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Japan’s Political Battles at a time of National Crisis

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • March 21, 2011

    Prime Minister Kan Naoto faces the gigantic task of national reconstruction following the mega quake and the tsunami which wrought massive devastation across northern Japan. Kan exhorted his countrymen to remain calm and together face this sudden, unprecedented, challenge.

    In an extremely rare public appearance, Emperor Akihito went on live TV to urge an all-out rescue effort, and stated that he was “deeply worried” about this crisis which is “unprecedented in scale”. Highly respected by his countrymen, the 77-year-old Emperor said: “I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times.”

    To address this national calamity, Prime Minister Kan declared his wish to build a “crisis management government” by inducting Opposition lawmakers. This unusual step is aimed at creating an administration that is better able to tackle the daunting tasks of providing relief to quake victims, restoring the infrastructure and containing the crisis at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

    Indeed, the immediate response to the crisis by Kan and the national agencies diverted attention from the looming political meltdown of the DPJ government, allowing it to restore some measure of confidence in the national leadership at this critical time. Kan, rightly, initiated a dialogue with the opposition parties on “how to strengthen the Cabinet and its crisis response”. On his instructions, Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, proposed raising the number of Cabinet seats from 17 to 20. Kan had in mind invitations to the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito to join in a grand coalition to address the nation’s new challenge. The hope was that a crisis-management Cabinet will open the doors for building a coalition framework and a stable administration.

    It soon transpired, however, that prominent opposition members were wary of sharing responsibility for any missteps by the government in its crisis management efforts, though they approved the idea of expanding the Cabinet. Some LDP members even called the request no more than a ploy to spread the blame for mishandling the crisis. LDP President and leader of the Opposition in the Lower House, Sadakazu Tanigaki, rejected Kan’s offer of the post of Vice Prime Minister and minister in charge of restoration. The New Komeito executive also conveyed its decision not to nominate any of its members to the Cabinet.

    It thus transpired that political battles cannot be set aside even while dealing with a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Before the crisis, opposition parties were pressing Kan to call a snap election by refusing to help enact vital budget bills. Even within the DPJ, there were elements that were plotting to force their unpopular leader to quit so that their political fortune could be better protected. Even Japan’s intellectual community were utterly disappointed with Kan’s incompetence and political immaturity (as well as with his predecessor Hatoyama’s ‘childish’ behaviour), as this author found during discussions with Japanese counterparts prior to the crisis. They were dismissive of the DPJ leadership and even joked about Kan’s survivability as a matter minutes, and not months or years. Kan’s voter support base had sunk to 20 per cent before the March 11 quake. He was criticized for his flip-flop policy, bungling diplomatic relations and making a mess of governing the country.

    The earthquake has, however, given a fresh lease of life for the DPJ. Since then, the LDP has declared a cease-fire of sorts. The idea of a national coalition government was indeed floated even before the present national crisis. Though the LDP leadership felt that a grand coalition would be appropriate to deal with issues of national importance, it considered the idea as pre-mature. Professor Koichi Nakano of Sophia University endorses the idea of a national grand coalition, saying that the “Kan government should try all kinds of things to do what works.”

    Besides the legislation required for enlarging the Cabinet, the government has to pass laws to authorize a budget and craft policy for reconstruction. Even before the mega-quake struck, Japan was burdened with massive government debt. Now it needs to handle large-scale humanitarian operations in the ravaged northeast. Economists have estimated that the government needs as much as $200 billion, nearly 4 per cent of Japan’s economic output and more than what an economy like Egypt produces in a year. It is a challenge for the Kan administration to work out plans to raise these finances and use them in reconstruction activities. Japanese economists are suggesting an extra emergency budget of about $127 billion immediately.

    A grand coalition could have had significant disadvantages as well. It could have proved to be totally unworkable and thus not accomplish anything. Even if the grand coalition did not materialize as Kan proposed, his government need not worry as the opposition parties will be under stronger pressure to cooperate with the government.

    Only four days before the quake, Japan’s Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji had resigned over receipt of political donations from a foreign resident; this had badly damaged the international community’s confidence in Japanese diplomacy. The series of scandals in recent years has considerably eroded the public confidence about the political leadership. Prolonged political paralysis only hurts Japan’s national interest and needs to change. The Prime Minister needs the opposition’s full support. Nation building must get the top priority.

    In times of distress situations in other countries, Japan has extended its self-less generosity. It is time for the rest of the world to reciprocate now. All ingredients needed to undertake the task of reconstruction are there in the Japanese people: discipline, poise, calm, patience, orderliness, resilience and social cohesiveness. Writing in the New York Times, Nassrine Azimi speaks about how the Japanese people are “summoning the spirit” of Japan. He adds: “Centuries of natural disasters have made them attuned to the fragility of existence – but that acceptance has not translated into resignation. Rather, it has distilled itself into the arts and crafts, into architecture, poetry, gardens, and the rituals of the tea ceremony. Unstable as the earth has always been beneath their feet, the Japanese have found myriad ways of building, cherishing and celebrating the land. They will surely do so again.” The disaster will not push past the Japanese stoicism threshold. The “crying tears of blood” of the survivors will only inspire to rejuvenate the Japanese people to build a new and better Japan.