With his support rate sliding into the danger zone of 26 and 27% in the latest Mainichi and Asahi polls, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan may not have long to go before he reaches the 19% that his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama hit before resigning.
This time though, it is neither the US base issue in Okinawa nor a personal money scandal that is doing him in; Kan is in deep trouble for a perceived serious mishandling of his entire portfolio. He has been slammed on foreign policy – particularly ineptness in dealing with the row with China over the Senkakus – for a collapsed domestic policy agenda, marked by a stalled legislature and a disappointing budget-waste screening, and for the outright foolishness of some members of his Cabinet, one of whom resigned under fire on Nov. 22.
The press is speculating about “domino resignations” of more gaffe-prone cabinet members. Already the Kan administration’s longevity is being questioned, with the tabloids screaming about a January or so dissolution of a deadlocked Diet.
Kan's fate may now be in the hands of his enemies: the opposition parties in the Diet and a unanimously hostile press which has been mercilessly pummeling Kan and his cabinet for allegedly bungling just about everything on the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) policy agenda. A much touted supplemental budget to stimulate the economy never passed the Upper House, which opposition parties control.
Budgets, however, can be enacted with only Lower House approval according to the Constitution.
Even the DPJ’s pride and joy, a televised series of budget screening exercises to eliminate waste of taxpayers’ money fell disappointingly far short of a much publicized goal to free up 4 trillion yen in hidden funds and is now being dismissed by critics as nothing more than a “political performance.”
The latest embarrassment for Kan has been a string of gaffes and goofs by members of his cabinet that infuriated the opposition camp, the press, and public opinion. Things came to a head on Monday, Nov. 22, when Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida, whose in-house remarks to supporters ridiculing Diet proceedings was leaked to the media, was forced by Kan to resign his seat.
The opposition threatened to file and pass a censure motion against Yanagida in the Upper House. Kan himself is under opposition fire for appointing an unqualified and inept person to a cabinet position. Yanagida admitted on appointment that he had no background in law, having dropped out of the science course in college to work as sushi chef and then for a steel company where he worked as a labor activist until entering politics 20 years ago.
The Yanagida case has been singled out by the press as exemplifying Kan’s inability to make quick decisions on critical issues. Kan has been slammed consistently in the polls as “lacking leadership” on the policy front. The Prime Minister dilly-dallied on what to do about the Justice Minister’s fate for days, letting the Diet fall into chaos. It was only apparently until his aides pushed him hard for a decision that he met with them on Nov. 21 to seal the fate of Yanagida, who had continued to tell the press that he would “hang in there” and not resign.
Kan is criticized for leaving much of the political management of his administration to others, especially his chief cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, who reportedly made key decisions in handling the Senkaku issue. But Sengoku is also under pressure from the opposition to resign for recently calling the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) an “instrument of violence,” terminology that harks back to the old socialist camp in Japan.
Over the weekend, on Nov. 20, the sports daily Nikkan Gendai – a fairly accurate bellwether of political trends – ominously predicted “domino resignations” that would include not just Yanagida – but also others like “shadow prime minister” Sengoku for their gaffes and affronts to the Diet.
In six days last week, six cabinet members have had to render apologies a total of 10 times for inappropriate words and deeds. Though the Gendai’s prediction may not come true, such speculation further underscores the scathing environment in which the Prime Minister is struggling in to survive. Appearing on TV last week, Kan looked weary, his usual smile gone from his face. His answers in the Diet seemed labored.
At any rate, though Yanagida has resigned, the opposition camp has not blinked. It has continue to use dilatory tactics before the Diet session ends on December 3. Having filed and passe censure motions against Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku and Ministry of Land and Transportation Sumio Mabuchi. Kan has shrugged off the moves, but the Diet remains gridlocked. Looking to the regular session of the Diet in January, the opposition may file and pass more censure motions against cabinet Ministers. They may also summon former DPJ secretary general Ichiro Ozawa to the Diet to testify on his money scandal. Commenting on the current state of Diet affairs, Nikkan Gendai on Nov. 23 said it all: “The DPJ is acting just like the LDP used to.”
Foreign policy failures
Kan’s troubles of course started with the Senkaku row with China, compounded by the leak of a video of the collision between the Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard cutters. It became worse when President Medvedev broke with tradition and officially visited one the four disputed northern islands taken by the former Soviet Union from Japan in the closing days of World War II. The ambassador to Russia was recalled in protest for several days, but there was no follow-up from the prime minister.
Sadly, even the children’s section of a major daily poked fun at Kan by running a cartoon showing
a weak and trembling Kan seemingly cowered by President Medvedev as they traded claims to the northern territories.
Kan’s performance at the G20 in Seoul and his hosting of the APEC conference in Yokohama, too, were generally panned by the press as lifeless and stilted. A telling photograph of his bilateral meeting at APEC with China’s President Hu Jintao shows Kan hunched over his briefing folder, which he always seems to carry, reading out talking points to an obviously bored Hu. In an interview, former close Diet colleague Shusei Tanaka said that Kan did not have the mettle to be a prime minister.
Alliance bright spot
Sunday’s headlines in the conservative Yomiuri on Nov. 21 about a “deepening of the US-Japan alliance” may have been the only good news for the Kan administration in a long time. The daily, which has been a constant critic of the DPJ government’s alleged slights to the alliance, trumpeted that progress has been made in bilateral talks in Washington toward a joint security declaration next spring. The statement reportedly would include a new set of “common strategic objectives” (the former set was issued in 2005) that would specifically deal with China’s maritime push into waters near Japan.
As if to underscore the new security emphasis, Yomiuri and other papers featured photos of Chinese patrol ships cruising near the Senkaku Islands where they were warned away by Japanese Coast Guard vessels.
North Korea provided more cement for the US-Japan Alliance. The latest provocative act, an unprecedented shelling of a South Korean island near disputed waters, killed two soldiers and two civilians, while devastating a small village.
That does not mean that alliance affairs will now go smoothly for Kan. Following the Nov. 28 gubernatorial election in Okinawa, in which the LDP incumbent won, he must soon make a meaningful decision on the Futenma relocation agreement. This is likely to trigger another round of bickering between the DPJ government and that prefecture's citizens that continue to demand that the base be moved outside of Okinawa. Although this situation takes tact and patience, it appears that the only tool that Kan has in reserve is a panic button.
LDP not gaining
The press has already begun speculating about the possibility of the Diet in regular session being so blocked by opposition intransigence that Kan would have to resign his post (in favor of Seiji Maehara) or dissolve the Lower House for a snap election. A January scenario is predicted by some magazines.
Even former prime minister Hatoyama in an interview hinted at a spring dissolution of the Diet. Such a worst case scenario as a general election, however, would not necessarily be an automatic victory for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The former ruling party now leads the opposition camp and controls the Upper House. Even though the DPJ is losing favor with the public, the LDP has not benefited from the shift. In the Asahi’s latest poll, the LDP is indeed a point or so ahead of the DPJ in public support, but each party is only at the 16% range, far below their traditional levels.
Almost 60% of the electorate – a whopping percentage – do not support any party. These independent voters have been willing to switch parties in general elections and are responsible for the see-sawing of election results in recent years. If a snap election were to be called, it is unclear whether one party or the other would be the clear winner or loser. Indeed, a host of small parties that have proliferated in recent years might be the beneficiaries, further gumming up the political works in Japan.
Dr William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow