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Don’t underestimate too much Prime Minister Kan

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When you look at Prime Minister Naoto Kan, you have to keep two things in mind.  As a Japanese politician, he is bound to disappoint.  But with his background as a civic activist, rather than coming from a political dynasty, he is also capable of surprising. 

When Naoto Kan took over the reins a few months back as Prime Minister from Yukio Hatoyama, there was a moment of hope and optimism.  He might realize the Democratic Party of Japan’s dream of creating a new Japan.

Kan was deeply concerned that Japan’s enormous public debt might lead the country to a Greek-like financial crisis.  The Japanese public is also concerned and would probably be prepared to swallow some bitter pills.  So Kan proposed increasing Japan’s consumption tax.  But as a few negative reactions were voiced, the bumbling started -- yes, may be, let’s discuss it, not now, in the future.   

The upshot was that the DPJ was walloped in the recent Upper House elections.  None of the smaller parties want to join a coalition.  Their support will be necessary to pass legislation, and policy making will now be very difficult. 

The previously governing Liberal Democratic Party bounced back and is now strutting around Tokyo.  Their time in the wilderness may be brief, particularly given Japanese politicians’ capacity to shoot themselves in the foot.

The next test on the agenda will be the September elections for the President and Secretary-General of the DPJ.  Ichiro Ozawa, “Mr Evil”, the former DPJ Secretary General, is emboldened by this mess and is seeking to undermine Prime Minister Kan who may not now survive September’s elections for the presidency of the DPJ.  His support in the DPJ is now dwindling.  Ozawa may run for Party President, even though he has a major corruption case outstanding, and his public support is weak.

The month of August is always a good time for surprises in the Northern Hemisphere (Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the communist putsch in the former USSR, to name just a couple).

It may not be on the same scale but Kan has created a minor surprise these past few days.  First, he stopped members of his Cabinet visiting the Yasukuni Shrine on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the end of World War 2.  This is the first occasion on record when no Cabinet member visits this monument which celebrates Japan’s war heroes, and greatly annoys Japan’s neighbors.  Members of the LDP, including party leader Sadakazu Tanigaki and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did visit the Shrine.

More importantly, Kan apologized to Korea for the occupation which began 100 years ago.  On 10 August, precisely one hundred years ago, the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty was concluded, marking the beginning of the colonial rule of thirty six years.  Kan said, “To the tremendous damage and sufferings that this colonial rule caused, I express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and my heartfelt apology.  Guided by such understanding, I will build a future-oriented Japan-Republic of Korea relationship by placing the next one hundred years to come in my prospect.  … in response to the expectations of the Korean people, I will transfer precious archives originated from the Korean Peninsula that were brought to Japan during the period of Japan's rule through the Governor-General of Korea and the Government of Japan possesses, such as the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty.” 

Needless to say, Kan’s apology has provoked claims from Korea that it was not sincere, and that he should invalidate the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty.  Some Chinese journalists claim that it was a political ploy with Japan seeking to gang up with Korea against China.  You can never make everyone happy.  North Korea is even complaining that the apology was made only to South Korea -- the hermit kingdom would also like an apology!

It is true that there are still many things to settle on the path to creating a real East Asian Community like the “comfort women” and the rights people of Korean descent forcibly moved to Japan.

But it is difficult to deny that Prime Minister Kan has made a positive step.  On the economic front, he has also shifted.  Consumption taxes are now off the agenda.  With the economy in a renewed state of weakness, further stimulus is being considered, as are measures to tackle the rising yen.

Mr Kan may yet succeed.



Statement by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, 10 August 2010