Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was forced to resign on March 6 following the disclosure that he had received donations from a foreigner, a violation of Japanese election law. He admitted that he had received approximately $3,000 over a six-year period.
Maehara’s resignation was surprising not only for its abruptness but also due to the meager sums and apparently innocent intentions of the donor. Maehara received the money from an elderly Korean who has resided in Japan for decades and knew Maehara since he was in eighth grade.
Maehara is the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) most serious thinker on foreign policy. His departure is all the more startling since there were growing expectations that he would replace Naoto Kan as prime minister, possibly within months. Several Japanese polls showed respondents saw Maehara as the most capable of potential candidates. Some Japanese officials privately speculated that Maehara might attend the 2+2 meetings in Washington in May as foreign minister and then return for a June summit with President Obama as prime minister.
Maehara’s quick decision to resign demonstrates a striking character difference from former DPJ General Secretary Ichiro Ozawa, who continues to resist addressing his own scandals.
Maehara’s resignation will have several detrimental impacts on Japan’s leadership. The DPJ’s image will be further tarnished, since Maehara now joins former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Ozawa in departing due to money scandals.
Prime Minister Kan will be further weakened by growing perceptions of ineptitude, and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will be emboldened to continue resisting calls for bipartisan solutions. This will ensure that Japan’s characteristic political stalemate and inability to address its problems continues.
Maehara was an exception to the DPJ’s initially naïve and simplistic foreign policy ideals. To its credit, the DPJ subsequently reversed course and abandoned most of its security policies after a belated recognition of the Chinese and North Korean threats.
The United States will not respond publicly to Maehara’s resignation other than platitudes about being able to work with any foreign minister. But privately, Washington will be concerned about the potential impact on implementing U.S. force realignment plans on Okinawa, which Maehara championed, and the future course of DPJ security policies.
The DPJ entered office in September 2009 amidst euphoric predictions that it represented a revolutionary change in Japanese politics from the scandal-ridden, lethargic, and seemingly inept LDP. Instead, the DPJ has been a political Icarus whose political claims soared too high, thus making its subsequent plummet all the more dramatic.