Does Japan's new PM have what it takes?


Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, pictures here while he was still finance minister, faces a divided government that has been significantly weakened by nuclear disaster.


Alex Wong

TOKYO, Japan — Yoshihiko Noda wasn't expected to win.

It was a surprise victory amid factional fighting in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that landed him in a leadership position in the party, and thus the job of prime minister.

But Japan has had enough surprises, and the question now is whether the former finance minister has what it takes to turn the country around.

The answer, according to most analysts, isn't particularly encouraging. 

Known to be mild-mannered and faced with a divided regime that's been significantly weakened by nuclear disaster, the consensus seems to be that Noda isn't likely to enact sweeping changes.

GlobalPost in Tokyo: New PM, same strife

Take the issue of nuclear power, which is on the forefront of everyone's mind in the wake of Fukushima.

Noda is expected to focus on nuclear safety, and recovery from the fallout at the defunct plant, but he probably won't to do anything radical to peel back on nukes.

Despite calls to end Japan's reliance on nuclear power, it's likely 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.

But the DPJ has moved toward the center, with a mandate to persist in the steady clean-up of Fukushima’s four reactors and slowly return to normal operations for the country’s 50 other reactors.

GlobalPost in Tokyo: Fukushima progress overshadowed by radiation concerns

Noda isn't likely to risk a switch to other forms of energy that would result in higher electricity costs and might not meet the demand of Japan's huge industrial establishment.

As an official with the government's nuclear safety industrial agency said on the condition of anonymity: “Basic policy will not be changed.”

For now, restoration of nuclear power seems more economical than increasing reliance on thermal and gas-turbine power.

And Noda, a former finance minister, is certain to focus on the economy.

Japan has been stuck in a pattern of low, slow growth while the yen rises alarmingly against the dollar and the euro.

GlobalPost in Tokyo: Can the Japanese economy recover after three disasters?

Noda's most distinctive contribution to the political dialogue so far has been his view 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.

“[Noda] was the only one who made reference to a tax hike at this stage.”

Given the uproar over nukes and the relatively dismal state of the economy, Noda isn't likely to pursue the issue of the Okinawa bases, either.

The Okinawan people see the U.S. bases as symbolic of the unfair military burden they have suffered since the island came back under Japanese control in 1972.

Watch video: Okinawa battleground

In 2007, an agreement was reached to move U.S. forces to another base on the island, something that Robert Gates as U.S. defense secretary repeatedly stressed and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden reinforced again on his recent trip to Japan.

However, given the state of affairs, Noda isn't expected to push the issue.

“Okinawa is not a big deal,” said Miki Tanikawa, a lecturer on international relations and an analyst of the current scene.

“People forget about it. The nuclear issue is on people’s minds.”

Despite divisions inside the party, the impetus is toward papering over the cracks and getting along with the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP), which had what appeared to be a stranglehold over government until two years ago.

As Tanikawa put it: “This guy is probably not going to be any more effective” than was his predecessor, Naoto Kan, who was forced to step down before his first year was out amid complaints over his ineffective policies.