Kan Naoto, Hatoyama Yukio’s second finance minister, was the first DPJ member to declare his intention to run in the party election scheduled for Friday — and it seems unlikely, for reasons outlined by Michael Cucek here, that he will be denied the job.
What would be the significance of Kan’s replacing Hatoyama?
I think that what I wrote when Kan became finance minister is even more apropos for Kan’s becoming prime minister: “While it is common to point to DPJ politicians like Hatoyama and Ozawa and conclude that the DPJ is a pale imitation of the LDP, Kan’s career shows that the DPJ’s victory has brought new politicians with different backgrounds and different concerns from LDP politicians to the fore.” Should Kan become prime minister, he will be the first prime minister since Koizumi not directly related (son or grandson) to another prime minister, and the first non-hereditary politician since Mori. He began his career toiling on the margins of Japan’s reformist left, a follower of Eda Saburō, who tried and failed to modernize the JSP, and lost three elections before finally winning a seat as a representative of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1980.
Indeed, the political origins of Hatoyama and Kan could not be more different. Not only is Hatoyama the scion of a political dynasty, he seemingly entered politics on a whim — the family thought his brother Kunio would be the politician while Yukio would pursue his academic career. Kan, however, became involved in politics purely out of his convictions, starting as a student activist. Had Kan been interested in pursuing personal ambitions, he could have found better ways to do it than by following a marginal center-left politician.
Accordingly, unlike Hatoyama, he has a core set of beliefs that may in fact be best called social democratic or liberal in the American sense. He is egalitarian, a believer in transparent, clean, and accountable government. He became famous as minister of health during the mid-1990s for taking on his ministry’s bureaucrats over an AIDS-tainted blood scandal, which may be an easy position for a politician to take (especially during the “bureaucrat-bashing” 1990s), but nevertheless conformed with the focus of Kan’s career in politics. During the months leading up to the election, he became the DPJ’s point man on administrative reform, a role he continued to play when the Hatoyama government formed.
Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to say that his beliefs are something like Eda’s, who in 1962 stressed that he wanted Japan to have “the American standard of living, Soviet levels of social protection, British parliamentary democracy, and Japanese pacifism.” While these days one would not think to look to the Soviet Union as a model for social protection — Scandinavia would probably be the model today — this mix of policies might best capture Kan’s politics, perhaps with the exception of Japanese-style pacifism (more on this momentarily). He certainly made clear last summer that he believes strongly in the necessity of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy in Japan, and as finance minister
Kan has said fairly little over the years about foreign policy and Japan’s relations with the US and its neighbors. To the extent that he has talked about foreign policy, for instance on previous occasions that he led the DPJ, his views have been virtually at the center in terms of the spectrum of opinion within the DPJ. He as acknowledged the importance of the alliance and the US forward presence on multiple occasions, but when Koizumi was prime minister, he criticized the government for its slavish subservience to the US and for not balancing the US-Japan relationship with the other “pillars” of Japanese foreign policy, multilateral cooperation at the UN and bilateral and multilateral relations within Asia. He isn’t exactly dovish, but he’s no hawk either. Accordingly, I would not be surprised if Okada Katsuya either stays on as foreign minister or continues to play an important foreign policy role in another capacity.
However, the details of Kan’s policy beliefs may be less important at this juncture than his biography. Given that he is a conviction politician, given his ministerial experience (something that Hatoyama lacked), and given his emphasis on open politics, Kan may be the right man to restore public trust in the DPJ-led government and lead his party to a respectable showing in next month’s upper house election. The central task for the Hatoyama government was the restore public faith in government after years of LDP misrule. The central task for a Kan government would be to restore public faith in government after years of LDP misrule — and nine months of Hatoyama misrule. If the public does not trust the government, it is difficult to see how Japan will escape its economic stagnation. As I’ve said before, if the public cannot trust the government to be honest about its intentions and forthright about how public money is spent, no government will be in a position to ask for something like a consumption tax increase.
Kan certainly has the right biography for this purpose — and having been a cabinet minister before, he should be more capable of managing the cabinet than Hatoyama was, avoiding the self-inflicted wounds that ultimately destroyed the Hatoyama government.
What about that other task facing the new government, the Futenma problem? Kan has said little about it, refusing, it seems, to stray beyond his brief as finance minister. However, it seems unlikely that Kan — or any other DPJ politician — will rush to embrace a plan that is now being written off as unimplementable. Perhaps he will have the backbone to scrap the thing entirely. One way or another, the demise of Hatoyama following his shift on Futenma and the collapse of the coalition with the SDPJ has undoubtedly poisoned the issue. If the Obama administration were smart, it might learn from the mistakes it made last year when the Hatoyama government took office and give the new government time to find its bearings and plan a course of action, whether that course of action is trying to soften up public opinion on some relocation option within Okinawa or searching again for an option outside of Okinawa. If the US is actually serious about resolving the problem, it is not enough to say that Japanese public opinion is simply a problem for the Japanese government to deal with: to insist once again on a plan that cannot win the support of the Japanese public and expect another prime minister to fall on his sword for it would be sheer folly.
Ultimately if Kan is the next prime minister and if the Ozawa regime is truly uprooted, the DPJ will have an opportunity to reclaim some of the goodwill that has been squandered since September.
(Image courtesy of Curzon from Mutantfrog/The Coming Anarchy, based on a whimsical Facebook status update of mine from earlier today)