Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has taken over a regime that, although divided and weakened by disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March, has not been inclined to pervasive change. That was the outlook after Noda, the surprise winner in an August vote for leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, put together a government dedicated above all to restoring confidence lost after the earthquake, tsunami and then explosions devastated the plant on the coast 140 miles northeast of Tokyo.
In that spirit, Japan appears mired in a pattern of mediocre leadership combining deep-seated conservatism with a brand of nationalism that epitomizes rising regional confrontation in Northeast Asia. More than two years after the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the long entrenched LiberalDemocratic Party on a wave of social, political and diplomatic reform, the question is whether there’s any difference between the two. Or, if there is a difference on some issues, what difference do the differences make?
In other words, said Miki Tanikawa, a lecturer on international relations and analyst of the current scene, Noda “...is probably not going to be any more effective” than was his predecessor, Naoto Kan, who was finally forced to step down amid claims of ineffectiveness in dealing with Fukushima. Despite divisions inside the party, the impetus is toward papering over the cracks and getting along with the Liberal Democratic Party, which for decades had what appeared as a stranglehold, broken only by an interlude of socialist rule, over government.
As a former finance minister, Noda has had to focus first on reforming an economy stuck in a pattern of low, slow growth while the value of the Japanese yen rises alarmingly against that of the dollar and the euro. Noda’s concern about Japan’s faltering fiscal health is evident in his most distinctive contribution to the political dialogue – his view, alone among his party’s candidates for leadership, that higher taxes are inevitable. “The Democratic Party of Japan has learned from reality and matured,” said Shunpei Takemori, a Keio University economics professor, at a forum sponsored by Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major national newspapers. “He was the only one who made reference to a tax hike at this stage.”
Equally important in assessing the likely direction, or drift, of the Japanese government under Noda is the end of populist programs once espoused by the DPJ during its campaigns against the LDP. DPJ liberals dreamed of welfare programs that Japan cannot afford while repairing the damage of the earthquake, tsunami and explosions at the Fukushima plant that spread radioactive material over a wide stretch of land and sea. The fear of radiation in crop, animals and fish has diminished, but a team of 3,000 workers, led by engineers and technicians with an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of nuclear power, still has not been able to bring three of Fukushima’s four reactors to a “cold shutdown.”
The best that Yoshikazu Nagai, an official at the Tokyo Electric Power Company, could say was that “conditions in these reactors are stable” though only one of the four has temperatures below 100 degrees centigrade. As for the other units, he said, “We are still trying to cool them down, but we are not sure when.” In the meantime, no one without an official mission related to the plant can go inside a 20-kilometer “exclusion zone” that was set up right after the explosion.
Amid all these problems, in the interests of cooperation among political foes, Noda has promised to consult with leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party on reform programs. The populist promises of the Democratic Party of Japan, so clearly enunciated two years ago, are now forgotten or at least hardly mentioned, while Noda and his new cabinet focus on much more pressing economic issues at a time of global economic discontent. The adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” applies to Japanese governance and politics as the ruling party moves toward the center, toward moderation and conservatism.
As for bucking the trend toward nuclear power, Noda is pressing for safety and recovery from Fukushima but not for entirely turning back the clock on nuclear energy. Clearly, he does not want to risk a radical switch to other forms of energy that would result in higher electricity costs and which in any case might not suffice to power the country’s huge industrial establishment.
That’s all in contrast to when the Democratic Party of Japan, led by the reformist Yukio Hatoyama, drove the LDP from its majority in the lower house of the Diet, or parliament, in September 2009 and real change seemed seriously possible. Hatoyama took over as prime minister with dreams of sweeping reforms, including revision of the longstanding military relationship with the United State. He lasted less than a year, however, after giving up on his pledge to get US troops to leave their historic bases on the southernmost island prefecture of Okinawa.
Hatoyama fell in the face of US demands, loudly stated by Robert Gates when he visited Japan as Defense Secretary, to abide by a deal reached in 2007 for moving US forces to a new base on the island while shipping a division or so of marines to Guam. Nowadays Okinawa politicos still call for removal of American forces, but their voices no longer resonate in Tokyo as before. The sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea in March of last year was enough to convince Japanese leaders of a threat from North Korea, and the Chinese have deepened concerns by building up their navy. “Okinawa is not a big deal,” said Tanikawa. “People forget about it. The nuclear issue is on people’s minds.”
The fundamental conservatism of Japan’s ruling establishment, no matter who’s in charge, was evident in attitudes toward visits to the Yasukuni shrine, the memorial for millions of fallen Japanese soldiers, including more than 1,000 convicted as war criminals after World War II. In deference to aggrieved outcries from China, Taiwan and Korea, no Japanese prime minister has visited the shrine since Junichiro Koizumi paid the last of his six “private visits” in 2005 before stepping down in 2006.
On the 66th anniversary of the Japanese surrender last August 15, however, Noda veered outside his role of finance minister to say he saw no reason why a Japanese leader should not go there. He created more consternation, moreover, by suggesting those adjudged as “war criminals” no longer be regarded as criminal. Now that he’s prime minister, after a runoff vote for party leadership dominated by vicious factional politics, Noda has said he won’t be visiting the shrine in view of the sensitivities.
His words, however, had already betrayed the hard-edged nationalism of a leader striving for unity and recovery. Sensitivities are nowhere higher than in Korea in view of the record of 35 years of harsh Japanese rule that ended only with the Japanese surrender.
If Noda does manage to stay away from the Yasukuni shrine, he can still upset Koreans by laying claim to that outcropping of two large rocks in the waters between Korea and Japan that Koreans call the East Sea and maps of international agencies call the Sea of Japan. The Koreans hold the islets, which they call Dokdo, with a police garrison, operating a tiny post office on one of them while running tourist boats there across seas that are sometimes so choppy that the boats are unable to dock. The Japanese cannot do much more than refer to the islets as Takeshima and say they belong to Japan. Noda certainly is not going to change that policy even if he tries to avoid the topic.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the instinct for conservatism appears paramount as the government persists in the steady clean-up of the nuclear power plant’s four reactors. As far as that’s concerned, said an official at the ministry of economy, trade and industry’s nuclear safety industrial agency, “Basic policy will not be changed.” In that spirit, the government is hoping that Japan’s nuclear power plants, which produced one third of the country’s energy before Fukushima, will return to that level and even exceed it some day despite calls by DPJ politicians to end all reliance on nuclear power.
Restoration of nuclear power seems economical compared to increasing reliance on thermal and gas turbine power. While undergoing safety checks, only a dozen of the country’s 54 reactors are now operational, said Hiroshi Nishimoto, in the nuclear energy policy planning division of the economy, trade and industry ministry, adding that, “it’s not decided when they’ll go back on line.” Nuclear energy now provides only one seventh of Japanese power.
Always, however, on paper and in public pronouncements, politicians and analysts have no problem paying lip service to reducing dependence on nuclear power. “It is desirable to invest in development of alternative energy sources, and it is only natural to tighten oversight of nuclear power plants,” said Shunichi Kitaoka, politics and diplomacy professor at Tokyo University. “In that sense, there were no major differences among candidates in the DPJ presidential election.”
Noda and his ministers prefer to give the impression of a rescue team sent in to cure the problems of their predecessors. In that spirit, the term “loach,” for the bottom-feeding eel that exists in mud, became fashionable when Noda described himself that way. The media loved the analogy of “loaches mired in mud and sweating to get the job done.” The ultimate success would be restoration of the status quo pre-Fukushima.
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