the unpopular “consumption tax” would be further increased to finance the reconstruction of the tsunami and earthquake hit areas. The other major factions in the DPJ led by Ozawa and Hatoyama prefer that the government implement a stimulus package to revive the economy and at the same time increase social spending. Increasing social spending was one of the major DJP poll promises during the 2009 general election campaign.