Kan presses the reset button

Having successfully fended off Ozawa Ichirō’s challenge to his leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan — indeed, having defeated Ozawa by an unexpectedly large margin, not only winning the vote among Diet members but also receiving the support of 249 of 300 district-level party chapters and sixty percent of the vote among local representatives — Prime Minister Kan Naoto finally has an opportunity to govern. After all, since succeeding Hatoyama Yukio in June Kan has spent much of his time focused on elections, first with the House of Councillors election in July and then the showdown with Ozawa.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that within days of his victory Kan reshuffled his cabinet and the DPJ leadership. I am generally skeptical of the efficacy of cabinet reshuffles. Doling out cabinet and sub-cabinet posts is, of course, one of the more important tools in a party leader’s toolbox as he tries to induce good behavior on the part of backbenchers. But too much turnover at the head of ministries can stymie policy change. Every change of minister comes with a period of inactivity as the minister learns the job; reshuffle too frequently and by the time the minister is ready to lead, he will be on the way out. This problem was characteristic of LDP rule in particular.
During its first year in power, the DPJ avoided a wholesale reshuffle, despite its declining popularity (the usual time for a reshuffle) — even Kan held off when he took over from Hatoyama. However, having secured his control of the DPJ, giving him a two-year term as party leader during which the government will not have to face the electorate if it doesn’t want to, I suppose it is only natural that Kan would want to appoint a cabinet of his own making. And the DPJ certainly benefits from more party members getting experience in government, giving that virtually none had any experience of power before the DPJ won last year.
The new cabinet is being billed as a “non-Ozawa” cabinet. No member of Ozawa’s group received a cabinet post, although Kaieda Banri, who, while not being a longtime Ozawa associate, supported Ozawa’s challenge, was appointed as economy minister. There will be little turnover in the cabinet’s most important positions. Sengoku Yoshito stays on as chief cabinet secretary and Noda Yoshihiko will continue to serve as finance minister. With Okada Katsuya’s becoming DPJ secretary-general, Maehara Seiji, formerly responsible for transport and Okinawan affairs, will move over to the foreign ministry. Kitazawa Toshimi stays on as defense minister, ensuring a degree of continuity as far as Futenma is concerned. Renhō and Genba Koichirō will stay on the cabinet’s administrative reform posts. The cabinet also includes former Shimane governor (and non-MP) Katayama Yoshiro as minister of internal affairs and communications, with an additional portfolio for regional revitalization and Kano Michihiko as agriculture minister (a post he held in 1989 in the Kaifu government).
Kan has presented his new cabinet as a cabinet that will “make good on its promises.” That remains to be seen, as the prime minister has a difficult road ahead.
Kan spent his time on the campaign trail talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs.” But talking about employment is one thing — doing something about it is a different matter entirely. The rising yen has triggered more hollowing out in the manufacturing sector, as businesses relocate to cheaper countries within the region. A recent METI survey found, for example, that forty percent of manufacturing sector respondents would move factories overseas were the yen to continue to rise. In the immediate aftermath of the DPJ election the Bank of Japan did intervene in foreign exchange markets, which has at least temporarily halted the yen’s rise (although Felix Salmon suggests that since the BoJ did not sterilize its intervention this time, it could have anti-deflationary effects).
But as Richard Katz argues in the Financial Times, intervention to weaken the yen is little more than a temporary fix. He notes that a weak yen does nothing to help wean Japan off export-dependent growth, and cannot reverse the long-term trend towards a stronger yen. (And if Japan’s is but the first in a series of competitive devaluations with its trading rivals in the Eurozone, it is hard to see what Japan will gain from intervention.)
The problem for Kan is that the path from short term to long term is perilous. In the short term, economic success will depend on the traditional export-led model, meaning that when a survey reveals that Japan’s manufacturers will accelerate offshoring if the yen continues to strengthen, a government focused on economic recovery has little choice but to pressure the BoJ to intervene. But over the longer term, Japan needs to revitalize the service sector to produce a more balanced growth model (while trying to put the government’s finances on a healthier trajectory).
This objective, easily the overriding purpose of the Kan government and its successors, would be difficult enough in the best of political circumstances. These are not the best of political circumstances.
First, although Kan has a new mandate as DPJ president, he still has work to do consolidating his control of the party. Whether Okada will be able to help him in the post as secretary-general remains to be seen — as Michael Cucek notes, Okada may not be the ideal man for the job, seeing as how his appointment to the post was not uncontested. The main problem within the party may still be Ozawa. While Kan’s margin of victory may silence Ozawa for the moment, it remains to be seen how Ozawa will react to Kan’s decision to exclude Ozawa’s lieutenants from the cabinet and party leadership. I do not expect Ozawa to leave the party, not least because it is far from certain that he would get many to follow him out, especially now that the Kan government has a bit more buoyancy in the polls. Having failed to unseat Kan, Ozawa may recede into the kind of role I thought he might take earlier, that of an elder statesman, periodically declaiming on or critiquing the government’s decisions but not actively organizing an intra-party opposition.
But while Ozawa may be less of a problem, Kan will still have to contend with backbenchers unhappy with the direction taken by the government, as Kan implicitly acknowledged by suggesting that he will have a “cabinet of 412” (referring to the number of DPJ legislators). The inclusion of DPJ MPs in policy deliberations is unavoidable as the Kan government tries to revise or scale back the party’s promises in the 2009 manifesto, but it need not be cumbersome if the prime minister is able to take control of the policy agenda.
Whether he is able to will depend on the opposition. Kan still has to find a way to coax the opposition parties to support his proposals, without which they will die in parliamentary proceedings. That the Kan’s approval ratings have shot up to the same level as when he took over should help him — if he does not squander public support through indecision or inaction. Arguably the only way Kan can succeed is by doing what Koizumi did: appealing to the public directly in order to break the resistance of opposition parties and opponents within his own party. But to bring the public along Kan has to offer something in the first place. The challenge for Kan, then, is to develop an economic program that includes macro- and microeconomic policies, that attacks wasteful spending, includes deregulation and tax reform, and promises something better for the public. If the government is incapable of developing this program internally, Kan should take a page from the playbook of prime ministers past and convene a blue-ribbon advisory council headed by Kan and composed of prominent figures from business, labor, academia, the bureaucracy, and the political opposition. The commission would have to be as much a public relations exercise as a policymaking exercise, regularly issuing statements and drafts that reveal the emerging program and allowing the process to dominate public discussion.
The turn to advisory-group policymaking would be at odds with the DPJ’s professed desire for cabinet-led policymaking, but at this point I’m not sure that the Kan government has much choice. I’ve lost count of the number of “growth strategies” the DPJ-led government has issued over the past year, but whatever the number, it’s too many. The public is willing to give Kan and the DPJ another chance, but it is clear that what they have been doing isn’t working. 
If Kan is unable to bring the public along with him, the outcome will be easy enough to predict: low public support, opposition obstructionism, and unrest within the DPJ, the same cycle that has brought low every prime minister since Koizumi.

2 thoughts on “Kan presses the reset button

  1. A number of economists argue – with some justification it seems – that this intervention where BOJ didn't get rid of the extra money created is beneficial irrespective of what it does to the value of the yen. They argue that a round of competitive devaluations without removing the extra money would be a good thing. Injecting – printing – money is inflationary, but a bit of inflation is exactly what many central banks would like to see now, the BOJ in particular. Injecting funds through devaluations would have similar effect to a round of stimulus spending, but is much more acceptable to conservative and protectionist governments and financial markets principally opposed to direct state spending. The attempted devaluations would be just a fig leaf for printing money in a politically acceptable way.


  2. I'll have to nitpick around a bit and mention that what most people reading here are likely to perceive as the \”minister of economy\” is Oohata Akihiro, i.e. the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry – at least that's the guy whom i look at to see what the government has got to say about energy policy, etc.It cold be perhaps helpful if you clarified a bit what the difference would be between Oohata-san's and Kaieda-san's portfolios?


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