Naoto Kan Is Just the Leader Japan Needs Right Now

With the election of Naoto Kan, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has achieved a miracle. Following the resignations of embattled Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and scandal-tainted secretary-general Ichiro Ozawa, the public has returned to the party that won a majority of historic proportions less than a year ago. According to Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, the new government boasts a 60 percent approval rating, compared with 17 percent for the Hatoyama government in May. The Yomiuri Shimbun, another daily, found that government support among independent voters—by far the most important bloc—swelled from 9 to 52 percent.

More significantly, the DPJ’s chances of winning a majority in upper-house elections in July have improved dramatically. The lesson is that the public has by no means lost faith in the DPJ as an agent of political change. If anything, low public approval reflected the idea that Hatoyama and Ozawa were insufficiently distinct from LDP rule and its pathologies. Kan does not suffer from that problem. Having begun his career as a member of a small center-left party and earned a reputation as a crusader for clean government and participatory democracy, Kan will enable the DPJ to reclaim the platform that first brought it to power: the creation of a transparent government that answers to the public’s fears about Japan’s economic future.

The problems facing Kan are no less daunting than those that greeted his predecessors. The IMF recently predicted that Japan’s national debt will reach 250 percent of GDP by 2015. Like previous governments, Kan’s has to find a way to rein in public spending while providing for Japan’s aging population, promoting new forms of economic growth, and reducing carbon emissions.

In Kan, Japan may have its best chance to make progress on these fronts. As the son of a salaryman, Kan has Everyman credentials that his patrician predecessors lacked. It will be easier for a middle-class prime minister to ask for sacrifices like a consumption-tax increase than for prime ministers like Aso and Hatoyama, who hailed from wealthy political dynasties.

Moreover, for Kan, improving Japan’s democracy is not just political boilerplate: he has spent his career working on behalf of greater public participation in government and more communication between policymakers and citizens. He is the right leader for restoring public confidence in the government through greater transparency.

It helps that Kan and his top advisers, especially Yukio Edano, the new DPJ secretary-general, have sought to distance the new government from Ozawa. More than any policy issue, Ozawa had become the main polarizing force within the party, as members debated the reforms that concentrated power in his office, as well as his response to the ongoing investigation of his campaign funds. One of Kan’s first decisions as party leader was to create a new party policymaking outfit that would facilitate communication between the government and DPJ M.P.s. By restoring the confidence of party members in party leadership, Kan will be better able to ask them to support ambitious policies to attack the country’s economic problems.

A leading advocate of introducing Westminster-style cabinet government to Japan, Kan sees the cabinet as the fount of democratic leadership, a force for creative policymaking in contrast to Japan’s bureaucracy. And unlike Hatoyama, Kan may be capable of making cabinet government a reality. Having served as a cabinet minister—first as health minister in 1996 and again as finance minister and minister for national strategy under Hatoyama—Kan has managerial experience that his predecessor wholly lacked, which may prove useful for managing cabinet debates. Furthermore, while Kan retained 11 ministers from the Hatoyama government, the new ministers are, if anything, even more committed to restoring Japan’s finances and reforming the policymaking process.

Still, there is no guarantee that the Kan government will be able to overcome Japan’s economic challenges—or win enough seats in this summer’s elections to free the DPJ of its dependence on coalition partners. But headed by a prime minister with the common touch who stresses transparency, the Kan government may be Japan’s best chance—yes, better than Koizumi—of restoring the public’s trust and making the decisions necessary to overcome Japan’s profound economic insecurity.

Harris, a doctoral student in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes the blog Observing Japan.

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