Japan's Next Prime Minister Likely a U.S. Ally

On Monday, Aug. 29, Japan’s ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) will meet and choose a new leader to succeed Naoto Kan, who is stepping down as that country’s prime minister.  To many it doesn’t matter:  After just more than a year in power, Kan has been dogged by the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear plant disaster of March 11 that has left nearly 100,000 people still in evacuation centers.  Despite Kan’s major spending cuts and calls for doubling the consumption tax to 10%, Japan’s debt is still mountainous. 
Instead of showing the unity that governments in other countries do in facing a crisis of this nature, Japan’s leaders continue the intrigues and insider politics that will make Kan’s successor the sixth prime minister in as many years.  In the 20 years since Japan’s economic boom ended, the nation has had 14 prime ministers.  That has to be some kind of modern record for insecure governing.  Italy, not exactly known for stability in politics, has had half that many prime ministers in as many years.
“Nero supposedly fiddled as Rome burnt,” concluded Mure Dickie of the Financial Times in Tokyo.  “Japanese politicians are less tuneful:  They bicker and plot.”
As Byzantine and insider-ish as Japanese politics are, official Washington pays close attention to what is happening in the tea rooms and private dinner parties where the DPJ will decide its new leader next week.  With the U.S.’ 7th Fleet stationed in Japan and that country’s “floating gas station” refueling ships from nations on their way to Afghanistan, Japan remains our most important ally in the Pacific.  The importance of the U.S-Japan relationship is enhanced by the saber-rattling from North Korea and China that is heard every so often.
Next week, at least, Washington can breathe a bit easy.  All signs in Tokyo point to a new DPJ leader and new prime minister who will be a trusted partner in the relationship between Japan and the U.S.  Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda has come down foursquare for maintaining that alliance. 
“And he will  not rush to Beijing just to shake hands with [President] Hu Jintao,” one veteran Japanese political reporter e-mailed me from Tokyo, referring to the nervousness in Washington last year when Kan was challenged for the leadership by archrival Ichiro Ozawa (who had led a delegation to Beijing and spoke of distancing Japan from the U.S.).
Noda’s leading opponent, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, is the secret favorite of hard-liners on Beijing in the U.S.  An unabashed hawk on Communist China, the 48-year-old Maehara was forced out of his Cabinet slot earlier this year following reports he received a campaign contribution in his race for the Diet from a Korean woman who used a Japanese name (a not-uncommon practice for non-Japanese citizens who want to avoid discrimination, but nonetheless a violation of campaign finance laws that bar donations from non-Japanese).  Once Maehara was out of the Cabinet, China’s foreign minister spoke of warmer relations with Japan for his country.
Campaign finance scandals—and scandals in general—can sideline a politician in Japan, but they are not fatal.  So Maehara is back and one of the leading candidates for the top job.
Given the likely choices to succeed Kan, Washington can relax next week.  But perhaps not for long:  As part of the country’s political instability, another national election is likely to be held, sooner rather than later.