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      Japanese Prime Minister on Familiar Precipice

      Naoto Kan Japan's PM is viewed by the public as lacking leadership and the government's ratings are at the critical level.
      By Amiel Ungar
      First Publish: 2/15/2011, 6:54 PM / Last Update: 2/15/2011, 9:01 PM

       

      Japan has had 5 prime ministers in 5 years. Judging from the current public opinion polls, the present occupant, Naoto Kan, is not about to raise the longevity average. In recent public opinion polls, Kan's government  is below 20% in favorability ratings and this is shortly after a Cabinet facelift . In past years such an inglorious showing usually heralded a Japanese prime minister's imminent exit from his job.

      Kan suffers from what is perceived to be a lack of leadership ability. The same factional infighting that plagued the Liberal Democratic Party, ejected after seemingly perpetual rule by the Japanese voter a year and a half ago, has manifested itself in the Kan's party, the Democratic Party of Japan.

       The DPJ has been at a loss on how to handle its former president, Ichiro Ozawa, who has been indicted by a prosecution inquest committee on campaign fund violations. Ozawa has so far refused to secede from the party --the accepted practice for arrested or indicted Japanese politicians. Kan has held talks with Ozawa trying to make him leave voluntarily. Ozawa rejected the request and announced that he will not accept any punitive action from the DPJ leadership.  

      Ozawa apparently feels that he has political cover from powerful allies within the party, including former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Azuma Koshiishi, head of the DPJ caucus in the House of Councillors, the Japanese upper house. These allies,  members of the party executive committee, reaffirmed their opposition to outing Ozawa.

      Ozawa further aggravated the situation by a deprecating description of the prime minister, calling him "frail and thoroughly exhausted". This may have prompted the DPJ to take action and a 36 member Standing Officers Council, the DPJ's decision-making body, approved a proposal that Ozawa's party membership be suspended until the final verdict in his trial. This decision is not yet final and the Council will first consult with the party ethics committee.

      The factional tension was also on display when Hayotama repeated the Russian charge that Tokyo's demands for the handover of the 4 Kuril Islands to Japan was "unrealistic". Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara retorted by urging his fellow party member to "refrain from public rhetoric, which flies in the face of the Japanese government’s stance on the topic."

      Even if Kan manages to restore order and discipline within the DPJ, the Prime Minister still has the budget issue on his plate. The DPJ lost its majority in the upper house and this means that its proposal to increase the consumption tax will require a two thirds majority in the lower house to override upper house opposition. The government does not command this majority.

      Mr. Kan has invited the Liberal Democratic Party and other opposition parties to cross party talks to obtain the necessary votes. However, the Liberal Democrats have turned down the invitation and the LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki sought an early dissolution of the lower house for a general election. Tanigak,i in a parliamentary debate with Kan, reminded the DPJ that in the 2009 elections it had promised not to call for a rise in the consumption tax but had pledged to secure the needed funds by eliminating wasteful spending.

      "If you're going to [raise] the consumption tax, it'll be a violation of the manifesto. We can't cooperate on such a proposal, which is like asking us to fix a sumo match together," Tanigaki said, hitting a sore spot in Japanese consciousness. 

      Japan is in the throes of a major scandal involving the fixing of sumo matches. While the scandal is hardly of the government's making, it is a political reality that when local sports teams succeed, the sense of elation carries over to benefit the government. Sports setbacks are another reason to blame the government.