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Wednesday, September 7, 2011     GET REAL

Onward through the mud: A self-described 'eel' leads post-Fukushima Japan

By Donald Kirk,

TOKYO — Japan appears mired in a pattern of mediocre leadership that seems to combine deep-seated conservatism with a brand of nationalism of a kind increasingly seen throughout the region.


Japan's Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, center, who was chosen as the new leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), shakes hands with (from left) former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi, Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Trade Minister Banri Kaieda and former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara at the party's leadership vote in Tokyo Aug. 29.     Reuters/Toru Hanai
Just two years after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) defeated the long-entrenched Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on the crest of a wave of social, political and diplomatic reform, one has to wonder if there’s any difference between the two. Or, if there is a difference on some issues, what difference does it make?

New Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda takes over a system that’s weakened by the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March, but he’s hardly dedicated to serious social reform. The surprise winner this week of a vote for leadership of the ruling DPJ, Noda leads a government dedicated above all to restoring confidence.

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Noda, as a former finance minister, appears certain to focus first on reforming an economy that’s stuck in a pattern of low, slow growth while the value of the Japanese yen rises alarmingly against that of the dollar and the euro.

As for bucking the trend toward nuclear power, he’s expected to press for safety and recovery from Fukushima but not for turning back the clock on nuclear energy.

In other words, said Miki Tanikawa, a lecturer on international relations and analyst of the current scene, “This guy is probably not going to be any more effective” than his predecessor, Naoto Kan, finally forced to step down amid claims of ineffectiveness in dealing with the Fukushima disaster in the wake of the major earthquake and tsunami that struck the country in March.

Despite divisions inside the party, the impetus is toward papering over the cracks and getting along with the LDP, which for decades had what appeared as a stranglehold over government, broken only by an interlude of socialist rule.

When the DPJ, led by reformist Yukio Hatoyama, drove the LDP from its majority in the lower house of the diet or parliament in 2009, real change seemed seriously possible. Hatoyama took over as prime minister amid promises of sweeping reforms to include revision of the longstanding military relationship with the United States, but he lasted less than a year after giving up on his pledge to get U.S. troops to leave their historic bases on the southernmost island prefecture of Okinawa.

Hatoyama fell before U.S. demands, loudly stated by Robert Gates as defense secretary, to abide by a deal reached in 2007 for moving American forces to another base on the island while shipping a division of marines to Guam.

Okinawa politicos still call for removal of U.S forces, but who’s listening? The sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea in March of last year was enough to convince Japanese of a threat from North Korea, and the Chinese deepened concerns by building up their navy. “Okinawa is not a big deal,” said Tanikawa. “People forget about it. The nuclear issue is on people’s minds.”

The fundamental conservatism of Japan’s ruling establishment, no matter who’s in charge, is evident in attitudes toward visits to the Yasukuni shrine, the memorial for millions of fallen Japanese soldiers, including more than 1,000 convicted as war criminals after World War II.

In deference to aggrieved outcries from China, Taiwan and South Korea, no Japanese prime minister has visited the shrine since Junichiro Koizumi paid the last of his six “private visits” before stepping down in 2006.

On the 66th anniversary of the Japanese surrender on August 15, however, Noda veered outside his role of finance minister to say he saw no reason why a Japanese leader should not go there. He created more consternation, moreover, by suggesting those adjudged as “war criminals” no longer be regarded as criminal.

Now that he’s prime minister, after a runoff vote for party leadership dominated by vicious factional politics, Noda has said, no, no, he won’t go to the Yasukuni shrine in deference to “international opinion.” Such words, however, betray the hard-edged nationalism of a leader striving for unity and recovery.

Sensitivities are nowhere higher than in South Korea in view of the record of 35 years of harsh Japanese rule that ended only with the Japanese surrender. If Noda manages to stay quiet about visiting the Yasukuni shrine, he can still upset the Koreans by laying claim to that outcropping of two large rocks in the waters between Korea and Japan that Koreans call the East Sea and maps still generally call the Sea of Japan.

The Koreans cling to the islets, which they call Dokdo, and the Japanese cannot do much more than refer to them as Takeshima and say they belong to Japan. Noda certainly is not going to change that policy even if he tries to avoid the topic.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the instinct for conservatism appears paramount as the government persists in the steady clean-up of the plant’s four reactors. And as far as that’s concerned, said an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s nuclear safety industrial agency, “Basic policy will not be changed.”

In that spirit, the government is hoping that Japan’s nuclear power plants, which produced one third of the country’s energy before Fukushima, will return to that level and even exceed it some day despite calls by DPJ politicians to end reliance on nuclear power.

Noda, as a former finance minister, is not seen as wanting to risk a radical switch to other forms of energy that would result in higher electricity costs and in any case might not suffice to power the industrial establishment. His concern about Japan’s faltering fiscal health is evident in his most distinctive contribution to the political dialogue — his view, alone among his party’s candidates for leadership, that higher taxes are inevitable.

“The Democratic Party of Japan has learned from reality and matured,” said Shunpei Takemori, a Keio University economics professor at a forum sponsored by Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major newspapers. “He was the only one who made reference to a tax hike at this stage.”

On paper, in public pronouncements, however, politicians and analysts have no problem paying lip-service to reducing dependence on nuclear power.

“It is desirable to invest in development of alternative energy sources, only natural to tighten oversight of nuclear power plants,” said Shunichi Kitaoka, politics and diplomacy professor at Tokyo University. “In that sense, there were no major differences among the candidates in the DPJ presidential election.”

Restoration of nuclear power seems economical, however, compared to increasing reliance on thermal and gas turbine power. Amid safety checks, only a dozen of the country’s 54 reactors are now operational, said Hiroshi Nishimoto, in the nuclear energy policy planning division of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, and “it’s not decided when they’ll go back on line.” Nuclear energy now provides only one seventh of Japanese power.

Nor is the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), under investigation for the failures that led to the flooding and then the explosions at Fukushima plant, making any forecasts. Most frustrating, a team of 3,000 workers, including the most astute nuclear experts, has yet to stop the radioactivity emitted by three of the four Fukushima reactors.

The best that Yoshikazu Nagai, a TEPCO official, could say was that “conditions in these reactors are stable” but that only one of the four has reached “a cold shutdown” with temperatures below 100 degrees centigrade. As for the other unit, “We are still trying to cool them down,” he said, “but we are not sure when.” In the meantime, no one without an official mission related to the plant can go inside a 20-kilometer “exclusion zone” that was set up right after the explosion.

It’s not likely that Noda will move any faster than did his unfortunate predecessor. Instead, he and his ministers prefer to give the impression of a rescue team sent in to cure the problems of their predecessors.

In that spirit, the term “loach”, for the bottom-feeding eel that exists in the mud, has become fashionable. After Noda described himself that way, others picked up on the analogy of “loaches mired in mud and sweating to get the job done”. The ultimate success would be restoration of the status quo pre-Fukushima.

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