Can Japan’s Kan Hold On?

Just as President Barack Obama is nearing the half-way mark of his first term in office, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, recently passed the half-way mark of his premiership, six months after succeeding ex-premier Yukio Hatoyama.

Okay, that was kind of snarky. Unlike Obama, Kan doesn’t have a fixed term, save that of parliament itself which has about three more years left to run barring a snap general election. But none of his four predecessors as premier lasted more than a year in office and it looks increasingly like the old, depressing pattern will reassert itself – namely, falling public approval reflected in the polls, intraparty unease and strife, constant newspaper speculation and finally resignation. Will Kan be another Japanese premier who leaves office before anyone outside Japan learned his name?

Kan recently told Hatoyama that he wouldn’t quit, even if his approval rating in the public opinion polls fell to one percent. Unfortunately for him, they are moving in that direction. The public approval rating for his cabinet recently fell to 21 percent, according to an Asahi Shimbun newspaper survey.

For the first time, more respondents – 27 percent – said they would vote for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) than the 23 percent who would vote for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) now in power, although neither figure was exactly a whole-hearted vote of confidence.

Kan got behind the power curve early on, partly through his own mistakes and partly because of circumstances. The first hurdle, scarcely a month after taking office, was the election to the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament.

His party was not exactly crushed ala the Democrats in America, but the DPJ did lose seats when it needed to win some to maintain a majority. Now with the upper house in the hands of the opposition, Kan must deal with a divided Diet, without having the lower house votes needed to override the upper body’s decisions.

Kan has tried to cultivate new coalition partners among the numerous minor parties in the Diet, but so far without much success. His remaining coalition partner, the People’s New Party, is small, and his predecessor, Hatoyama, kicked the Social Democrats (also a very small party), out of the coalition earlier this year.

The upper house election was scarcely behind him before Kan was fighting for his political life in the party presidential election against political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa. He won handily in total party primary vote but just barely carried a majority of his parliamentary colleagues.

In the middle of this, of course, came the confrontation with China over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain for ramming Japanese coast guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku islands (called Daioyutai by the Chinese).

At first, the government detained the captain with the aim of bringing charges against him; then it abruptly returned him to a hero’s welcome back in China, apparently buckling under to a threat by China to withhold natural resources needed for Japan’s industrial production. Polls indicate by a wide margin that Japanese condemned the government’s handling in the affair. Kan emerged from both contests as damaged goods.

The aftermath of the Senkaku affair lingered on into the autumn when the powerful Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi were censured by the upper house for allowing a coast guard officer to leak videos of the confrontation to the media (even though they pretty plainly showed the Chinese fishing boat ramming the coast guard vessels.)

Meanwhile, after a surprisingly healthy third quarter, most economists are predicting a much smaller growth rate in Japan for the final quarter of the year. “Kan Can’t Seem to Catch a Break” ran the headline in the Nikkei Weekly reporting the possible downturn.

Well, in politics you play the cards you are dealt, and Kan hasn’t had many good cards during his six months in office. And truth be told, he hasn’t played the ones he did get very well either. His vague talk of raising the sales tax in the lead-up to the July election, which many observers considered a pretty bizarre election ploy, probably cost him seats.

Kan has always been mainly a domestic policies man – he made his name in the 1990s as Minister of Health in the fusion government of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, exposing a bureaucratic cover-up. For a while he was the most popular political figure in Japan. Alas, little of that former popularity seems to stick to him now.

So it has been his misfortune that foreign policy and security issues have dominated the public discussion for the past three months, especially following North Korea’s murderous shelling of an offshore South Korean island in November. Kan’s one solid foreign policy achievement was his government’s official apology to South Korea on the 100th anniversary of the Japanese takeover of Korea. That should stand Japan in good stead as it is drawn closer to Korean affairs.

Kan was fortunate that the issue of relocating the American Futenma Marine Corps base on Okinawa was quiescent during his first six months in office, thereby avoiding a debilitating confrontation with Washington and the people on Okinawa. But the issue will raise its head again now that the island’s gubernatorial election has been held.

As the new year approaches, the question is whether Kan can turn his winter of discontent into glorious summer. Many feel he must make some Big Move to rescue his leadership. One idea might be to grab onto some major policy issue, such as joining the Trans Pacific Trade Community, and use it like former premier Junichiro Koizumi used postal privatization to win a popular election.

Or he might initiate some major political shake up, such as a “grand coalition” with the LDP (once considered from his side during the Fukuda administration) or possibly by calling for a snap general election sometime next year, although it is hard to see how that benefits him, considering the DPJ would probably lose seats.

He has one major source of strength in his party’s huge majority in the House of Representatives, gained in last year’s historic general election. There is no possibility of the DPJ losing its majority through a vote of no confidence. Kan’s main problem as he approaches the “second half” of his term is losing the confidence of his own party and the Japanese people.