Japan’s Prime Minister Noda names new cabinet with eye toward unity


Yoshihiko Noda, president of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), standing third from left, is applauded after being elected Japan's prime minister at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on Aug. 30, 2011. (Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/BLOOMBERG)
September 2, 2011

Japan’s new prime minister on Friday assembled a cabinet that appears intended to curb political infighting as the government tries to guide reconstruction of the country’s disaster-hit northeastern coastline.

Yoshihiko Noda gave key cabinet posts to those with ties to rival factions in the ruling party as well as those with ties to the leading opposition party. The appointments, analysts said, create the possibility of greater cooperation — and easier passage of legislation — following months of gridlock, squabbling and dwindling government credibility.

Noda’s cabinet lacks the experience of its predecessors, particularly with the appointment of little-known Jun Azumi as finance minister. It also skews toward lawmakers with conservative backgrounds, in a sign that Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan might be drifting away from the populist agenda that brought it to office in 2009, when it ended the Liberal Democratic Party’s half-century of domination.

Noda hopes to court the cooperation of the LDP. In the short term, he must also settle vicious rivalries within his own party, something predecessor Naoto Kan failed to do. By appointing Azuma Koshiishi to the No. 2 post of secretary general, Noda empowered a close ally of controversial DPJ strategist Ichiro Ozawa. Though Ozawa faces indictment for his alleged involvement in a political funding scandal, he still commands the loyalty of 130 lawmakers, often using them to pursue his contrarian agendas.

Ozawa is “on the verge of perhaps breaking up the DPJ,” said political scientist Shinichi Nishikawa.“I think he will continue to throw up issue after issue and cause headaches.”

Noda’s ability to stay in power for more than a year, unlike four of the last five prime ministers, will depend on his creating a government that commands trust. In the aftermath of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, coupled with an ongoing nuclear emergency, Japan faces major questions about the future of its northeastern coastal region, its energy policy, its economy and the ability of its business community to handle a soaring yen.

Japanese analysts voiced concern Friday about the appointment of the inexperienced Azumi, a former journalist, to run the Finance Ministry. But Azumi, 49, has a close relationship with the opposition LDP. And Noda, a former finance minister, might make most of the major fiscal policy decisions himself.

Noda also named free-trade advocate Koichiro Gemba, 47, to the post of foreign minister, giving Japan its third new top diplomat since March. Gemba, like Noda, is a graduate of the Matsushita Institute, established as a training ground for government leaders.

Noda retained two members of Kan’s cabinet who were directly responsible for reconstruction. Goshi Hosono, a rising star in the party, was kept on as the minister in charge of the nuclear crisis; he also became environment minister. Tatsuo Hirano remains reconstruction minister.

Noda’s cabinet choices offer some clues to the new administration’s priorities, said Koichi Nakano, an associate professor of political science at Sophia University. Noda will focus first on reconstruction and expenditure cuts. He’ll put aside social spending programs, once essential to the DPJ’s identity, and push for a possible consumption tax hike, a policy likely to generate widespread opposition.

“The social issues have been thrown out the window under Noda,” Nakano said, “but with a good excuse.”

In his first news conference as premier, Noda said that Japan would not build any new power plants but that it cannot abruptly end its reliance on nuclear energy.

“Japan as a whole will never be able to achieve reconstruction without revitalizing Fukushima,” Noda said, in a reference to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

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