New Japan leader Yoshihiko Noda says he’s suited to clean up the mess


Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda bows as he is elected as the new leader of the Democratic Party of Japan at a voting by the party lawmakers in Tokyo, Monday, Aug 29, 2011. (Koji Sasahara/Associated Press)
August 30, 2011

Yoshihiko Noda, who was elected prime minister by Japan’s parliament Tuesday — a day after the ruling party picked him its leader — campaigned for the job by comparing himself to the loach, an unattractive, bottom-feeding fish.

“My looks are not great,” Noda said, noting that few fall in love with a loach-faced leader. “If elected, I wouldn’t have a great support rate.”

But the pairing of a ruddy prime minister and Japan’s unbecoming political mess now seems fitting.

Noda, a fiscal hawk, called on Japan to take the uncomfortable but necessary steps that political infighting and meek leadership have long prevented. For Noda, 54, that means raising the consumption tax, reforming antiquated industries and possibly joining with a rival party in a grand coalition.

Japan’s recent history of revolving-door leadership has led to a national skepticism that any of these goals can be accomplished. None of Noda’s five predecessors lasted longer than 15 months, and none shaped policies to help Japan as its population ages, social security spending soars and the economy slides.

“But a loach has its own qualities,” Noda said.

It’s suited to handle the muck.

On Tuesday, Noda was confirmed by both houses of parliament as Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years. He was selected president of the Democratic Party of Japan in a runoff vote Monday, defeating Trade Minister Banri Kaieda, 215 to 177.

Noda’s unlikely path to the job raises concerns about whether his support will last, political analysts say.

During the two-day campaign period, with five candidates in the mix, Noda was neither the popular favorite nor the favorite among members of parliament. Roughly 50 percent of the nation wanted former foreign minister Seiji Maehara. Almost one-third of the 398 lawmakers from the ruling party who were eligible to vote wanted Kaieda, who had been endorsed by the divisive backroom dealmaker Ichiro Ozawa.

Noda emerged ahead of Maehara and Kaieda after two rounds of voting, largely because of the complicated factional rivalries that divide the Democratic Party of Japan. In the first round, Noda finished second, trailing only Kaieda. The two finalists then entered a runoff that pitted the pro-Ozawa camp against the anti-Ozawa camp. A divided party picked Noda only because its anti-Ozawa group is still marginally bigger.

Noda vowed to stitch the party together, but his decisions could also lead to its dissolution. Noda was the only candidate to favor tax increases. If he bans pro-Ozawa party members from top cabinet positions, he will further endanger his support.

His repeated remarks in defense of Japan’s war criminals — they’re not technically war criminals, he says — have angered South Korea and China.

“It’s very difficult to envision widespread support” for Noda, said Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief economist for Japan at Credit Suisse. “Philosophy-wise, we can say Noda wants fiscal austerity. But the reality is, there will be no change. Legislation will just get stuck.”

In his 15-month tenure as finance minister, Noda often found himself dealing with trouble. Japan’s economy has shrunk three quarters in a row. The March natural disasters and nuclear emergency caused severe production and supply-chain disruptions. More recently, a surging yen has cut profits for Japan’s export-dependent companies, opening concerns that companies will flee to new markets.

But outside analysts credit Noda for his steady hand. Unlike outgoing prime minister Naoto Kan, Noda listens to bureaucrats, analysts say. He speaks his mind only after consulting others.

“Noda has infinite patience,” said Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University. “He will tackle issues only after elaborate deliberations.”

In his opening speech Monday, Noda described a humble upbringing. His parents were farmers, he said. In his childhood, politics caught his attention only when the news was most devastating. He remembers the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He remembers the assassination of a Japanese Socialist Party leader, Inejiro Asanuma, in 1960.

“My mother said, ‘You have to risk your life to be a politician.’ And I was in nursery school,” Noda said. “I thought being a politician was a dangerous thing.”

Noda, like the other candidates in Monday’s election, advocates a gradual phaseout of nuclear power. He also speaks in favor of a strong partnership with the United States.

Noda wants a political alliance with the opposing Liberal Democratic Party, despite vast philosophical differences in fiscal policy, defense strategy and subsidies spending. In recent months, opposition from the Liberal Democratic Party in the upper house of parliament stymied Kan’s efforts to pass key legislation.

On Monday, Noda appealed for co­operation, both among parties and within his own.

“I argue for politics without a personal grudge,” he said. “We all have to sweat. We all have to try our best. This is all for the Japanese citizens.

“I’ve talked about how politics is about pushing a snowball up the slope. So, in that circumstance, we shouldn’t say, ‘I hate that guy; I don’t like that.’ If we keep saying that, the snowball is not going to go up the slope.”

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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