Japan’s new prime minister is a step in the right direction

Japan’s new prime minister is a step in the right direction

With Japan changing prime ministers more often than the Washington Redskins change quarterbacks, it is hard to get too excited about Yoshihiko Noda, who just won the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) presidency and will shortly be selected by the Diet as Japan’s sixth prime minister in as many years.

Noda faces huge hurdles: the Japanese economy has been languishing for most of two decades; two years into office, and the DPJ still has not been able to demonstrate the ability to execute on policy; the government is checkmated by opposition control of the Upper House of the Diet; and the Japanese voters have become even more cynical and negative about their ruling class than Americans have. Most political analysts figure things will be like this until a general election (required by 2013) shakes things up. 

But I have a little spring in my step now that Noda will be in charge. For one thing, he is a genuine national security conservative in the tradition of Shinzo Abe or his better known friend, former DPJ foreign minister Seiji Maehara (who lost in the DPJ election to Noda). Noda’s father was a military man (Ground Self Defense Forces), which gives him a rare appreciation of the U.S.-Japan alliance and defense issues. Chinese and Korean newspapers are apprehensive because he has challenged the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, as did Abe and others on the right in Japan. But I’m not too worried. Noda is known as a careful pragmatist and will reach out to China and Korea the way Abe did when he became prime minister (the Japanese version of Nixon-goes-to-China).

Moreover, Noda is an outspoken free-trader and supporter of Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and he is a fiscal conservative, advocating a prudent increase in the consumption tax as part of overall tax reform. And most encouraging, Noda won the DPJ election because he refused to kowtow to DPJ strongman Ichiro Ozawa, who continues to run interference against the internationalists even after being ejected from the party leadership in the wake of corruption charges.

The DPJ’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, was a dreamy populist who ruined almost everything he touched. His successor, the hapless Naoto Kan, moved away from the DPJ’s original populist manifesto, but never did so with real conviction or understanding of the policy issues. Noda is a serious policy thinker who has consistently advocated the positions Japan now needs to move forward. The Japanese political system is still a terrible mess, but at least the quality of leadership is improving.