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Prime Minister Kan and the New “Twisted Diet”

by Sheila A. Smith
August 3, 2010

The Extraordinary Session of Japan’s Diet began on Friday—amidst deep anxiety about how the split in the Upper House will impede the government from pushing forward its policy agenda.

For the United States, this legislative session—and the ability of the Kan cabinet to work through these difficult dynamics—will offer much food for thought as to the prospects for cross-party cooperation on policy choices related to the U.S.-Japan alliance. As I noted in my op-ed on July 16 in the Nikkei (published in English in Nikkei Weekly on July 26) and in the longer PacNet essay, our ability to work closely with Japan may depend on the partnerships shaped in this early test of Kan’s ability to navigate and lead policy deliberations in a divided parliament.

Coalition building will be the name of the game in Japan for some time to come, and it will reveal just as much about Japan’s opposition parties as it will about the staying power of the DPJ.

In the days leading into the new legislative session, the LDP’s leadership threw down the gauntlet, claiming their intent to block the ruling party from achieving its agenda, in good old-fashioned “opposition” style. But some of its younger leaders—including  Shinjiro Koizumi, son of Japan’s former prime minister, argued that as opposition parties their job is not simply to say “no” but to also articulate their own ideas and legislative goals. If this is the spirit that prevails among Japan’s opposition parliamentarians, this Diet session will indeed become a site of transformation in the longer term effort to bring better political leadership to Japan’s policy making process.

It goes without saying that Prime Minister Kan’s cabinet will need to demonstrate determination and flexibility in these next few weeks. That is a tough combination to achieve at the best of legislative times, but with the deep disappointment in the Upper House electoral outcome, the prime minister must convince his own party’s rank and file that he can cajole, encourage, and stimulate cooperation from his party’s very recent electoral adversaries. Clearly, this legislative session will make or break the prime minister’s chances of winning his party’s leadership election scheduled for September 12. But it also may hold the entire Democratic Party of Japan’s future in the balance. Arguably, a critical cause of the early difficulties in the DPJ-led government was the unmanageable dynamics with its coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People’s New Party (PNP).

This time round the DPJ has chosen not to create a new coalition government. The PNP remains in for now, and the fate of the Japan Post legislation will determine the future of that partnership. The DPJ now has to contend with a number of new potential partners—the New Komeito Party and the newcomer, Your Party—who can make or break their other legislative initiatives, including tax reform and the government’s economic growth strategy. The lingering notion of a Grand Coalition with the LDP remains, and Cabinet Secretary Sengoku’s public reference to this possibility on July 26 should not be overlooked.

Japan’s politicians of all stripes will need to rise to the occasion in the next few weeks, or the country will be caught in a never-ending electoral struggle and good governance will seem a distant goal at best.

(Photo: Toru Hanai/Courtesy Reuters)

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    Allow me to express my sincere gratitude and respect to Dr. Sheila A. Smith for her superb analysis on the US-Japan alliance that are provided in this article and her PacNet essay “Time for Leadership for the US-Japan Relationship” of July 29, 2010. Being very much inspired by both her article and essay, let me post a small and humble comment if I may.

    When we try to conceive the future US-Japan alliance of coming decades, perhaps, we should not focus upon the current situation of Japanese politics, which is still very much fluid, unstable, and evolving as Dr. Sheila A. Smith correctly indicated in her article.

    Instead, we should rather look at a broad trend and circumstances through which we are now going in this first decade of the 21st century.

    Perhaps, we can define our present contemporary time as the aftermath of the cold war and the beginning of the end of the old fossil energy economy. In other words, we are now in the beginning of the new clean energy economy and a more harmonious and democratic international order based upon it.

    If so, the US-Japan alliance should reflect this transition process of the regional and global situation. We need to craft a framework that will cover this transition process.

    In this sense, Dr. Sheila A. Smith righteously pointed out in her PacNet essay four major issues that the US and Japan need to cope with both in East Asia and in the global context.

    Those are North Korea, Chinese maritime expansion, climate change, and formulating stable international mechanisms for commerce and dispute resolution.

    Needless to say, North Korea is the last vestige of the cold war era.

    Chinese maritime expansion may increase the potential of regional confrontation over oil and gas reservoir in the South China Sea, which is intrinsic to the old fossil energy economy system.

    These conventional issues could be addressed if necessary by the existing US-Japan security treaty through necessary debate on the scope of the treaty.

    On the other hand, we need to cope with a new threat to global security, which is climate change and various collateral challenges it poses. Also, we need to formulate a more harmonious and democratic international order that would ultimately be achievable based upon the new clean energy economy system.

    To cope with these new challenges, the US and Japan should work together to come up with a new additional treaty or charter on tackling global warming and formulating a more democratic international order, which shall constitute the second pillar of the US-Japan alliance.

    Explicitly, the additional treaty or charter would include recognition of the transitional nature of the current contemporary time, recognition of climate change as a challenge to the human being, determination to tackle global warming, recognition of the importance of democratic governance, emphasis on protecting human rights, and a calling for a democratic attitude to cope with international issues.

    Implicitly, the additional treaty or charter would invite China to behave harmoniously in the international order, and call for international efforts to make North Korea return to the international community peacefully.

    The additional treaty or charter on tackling global warming and formulating a more democratic international order should be open-ended and inclusive so that other countries can join it, just like the Atlantic Charter of 1941 was open ended and allowed many nations to join it afterwards.

    For example, Australia, South Korea, and ASEAN nations can join the charter afterwards. Hopefully, China and even North Korea join the charter later.

    I sincerely hope that the US and Japanese governments make an announcement for the prospects of such new and enhanced US-Japan alliance when the President Obama will visit Japan in this November.

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