Correction: An earlier version of this column said Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda listed judo and shigin, the chanting of a type of Japanese poetry, as his hobbies. A spokesman for Noda said that this was an error in translation and that the prime minister did not say that he does shigin. The version below has been updated.

Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor April 19, 2012

The question here is no different than in Europe or the United States: Can democracies still rouse themselves to do hard things? Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the sixth Japanese leader in as many years and by many accounts the most sensible, is trying to provide a novel answer.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Much of Europe has spent itself into near-bankruptcy. In Washington, Simpson-Bowles has come and gone.

Here, it is prime ministers who come and go, while indebtedness rises (Japanese government debt is 230 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 103 percent in the United States, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund) and other problems get kicked down the road.

Noda has picked up four of those cans at once.

“The greatest problem in Japanese politics over the last two decades is that we put off what needed to be done,” Noda told me and The Post’s Chico Harlan during an interview in his official residence Thursday. “We have to overcome that.”

Noda has vowed to double the consumption tax, a kind of national sales tax, from the current 5 percent. He wants to restart at least some of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants, which used to supply nearly a third of the country’s electricity; in the wake of the 3/11 tsunami and nuclear accident last year, 53 of the 54 are dark. He is trying to resolve a long-festering dispute over U.S. military bases in Okinawa. And he wants Japan to join free-trade negotiations in the Pacific region that alarm this country’s coddled rice farmers.

None of these is an easy sell to voters, as Noda noted in our interview. All offer tempting opportunities for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and some rising third-party populists as well. In a dynamic that Americans may find depressingly familiar, the LDP supported the tax hike until Noda staked his administration on its passage. Now the LDP says it is not so sure.

“It’s really a question of political culture,” Noda told us, an issue of whether Japanese politicians “can act in the national interest.”

Noda is hoping for a boost from a meeting with President Obama on April 30. He is the third prime minister from the Democratic Party of Japan since it took power in 2009, ending a half-century of LDP dominance, but he will be the first to summit with Obama.

There’s some ambivalence in Washington about how long a lifeline to throw. Administration officials appreciate that Noda has moved the U.S.-Japan alliance back to the center of Japanese strategy after his predecessors flirted with “balancing” between China and the United States. Noda said Thursday that his “unshakable conviction” that the alliance is “the foundation of Japanese security” was only fortified by U.S. help during the March 2011 disaster.

But U.S. officials are impatient with Japan’s leadership merry-go-round and its perceived inability to deliver on promises. They want Japan to pick up a big share of the cost of moving Marines from Okinawa to Guam and elsewhere in Asia and Australia (beyond the lengthening range of Chinese missiles, though that won’t be said aloud). Some officials, and members of Congress too, share unhappy memories of Japan’s blocking maneuvers in trade talks and want stiff terms for its entry into the regional negotiation.

Even after a successful summit, Noda might not last. His disapproval rating, following the pattern of his predecessors, has soared from 19 percent to 59 percent since September. He’s paying the price for a general loss of confidence in Japanese institutions exacerbated by the government’s Katrina-like response to last year’s disaster. And much like the way Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set Obama’s defeat as his top priority, a number of Japanese leaders, including rivals in his party, are more committed to bringing Noda down than to getting something done.

So a certain U.S. reserve is understandable. Fortunately, many U.S. officials also understand that Noda’s failure is not to be wished for, and not only because he genuinely believes in the alliance.

Noda in some ways represents a return to traditional Japanese leadership style: relentlessly uncharismatic, little-known personally even to Japanese, a consensus builder who moves more slowly than some backers would like to gather support for his proposals. When I asked about his hobbies, he mentioned judo. “I notice President Obama has been singing,” he said. “I can’t match that.”

But after two relatively flamboyant but utterly clueless premiers, Noda’s solidity is welcome. Very untraditionally, he is not a product of Japan’s elite. He is the plain-spoken son of an enlisted soldier, with financial assets smaller than those of any previous postwar leader and atypically direct in explaining what he intends to do and why it needs to be done.

If Noda could put it on a more sustainable path, Japan could better help the United States cope with a rising China. And if he could persuade Japan’s voters not to punish the politicians who support going down that path, Noda might even set an example for leaders in other democracies.

fredhiatt@washpost.com