Recently elected Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is scheduled to attend the U.N. General Assembly dialogues in New York this week. Noda will be the fourth Japanese prime minister in four consecutive years to attend the conference. A new prime minister has attended the dialogues every year since 2008, due to the high turnover rate of executive leaders in Japan.
Although the primary purpose of Noda’s visit is to participate in the U.N. dialogues, Noda’s agenda also includes a separate meeting with President Obama, where they will have a chance to discuss furthering the U.S.–Japan alliance. This will be a perfect opportunity for Noda to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Naoto Kan. During his short term as prime minister, Kan called off a meeting with Obama earlier this year where they were scheduled to make a joint statement on the 50-year U.S.–Japan alliance.
From the beginning, Noda has repeated that the U.S.–Japan alliance is his top foreign policy priority. For example, the Noda administration has decided to honor the relocation of the Futenma Marine Base. Heritage’s Bruce Klingner published a report earlier this year citing several reasons why a U.S. military presence in Japan is crucial and ways the two countries can strategically resolve the issues surrounding the relocation.
In his first press conference after being appointed as foreign minister, Koichiro Genba affirmed that he had received specific instructions from the prime minister to “deepen the Japan–U.S. alliance…and quickly push necessary measures in line with the Japan–U.S. agreement.” On Monday, Genba met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and promised to implement the long-overdue relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. Policy Chief Seiji Maehara has also suggested that Japan consider loosening its export policy on weapons control. Allowing the Self Defense Force to have ready access to more weapons would be a drastic change in Japanese defense policy and would demonstrate a serious effort in improving the U.S.–Japan alliance.
Noda is sending a clear signal, at least verbally, that he is different from his passive predecessors, many of whom were unable to realize any of their foreign policy goals before they were rushed out of the executive office.
Noda has attempted to tackle several other controversial issues head-on, including the daunting task of pulling his country out of financial disarray while simultaneously dealing with the costly recovery effort from the March 11 natural disaster. Tapping into his financial expertise as former finance minister, Noda is preparing the country for major financial policy changes. One of the ways he hopes to improve Japan’s global financial standing is to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. In one of his first public policy addresses, Noda unveiled his plan to establish a federal Reconstruction Agency to expedite the rebuilding efforts in northeastern Japan.
Kumi Yokoe, senior visiting fellow in the Japan Fellows Program at Heritage, explains in her weekly Heritage Japanese Newsletter (request it here) why fiscal reform in Japan has become so difficult. Yokoe is an alumna of The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, the same policy school that Noda, Genba, and Maehara proudly claim as their alma mater.
After World War II, the Japanese government began to freely give out federal funding, adopting a “hand-out” policy, where legislators did not worry about how much money was in the government’s wallet. During 1986 to 1991, a period of a high economic growth in Japan, legislators thought it was a “given” that the Japanese government would continue to increase their revenue. In Japan, a popular fiscal policy has always superseded a responsible fiscal policy.
Yokoe says that for Noda to be successful, he will need to create a political atmosphere where responsible policy can be implemented, no matter how unpopular it may be. This will be very difficult in a politically sensitive culture where one inappropriate comment can be the end of one’s career, as evidenced by the resignation of newly appointed Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Yoshio Hachiro after he made an off-color comment about radiation poisoning.
In a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Klingner expressed concern but also some optimism for the future of Japanese politics. “Someday,” Klingner wrote, “Japan may experience a strategic political realignment that results in parties that offer real choice between opposing political ideologies and policy objectives.” Yokoe concurs, acknowledging that what Japan needs right now is a humble leader who is willing to put aside his pride to directly address all of his country’s problems.
Noda, who has likened himself to a loach (a bottom-feeding fish), has promised that he will “get down in the mud” and do whatever needs to be done in order to serve his country. This new approach to leadership is a welcome change for the Japanese, who are sick and tired of the past elitist leaders who were too prideful to actually put the effort into fixing Japan’s problems, alienating their constituents in the process.
Although the outcome of Noda’s political rhetoric is yet to be seen, so far, so good.