The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan's main opposition, can congratulate itself. Not only is the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan floundering, but they have effectively sidetracked a potentially attractive successor. With anemic popularity ratings and with no apparent escape route from the budgetary impasse, short of calling for new elections, Kan appeared on the road to exiting the premiership.
Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, 48 years old appeared to have the inside track within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Now, a week before an important G-8 foreign ministers conference, Maehara was compelled to resign.
He was ambushed in Parliament by the LDP, who questioned him about receiving a contribution from a foreigner. Under Article 22-5 of the Political Funds Control Law, donations are prohibited from foreigners and any organizations featuring foreigners as main members. This is not an attempt by a foreign power to peddle influence by offering extravagant and tempting bribes. The foreigner in question was a 72-year-old South Korean woman, who has known the Foreign Minister since he was a child and runs a barbecue restaurant in Kyoto. The woman was a permanent resident, as are many Koreans who simply are not granted Japanese citizenship, although they speak fluent Japanese and have lived their entire lives in Japan.
The amount in question was trifling (in the vicinity of $3000), compared to what goes on in Japanese politics, where fictitious companies, briefcases stuffed with cash and koenkai, political support groups, studded with seekers of government contracts or subsidies have been used to lubricate political campaigns. This was especially true for the LDP, considered the perennial power party of government until year and a half ago. Some DPJ officials emphasized that the donation at issue is small. But "this is not a matter of amount," Nobutaka Machimura, a veteran LDP lawmaker, sanctimoniously replied.
Despite entreaties from Prime Minister Kan to stay on, the Foreign Minister resigned, stating "I don't want to inflict damage on Japan's foreign policy by arousing suspicion among foreign governments and the Japanese people." Maehara may have departed gracefully without a fight due to the conviction that he's young enough to come back at a more propitious opportunity.
The prospects for the DPJ to arrest its decline or stop the succession of Prime Ministers who take office and depart within the year do not look good. The LDP may very well get its way and have new elections, but public opinion surveys demonstrate that the public is far from convinced that the party that it ejected from power has mended its ways and deserves a new mandate.
Japan may be stuck with political paralysis for some time and that will not inspire confidence in its ability to reform its economic system. Despite his foreign affairs portfolio, Maehara was a convinced supporter of economic liberalization and dismantling Japan's trade protectionism.
For his economic liberalism, his firm attitude towards China and determination to clear up the irritant of the American base in Okinawa, Maehara will be missed by the Americans. Conversely, the Chinese are very interested in the sweepstakes for his successor, whom they hope will be more favorably disposed to them.