YOSHIHIKO NODA, JAPAN’'S PRIME MINISTER IN 2011 AND 2012

YOSHIHIKO NODA

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In September, Yoshihiko Noda, a down-to-earth fiscal conservative, former finance minister and a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, was sworn in as the nation's 95th prime minister---the 62nd person to take the post and the sixth change of leaders in five years. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in New York Times, “Mr. Noda, a surprise choice by the governing Democratic Party as prime minister, has promised a nose-to-the-grindstone approach to policy making rather than grand appeals to public sentiment. In an emotional speech before the party vote...that elevated him to the top spot, he compared himself to a hardworking loach, an unattractive, bottom-feeding yet resilient fish.” “I will stink of mud and work until I sweat on behalf of the people,” he said. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, August 30 and September 2, 2011]

Whether his self-depreciating style will charm voters remains to be seen. Analysts said his lack of recognition could work in his favor by not building up expectations in the beginning that he cannot fulfill. “He won’t start with strong approval ratings, which will put less pressure on him to deliver right away,” said Hirotada Asakawa, an independent political analyst.

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “political analysts said his victory was as much about seeking a fresh start for the Democratic Party, which has floundered since taking power in a historic election two years ago. The choice of Mr. Noda, who has no large power base within the party and is not one of the Democrats’ founding members, appeared to signal an effort to move beyond deep divisions that have undermined the party. [Source:Martin Fackler, New York Times, August 29, 2011

“Analysts said that he may represent the last chance for the unpopular Democrats, who seemed to have lost their way under the indecisive leadership of Naoto Kan and his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama. Mr. Noda was seen as having an opportunity to heal a deep division in the party over its scandal-tainted kingpin, Ichiro Ozawa, because he was neither a supporter nor a sharp critic of Mr. Ozawa.

The Economist reported: “Before he is dismissed as yet another has-been, at least it can be said that he has a nicely self-deprecating turn of wit. Other qualities should also be noted. Mr Noda, a former finance minister, has a keen sense of the swamp in which Japan is mired, with low growth, a national debt twice the size of the economy, an ageing population and a dwindling workforce. On top of that comes cleaning up after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11th, which destroyed a swathe of the north-east, led to a nuclear emergency and threw Japan’s energy policy into disarray. In contrast to his immediate predecessor, Naoto Kan, Mr Noda is a conciliator, both within his fractious party and towards the opposition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Perhaps his greatest asset is that, commanding so little faith, he will not succumb to inflated expectations.” [Source: The Economist, September 3, 2011]

Choosing a New Prime Minister After Kan

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voting for his own designation
In a sign of deep divisions within the party, no less than seven candidates have put their hands up to replace him in an internal party vote. “I don’t see any of the problems changing,” said Professor Gerald Curtis of Columbia. “If anything, the next guy will be the shortest-lived prime minister yet.”

In the end five DPJ lawmakers---finance minister Yoshihiko Nada, economy and trade minister Banri Kaieda, former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, transport minister Sumio Mabuchi and agriculture minister Michihinko Kano--- ran in the election among party Diet members to chose a new party leader, the de facto prime minister. The candidates---a couple of them recognizable, others no, none of them making much of an impressiont’seemed to have come out of nowhere, make a few speeches and television appearances and compete in a quickly thrown-together election in which DPJ lawmakers were the only ones allowed to vote. It seemed like the exact opposite of the long drawn-out process to choose a new president in the United States.

Former Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa cast a long shadow over poll.Kohei Kobayashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “His party membership has been suspended over a land purchase scandal, leaving him with no voting rights...Ozawa still has enormous influence over the party's ongoing presidential election. About 90 DPJ members who support Ozawa met at a Tokyo hotel--- before the party election. “Ozawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama brought their choice for DPJ head: Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda.” [Source: Kohei Kobayashi, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 28, 2011]

Ozawa told the attendees, "After consulting with Mr. Hatoyama, I decided Mr. Kaieda is the most suitable person to be our next leader." He urged the attendees to support Kaieda, but there was only scattered applause. The atmosphere was cool, with no shouts of enthusiasm. Kaieda made jokes when it was his turn to speak, but no one laughed. The most boisterous moment came during a closing speech by a junior member who said, "Let's make Mr. Kaieda the prime minister this year, and next year we should make Mr. Ozawa prime minister." The attendees immediately burst into applause and shouted, "Let's do it," three times. [Ibid]

Yoshihiko Noda Becomes Prime Minister

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Hiroko Tabuchi and Martin Fackle wrote in New York Times,” Mr. Noda outmaneuvered more prominent rivals in an internal party ballot, making him leader of the Democratic Party, which has been plagued by internal feuding...Noda defeated the trade minister, Banri Kaieda, by 215 to 177 votes in a runoff election, after a first ballot failed to produce a clear victor from a field of five candidates.” The vote took place at a Tokyo Hotel. A total of 398 DPJ Diet members (292 from the lower houses and 106 from the upper house) were eligible to vote. Noda was formally elected prime minister by the full Parliament, where DPJ control and has the most seats in the more powerful lower house. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, Martin Fackler New York Times, August 29, 30, 2011]

Kaieda was supported by the Ozawa faction, appointed to his cabinet position by Kan and was ahead in polls before the party election. He was in first place after the first balloting with 143 votes (compared to 102 for Noda and 74 for third place Seiji Maehara) but ultimately was done in by his support from Ozawa. Anti-Ozawa votes were seen by analysts as key to Noda’s victory in the party election along with votes from Maehara and Kan supporters. Many of those that voted for Noda were fearful of the affect that Ozawa would have on the party were Kaida to win. They also worriesd that a revival of the Ozawa agenda would cause bad feelings between Japan’s political parties and within the DPJ. The last straw for many potential Kaieda supporters was when Kaieda proposed axing a deal to work together with the LDP and another opposition party.

Noda has called for unity and is expected to distribute cabinet and party posts to competitors as well as allies to underscore his conciliatory approach. During the brief campaign, Mr. Noda tried to set himself apart by displaying a sense of humor in an otherwise drab race when he compared himself to a loach. “Let us end the politics of resentment,” Mr. Noda said. “Let’s make a more stable and reliable political leadership.”

The Finance Minister under Naoto Kan, Noda is a relative political unknown. It was a surprise victory for Mr. Noda, who had been seen as running a distant third before the internal vote by the Democratic Party. During the campaign, Mr. Noda presented himself as a pro-business fiscal conservative who could rein in Japan’s ballooning national debt while also taming the soaring yen and battling deflation.

Yoshihiko Noda’s Early Life

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Noda's cabinet
The son of a paratrooper in the Japanese Self-Defense Force, Noda was born in 1957 in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. Both his parents were the youngest children from farming families in Toyama and Chiba prefectures. Noda said his parents inspired him to become a politician.At age 3 in 1960, he was watching the news of the assassination of Japan Socialist Party Chairman Inejiro Asanuma with his mother. He remembers his mother telling him at the time, "Politicians risk their lives." After that, he reportedly became interested in politics.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 31, 2011]

Noda is the first prime minister to attend from the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, which was founded by the founder of Panasonic. When he was a student at Waseda University he was leaning toward a career in journalism. His father informed him that the Matsushita institute was seeking its inaugural class. The now prestigious institute has produced many politicians, but it had no reputation when Noda considered enrollment. He later said, "I felt the potential because nothing was established [at the institute]." [Ibid]

Soon after graduating from Waseda in the spring of 1980, Noda entered the private institute. Yasutomo Suzuki, mayor of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, who was Noda's classmate at the institute, said he remembers that Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic Corp. who established the institute, stressed the importance of street speeches. "If you want to become a politician, can you make speeches on the street? Because if you don't have a political base, name recognition and money, you have to ask for support with only a microphone. Can you do that?" Suzuki quoted Matsushita as saying. [Ibid]

Jiro Ushio, chairman of Ushio Inc. who interviewed Noda as vice director of the Matsushita institute when Noda sought admission, said he remembers him well from the interview. "He was rather quiet, but was a dignified young man who looked me in the eye and listened to others," Ushio said. According to the 80-year-old chairman, Noda said he was moved by the institute's philosophy that calls on people to find and embrace their own path. "Among the many bright and enthusiastic people seeking admission to the institute, I thought we needed a person like him and decided to accept him," Ushio said. [Ibid]

Yoshihiko Noda’s Hobbies and Interests

Noda likes to watch martial arts films and professional wrestling in his free time. His favorite food and drink are ramen and sake. He wrote a book entitled Enemy of the DPJ: Government Change Has a Good Cause . His guiding principal is carrying through with one’s original objectives.

In an interview with The Washington Post published, Noda said he loved watching movies and is a fan of Meryl Streep, who recently won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." The movie follows Thatcher's life and career as she pushed through a series of economic and administrative reforms despite opposition from her countrymen. Noda also said one of his favorite movies is the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which tells the story of a U.S. senator who single-handedly fights against political corruption. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 21, 2012]

“During the interview, Noda spoke about his controversial policy initiatives, such as raising the consumption tax rate and restarting idled nuclear reactors. "We are at the point to make tough decisions," he said. In talking about his difficulties, Noda appears to have likened himself to Thatcher. [Ibid]

Yoshihiko Noda’s Wife and Family

Noda has a wife Hitomi and two sons. In 2011 his 19-year-old son was a medical student and his 16-year-old son attended a high school in Tokyo. On Noda’s wife, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “People who know Hitomi Noda say she is hardworking, modest and epitomizes what "the ideal Japanese woman" should be. Takehiko Noda, the 50-year-old brother of the prime minister-elect and a Funabashi City Assembly member in Chiba Prefecture, described his sister-in-law as attentive and diligent. According to him, the 48-year-old Hitomi hails from Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, and her parents ran a small factory. She majored in vocal music at a Tokyo university and worked in Tokyo after graduation.

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cabinet meeting

Yoshihiko Noda became acquainted with Hitomi in the late 1980s when he was a member of the Chiba Prefectural Assembly. One of his local supporters introduced her to him. Noda fell in love with her, and on one occasion he took her to a yakiniku barbeque restaurant in Roppongi, Tokyo, after searching for eateries in a guidebook, according to his brother.

At home, Hitomi plays the role of mother, raising two sons. A good cook, Hitomi usually prepares meals while listening to classical and jazz music. For the past several years, she has also taken care of Noda's 80-year-old father, Yoshinobu, after he suffered a stroke. Outside home, she lends a hand to the Special Olympics Nippon, Chiba--a volunteer group that supports sporting activity for disabled people. Since the group was launched in 2002, she has served as a board of trustee member and an auditor secretary. She attends meetings, which are held about four times a year, and participates in events. According to Noda's office, she also took part in volunteer work to remove debris in an area hit hard by the March 11 disaster.

A 78-year-old housewife who lives nearby said: "She doesn't act like the wife of a politician. When we pass each other, she casually greets me. She's friendly." One Funabashi City Assembly member said he remembers Hitomi offered cold towels and tea to Noda's supporters and thanked them for helping her husband's campaign for the lower house election in August 2009. "She fits the description of Yamato Nadeshiko," Kazuko Seino, 69, who has volunteered at Noda's office for 18 years, said, referring to a term used to describe an ideal Japanese woman. "She is considerate and humble."

At a press conference after attending a Cabinet meeting as finance minister Tuesday, Noda was asked whether his wife would attend international conferences as the first lady. He replied: "I don't know. I have to start by making a coalition at home. [I called her, but] the answering machine was on." His brother, Takehiko, said, "They're a good married couple."

Yoshihiko Noda’s Political Career

Noda, who lacked a political base and name recognition in his early days as a politician, is known for having stood in front of train stations to make speeches in the morning for about 25 years in his hometown in Chiba Prefecture. After marrying him, his wife Hitomi also stood before the stations with her husband and handed out fliers to passersby. This down-to-earth style played a big role in shaping the career of the man who will be Japan's 62nd prime minister.

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checking typhoon damage in Nara

After graduating from the institute, Noda aimed for a Chiba Prefectural Assembly seat and started making daily speeches at local stations in 1986 to seek voters' reactions firsthand. He continued the routine until last year. "Making a street speech is a basic I learned at the institute. Noda is our role model. He's Mr. Seikeijuku," Suzuki said. The institute is called Matsushita Seikeijuku in Japanese. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 31, 2011]

In the 1993 House of Representatives election, Noda was elected for the first time as a member of the now-defunct Japan New Party, along with former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a fellow Matsushita institute graduate. Noda moved to Shinshinto (New Frontier Party) and finally to the DPJ.

In his political life, Noda suffered some setbacks. In the 1996 lower house election, he sought his first reelection, losing by a narrow margin of 105 votes. For the following three years and eight months, he stayed away from the Diet. He carried on politis, His wife continued to help him with his political activity, folding fliers and taking telephone calls at his local office.

The low-profile Noda's popularity has fallen well short of Maehara, a favorite among voters. In political circles, however, Noda has drawn attention as a promising conservative since his early days as a politician. In 2002, Noda, only a two-term lower house member at the time, ran in a DPJ presidential election representing younger members.

Although his bid for the party presidency failed, he has since been appointed to key party positions such as Diet Affairs Committee chairman. After the DPJ took power in 2009, he raised his portfolio by serving as senior vice finance minister and then finance minister.

Noda has become one of the leading members of the DPJ and heads an intraparty group called Kasei-kai, which boasts about 25 members. Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa, who was Noda's Liberal Democratic Party counterpart as Diet Affairs Committee chairman, recalled: "Mr. Noda stood firm against us during Diet deliberations for bills related to [former Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi reforms. But he was flexible."

But when he served as the DPJ's Diet Affairs Committee chief for the second time in 2006, Noda was cornered over a fake e-mail scandal and resigned from the post, along with Maehara. Some people point to Noda's resignation as a sign of weakness.

Ushio said Noda spent a long time establishing his own political style based on various activities and experience, including morning speeches at stations, raising funds from local small and midsize companies and losing his Diet seat. "I think Japan is facing an important turning point that could determine its future. I want him to build a system that can unite Japan and fend off a national crisis by utilizing Japanese people's wisdom. I believe he can do it," Ushio added.

Yoshihiko Noda’s Views

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checking typhoon damage
Noda has kept a relatively low profile within the Democratic Party and is known for a steady hand in policymaking. As finance minister he orchestrated multiple interventions in currency markets to weaken a strong yen that has battered Japanese exporters. The leader of the Japan Business Federation, the country’s largest business lobby, has called Mr. Noda a “stable” political leader with a track record in finance and an “ability to take action.”

Noda’s foreign views are on the hawkish side. He openly expressed concern over China’s growing military might in a recent essay and seemingly absolving Japan’s wartime leaders of their actions, which drew protests from the country’s Asian neighbors. In foreign affairs, he has said he will maintain close ties with Washington and support an existing deal to keep the Futenma air base on Okinawa. However, he is a social conservative who, analysts warn, might provoke neighbors like China with comments like one he recently made, saying that Japan’s wartime leaders were not war criminals. [Source: Martin Fackler and , New York Times, August 29, September 2011]

Noda said he accepted the decision of past governments to accept guilty verdicts on Japanese war criminals convicted in a postwar tribunal. Defusing potential flare-ups with Asian neighbors, Mr. Noda said he would not visit a contentious Tokyo war shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals. Visits by past prime ministers have angered neighbors like China and South Korea, where many still harbor bitter memories over Japan’s colonial rule in the region. In a message congratulating Mr. Noda, China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said he hoped for better ties between the two countries, especially after a territorial spat over disputed isles in the East China Sea last year.

Yoshihiko Noda’s Cabinet

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honoring tsunami dead
Noda picked many fresh faces for his cabinet as well as a few old faces. Among the old faces were Seiji Maehara names as policy chief. He was the defense minister in Kan’s cabinet known for his hawkish views who resigned from Kan’s administration because of a illegal political donation. After his appointment he raised some eyebrows when he suggested the government review its policy of not allowing overseas military personnel to use weapons.

The new cabinet included few big names, perhaps in keeping with Mr. Noda’s low-key leadership style, and only two Ozaw allies. Two women made the 18-member lineup: Revitalization Minister Renho, who uses only one name, and the health, labor and welfare minister, Yoko Komiyama. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, September 2, 2011]

Jun Azumi, 49, a former journalist, was named finance minister, taking over a crucial portfolio as Mr. Noda seeks to balance reconstruction needs with reining in debt. The new foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, 47, is the son of a sake brewer who worked on redrafting Japan’s energy policy as national policy minister in the previous administration. Both are relatively young and have little experience in their respective fields.

Yoshio Hachiro, 64, a left-leaning veteran lawmaker and a proponent of alternative energy, took over another important position, trade and industry minister, with oversight of the nuclear industry. The ministry has been criticized for its ties to industry, which many critics said prevented it from properly regulating the troubled sector.

Low Net Worth of Noda and His Cabinet

In October 2011, Kyodo reported: Noda reported family assets of ¥17.74 million (about $220,000), the lowest ever for a Japanese prime minister. Noda's family assets comprise his house and land in Chiba Prefecture worth 15.14 million yen, 2.6 million yen in savings, including those of his wife, and three cars. The prime minister's assets fall below those of his predecessor Naoto Kan, who reported 22.40 million yen, and place him fifth from bottom in the ranking of all Cabinet members. Noda has housing loans of 33.85 million yen, the second-highest level of loans among members of the Cabinet. [Source: Kyodo, Mainichi Shimbun, October 15, 2011]

The average amount of family assets declared by Noda and all 17 ministers of his Cabinet stood at 50.67 million yen, according to documents submitted by them. Only Kenji Yamaoka, national public safety commission chairman, reported assets of over 100 million yen, with his family assets totaling 254.36 million yen. Yamaoka also owns shares in 12 companies and membership rights in seven golf clubs, which are not included in his disclosed assets.Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa follows Yamaoka with family assets of 70.34 million yen.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, Japan's top government spokesman, reported savings of 550,000 yen and a car owned in his name. Three ministers -- industry minister Yukio Edano, state minister in charge of administrative reform Renho and nuclear disaster minister Goshi Hosono -- reported family assets of less than 10 million yen. The assets held by 25 vice ministers and deputy chief Cabinet secretaries averaged 44.75 million yen, while those of 26 parliamentary secretaries averaged 23.70 million yen.

Cabinet members began disclosing their assets in 1984 under then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, after former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was convicted the previous year in a bribery scandal involving U.S. aircraft maker Lockheed Corp.

Yoshihiko Noda As Prime Minister

Hiroko Tabuchi and Martin Fackle wrote in New York Times, “Noda takes the post with Japan fighting to recover from a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in March, on top of an economy weakened by persistent deflation, the recent global economic turmoil and growing concerns over the country’s burgeoning debt.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, Martin Fackler, New York Times, August 29, 30, 2011]

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at Fukushima

“The new prime minister inherits a government that has largely lost the confidence of the Japanese people. Mr. Noda faces a gridlocked Parliament, where opposition parties have used their control of the legislature’s upper chamber to block Democratic Party policies. The Liberal Democratic Party, ousted by the Democrats in 2009, has harshly accused the outgoing administration of muddling the response to the natural and nuclear disasters.” [Ibid]

“Political analysts are divided on Mr. Noda’s chances of overcoming the political paralysis in Japan, which has gone through six prime ministers in five years. They said that while the choice of the relatively youthful Mr. Noda represents a much-needed changing of the guard in the governing party, he will face the same fiscal constraints and resistance to change that had stymied his predecessors.” [Ibid]

“One of his biggest challenges will be a divided Parliament, where opposition parties like the Liberal Democrats have used control of the upper house to block the Democrats, in hopes of forcing an early general election. During the campaign, Mr. Noda signaled a greater willingness to compromise with the opposition than did the other candidates, or Mr. Kan.” “Mr. Noda’s biggest battle will be overcoming the vested interests that have made it so hard to bring change in Japan,” Norihiko Narita, a political scientist and president of Surugadai University outside Tokyo, told the New York Times. “It will be extremely difficult for him to fare any better than those who came before him, to say the least.” [Ibid]

The precarious standing of the ruling Democratic Party, whose ratings have slumped after two unpopular prime ministers, has made politicians adverse to any move that might anger voters. A particular headache for Mr. Noda is a party heavyweight who has turned rebel: Ichiro Ozawa, a longtime advocate of robust government spending to prop up growth, and a fierce opponent of raising taxes. Mr. Ozawa backed the second-place candidate in the party ballot, and to appease him Mr. Noda is expected to tone down the fiscal hawkishness. Cabinet posts were given to two of Mr. Ozawa’s allies.

Yoshihiko Noda’s Early Months As Prime Minister

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in the tsunami zone
The Noda cabinet started off with an approval rating of 65 percent. In his first speech to the nation as prime minister, Noda said Japan would seek to rebuild its tattered finances even as it pays for reconstruction after the country’s devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in March. He said the government will seek to cut wasteful spending in other areas to squeeze out extra money but said he could also introduce a time-limited tax to meet any shortfalls.

Early in his term Noda was praised for his “inclusive, considerate approach” but criticized for not displaying unique leadership and “driving too safely.” In his first policy speech before the Diet Noda introduced the Japanese term "seishin seii" (sincere spirit and just intent) to stress his commitment to politics he believes are right, and also to serve the public.

In October 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, Noda made clear his intention not to respond to reporters' requests for informal "standing briefings," in what seems to be an attempt to avoid making slips of the tongue and to fend off questions relating to his administration.

Yoshihiko Noda, the United States and Foreign Policy

Noda met with U.S. President Barack Obama in New York about three weeks after he took office. On the agenda were the Futenma airbase problem, the TPP free trade agreement, restrictions on U.S. beef, the Hague Convention on the custody of children from international marriages after divorces. Noda aides said the meeting was all business. They said “Obama didn’t tell a single joke.” One White House official said Noda was “good at his job.” Obama himself reportedly said, “I can do business” with Noda.

Noda has urged acceptance of American-backed plans to relocate Futenma air base and pledged to persuade Okinawans to accept it. "People in Okinawa strongly hope to avoid the Futenma base becoming permanent," Noda said at a press conference in York. "I'll do my utmost to explain the government's stance."

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with Obama

Yoshihiko Noda and the Tsunami Recovery

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Noda will take over the daunting tasks of leading Japan’s recovery from the deadly earthquake and the cleanup of radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, while also overcoming the challenges of two decades of economic stagnation, an aging population and the rise of neighboring China.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, August 29, 2011]

“Kan failed to galvanize Japan after the disaster in March or point a new direction for this seemingly rudderless nation. It remained unclear whether the relatively inexperienced Mr. Noda, who has held only one cabinet-level position but is seen as quietly competent, will fare any better in ending Japan’s drift.” “Can we do what is best for Japan, protect the livelihood of the Japanese people, revive the Japanese economy?” Mr. Noda, asked in a speech. “This is what we are being called on to do.”

Noda had to immediately compile a third supplemental budget to pay for the country’s recovery from the March disasters. The Kan government said that reconstruction will cost the government at least $169 billion over the next five years As a fiscal conservative,Noda is one of few within his party to suggest that raising taxes might be necessary to rein in Japan’s deficit. Others in his party argue that such a move is dangerous at a time of economic weakness.

Noda began his term with a visit to a typhoon stricken area east of Osaka. He wore a workman-like uniform and pledged the government would send money to the area to help with that disaster. A couple days before that he visited the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant and wore protective gear there and praised workers who were trying to bring the crisis under control.

Yoshihiko Noda and Nuclear Power

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at Fukushima
Noda has said that he will stick to Mr. Kan’s promise to gradually phase out nuclear power, but that it remains necessary in the short term to prevent electricity shortages that could further cripple the economy. He promised to keep Japan on its path of phasing out nuclear power, saying it was “unrealistic” to build any new reactors in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis or to extend those at the end of their life spans. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, September 2, 2011]

In his inaugural address Noda stressed that reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear power would be a gradual process, and that reactors that have fallen idle over safety fears since the Fukushima Daiichi accident would be restarted, albeit after stringent checks and gaining the understanding of local communities. “To build new reactors is unrealistic, and we will decommission reactors at the end of their life spans,” he said. “But it is also impossible to immediately reduce our dependence to zero,” he added.

“Speeding up the recovery and reconstruction process is our biggest mission. We must also work to bring the nuclear crisis to an end as swiftly as possible,” Mr. Noda said. “But our finances are also on the brink. We must strike a balance between economic growth and fiscal discipline.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Noda is slowly changing the government's stance on nuclear power generation, which his predecessor, Naoto Kan, wanted to replace with other energy sources. In July, when he was prime minister, Kan revised the long-held Japanese policy of promoting nuclear power and exports of nuclear technology because of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.Noda seems to be taking a more moderate approach by insisting that a stable electric power supply utilizing nuclear power plants is essential for economic growth. In his opinion, both economic growth and fiscal health are inseparable for rebuilding the economy. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 25, 2011] At a high-level U.N. meeting in New York on nuclear safety and security Thursday, Noda said: "For several years, emerging nations and many other countries around the world have earnestly explored ways of using nuclear energy amid the need for energy security and in response to global warming. Japan supported their efforts and remains steadfast in responding positively to their interest in our undertakings." This indicated that the prime minister was committed to continuing Japan's policy of exporting nuclear power plant equipment and technology.

Yoshihiko Noda Economic Policies

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at temporary housing
tsunami evacuees
Noda is a fiscal conservative and one of few within his party to suggest that raising taxes might be necessary to rein in Japan’s deficit. Others in his party argue that such a move is dangerous at a time of economic weakness. Noda has also warned that high costs and a strong yen were forcing manufacturing from Japan’s shores, and he promised policies---including intervention in global currency markets---to curb the rise in the yen. Small- and medium-size businesses were especially in need of government support, he said, appealing to an important political base. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, September 1, 2, 2011

Noda long sounded the alarm on the nation’s ballooning government debt. It is more than twice the size of its $5 trillion economy---and rated more risky than that of Italy and Spain. Now, as Japan’s prime minister, while responded to the nation’s natural and nuclear disasters, the question is whether he can administer his prescription: raise taxes while reining in spending.

“We will no longer spend wastefully as if we are pouring buckets of water into a sieve,” Mr. Noda declared in a speech just before Japan’s ruling Democratic Party elevated him to the top job. But that political resolve could prove hard to sustain---and not simply because of the systemic weaknesses that have resulted in six prime ministers in the last five years.

This is a country that was already addicted to its public spending, even before the huge needs of the postquake reconstruction.The last time the Japanese government ran a budget surplus was in 1992, almost two decades ago. Tax income now covers less than half of Japan’s annual budget. Mr. Noda’s call for fiscal restraint is timely, given the global context and the debt crises in Europe. “Sovereign risk is spreading to, and starting to engulf, large economies that were previously unaffected,” Hideo Kumao, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said in a recent research note.

Japanese Official Resigns Over Radiation Joke

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with Renho
Noda’s administration didn’t get off to a very good start. Just over a week after he took office, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan suffered his first political setback on Saturday when the new minister of trade and industry, Yoshio Hachiro, resigned after a joke about radiation caused a public uproar. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, September 10, 2011

The problem began after Hachiro returned from a trip to evacuated areas around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. According to Japanese newspaper reports, Mr. Hachiro, who was wearing protective clothing, moved as if to wipe his sleeve against a reporter and jokingly said, “Look out, radiation!” Earlier in the day Hachiro had raised eyebrows by calling the evacuated communities around the plants “dead towns,” a statement seen as insensitive to the approximately 80,000 people who had been driven from their homes by the nuclear accident.

Hachiro stepped down after apologies failed to quell calls for his resignation within his own governing Democratic Party. The jokes caused outrage largely because Hachiro’s ministry, which was in charge of promoting as well as regulating nuclear power, has been widely blamed for lax oversight that allowed the Daiichi plant to operate without adequate defenses against tsunamis.

Hachiro apologized the same day for “dead towns” remark. But then he made the comment about radiation on his clothing, which was criticized in newspapers as a serious lapse of judgment. Hachiro later said that his recollection of the episode was “not very clear,” though he admitted that he had pretended to rub his sleeve on a reporter.

The party moved quickly to control damage to Noda’s new government. “It was an inappropriate remark,” he said two days later. “I want to apologize and correct the remark.” Noda was trying to avoid the fate of many of his predecessors, who were undermined by similar scandals over gaffes by members of their governments.

Yukio Edano, the public face of the Japanese government during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Fukushima nuclear power crisis, was appointed as Hachiro’s replacement as economy, trade and industry minister.

Support for Noda Cabinet Falls to 42 Percent

In December 2011, Noda's approval rating dropped to 42 percent. a Yomiuri Shimbun survey found. Meanwhile, its disapproval rating has increased by six points, according to the survey conducted in December 2011. When asked the reasons for disapproving of the Cabinet, 35 percent of respondents said they did not have high expectations for its policies, while 23 percent cited a lack of leadership from Noda. Eighty-five percent believed that Noda failed to explain his own policies and ideas sufficiently to the public. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 14, 2011]

In February 2012, the approval rating of Noda's Cabinet fell to 30 percent from 37 percent in a January survey conducted immediately after a Cabinet reshuffle, a Yomiuri Shimbun survey found. Asked about opinions concerning the government's administrative framework, 53 percent said they desired "a new framework by way of political realignment," indicating the public's strong sense of distrust for existing political parties. The survey covered 1,664 randomly selected households, with 1,036 eligible respondents. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 15, 2011]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Asked which party they support, 17 percent of the respondents said the Liberal Democratic Party, unchanged from the January survey. However, 54 percent said they did not support any party, a significant increase from the 45 percent posted in the previous survey and the highest since the 2009 change of government. Twenty-three percent of the respondents said they were in favor of a grand coalition of the DPJ and the LDP, while 9 percent favored an LDP-led administration. Only 5 percent said they favored a DPJ-led government.

Japan’s Consumption Tax

In November 2011, Noda vowed to raise the consumption tax rate at a G-20 meeting in Cannes France. Raising the consumption tax is seen as an answer to Japan’s debt problems. In December 2011, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan has hammered out a plan to raise the consumption tax rate to 8 percent in April 2014 and to 10 percent in October 2015. Noda stressed the necessity of raising the tax rate to help achieve comprehensive reform of the tax and social security systems. "If we run away from this task now, what will happen to this country?" Noda said, thereby overriding opposition within the party to the tax hikes. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 31, 2011]

The bills to raise the 5 percent tax rate to 8 percent in April 2014 and to 10 percent in October 2015 were passed into law by the House of Councillors in August 2012. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, Noda’s plan to double Japan’s sales tax was approved by Parliament after months of haggling, but only after Mr. Noda promised opposition lawmakers that he would call early elections---a move that is likely to end his term in office and his party’s hold on power. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, August 10, 2012]

Despite low popularity ratings, Mr. Noda has pushed ahead with the plan to raise the tax to 10 percent from 5 percent by 2015, an increase he says is necessary to start reducing the country’s debt. Mr. Noda and other deficit hawks worry that Japan’s debt, which is the largest among industrialized nations, will set off a crisis akin to Europe’s. Moreover, Japan’s social security spending is surging as its population ages, adding about $13 billion to government expenditures every year. [Ibid]

“To ask the public to bear a bigger burden is a painful topic that every politician would like to avoid, run away from, or delay until after his term in office,” Mr. Noda said. “But somebody must bear the burden of our social security costs.” The prime minister’s critics say that his fears are overblown---interest rates are still at rock-bottom levels on Japanese government bonds---and that raising taxes will only weaken Japan’s fragile economy. Some of Mr. Noda’s toughest opposition has come from within his own Democratic Party. Last month, 50 lawmakers opposed to the tax plan left the party, greatly weakening it. The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party had also criticized Mr. Noda’s tax plan but this week agreed to back it in exchange for a vague promise from the prime minister that he would call elections “soon.” [Ibid]

Economists point out that Mr. Noda’s plan would fall far short of erasing Japan’s debt. Moreover, despite Mr. Noda’s claims that the consumption tax is devised to reduce the burden on future generations, the bulk of the new tax revenues would be put toward paying for the surging medical bills and pensions of the elderly. Mr. Noda had promised to reform the social welfare system to address concerns that younger Japanese are bearing a disproportionate burden as they support the country’s pensioners. But action on that part of the plan has been delayed amid squabbling by policy makers.

Consumption Tax Approved Despite Objections by Ozawa

In June 2012, in a major step forward to achieving one of Noda’s primary goals, The House of Representatives passed tax and social security reform bills that are chiefly designed to double the consumption tax rate. The legislation paves the way for an increase in the consumption tax rate from the current 5 percent to 8 percent in April 2014 and to 10 percent in October 2015. One poll found that 64 percent of Japanese supported the sales tax hike. [Source: Jiji Press, June 27, 2012]

“The set of eight bills, Jiji Press reported, was approved by a majority vote at a plenary meeting of the lower house with votes from most members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and support from major opposition parties the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito. Noda had said he was willing to stake his political career on passage of the bills. The bills were sent to the House of Councillors, the opposition-controlled upper chamber of the Diet, and are expected to be enacted in early August. [Ibid]

The bills were passed despite the fact that 57 members of Democratic Party of Japan members voted against the bills, a move that heralded the ruling party's effective breakup. The 57 rebel DPJ lawmakers were acting in concert with party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, who strongly opposed the increase After the lower house voted on the reform bills, Ozawa said at a meeting with about 50 lawmakers of both chambers of the Diet who back him. The veteran politician later told reporters that he will make "utmost efforts to block the consumption tax hike.” [Ibid]

“Of the bills lawmakers were required to vote on, the tax increase legislation was approved by a vote of 363 to 96. The lower house also adopted social security reform legislation with 378 votes in favor, against 84 dissenting. A bill to revise legislation on a new type of child care center that combines kindergarten with day care was approved by a vote of 377 to 85. It also calls for modifying existing systems. Taking into account the total of 480 seats minus the speaker and one vacancy in the lower house, nearly 20 lawmakers either abstained or refused to take part in the session, including more than 10 from the DPJ, the sources said. [Ibid]

“Before the vote, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported, the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito also agreed on revisions to bills for integrated reform of the social security and tax systems, and to pass them during the current Diet session. The three parties reached the basic agreement as Komeito, which had opposed raising the consumption tax rate, changed its position to accept it. The three parties agreed to promote reforms of the social security system by significantly revising a counter-bill presented by the LDP. They also agreed to shelve some of the DPJ's major policies it pledged in its manifesto for the 2009 House of Representatives election, such as creation of a minimum guaranteed pension and abolishing the special public health insurance scheme for people aged 75 or older. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 17, 2012]

“Noda had to scrap other policies to halt defections. Fearing the departure of more lawmakers from the Democratic Party of Japan, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, Noda was to give up policies he wanted to pursue after enacting the consumption tax increase bills, such as Japan's joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. [Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 23, 2012]

Before the consumption tax vote Noda met with Ozawa in an attempt to persuade him to support bills to raise the consumption tax rate, but their talks ended in disagreement. Noda tried to convince Ozawa to cooperate in enacting a package of bills related to the government-planned increase in the consumption tax rate. Ozawa remained opposed to the tax hike, the sources said. [Source: Jiji-Daily Yomiuri, June 4, 2012]

“After the sales tax talks with Ozawa broke down, Noda reshuffled his cabinet. He appointed a Takushoku University professor to replace a censured defense minister and replaced a a total of four Cabinet ministers. Prof. Satoshi Morimoto, 71, an expert on security issues, became the first nonpolitician to assume the top position at the Defense Ministry, including its years as an agency. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 5, 2012]

Noda’s Approval Rating Falls to 19 Percent

In November 2012, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun poll, the approval rating of Noda's cabinet plunged to 19 percent, the lowest since Noda took office. The support rate for Noda's Democratic Party of Japan also sank to a record low of 11 percent. In past DPJ administrations, the approval ratings of cabinets led by Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan just before they stepped down had fallen to 19 percent and 18 percent, respectively. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 6, 2012]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The decline appears to reflect public discontent with the government's failure to carry forward important policies including the passage of a bill to allow the government to issue deficit-covering bonds, and the recent resignation of former Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka after revelations he had past ties with an organized crime syndicate. The Cabinet's disapproval rating jumped to 68 percent from 56 percent in the previous survey.

Not long afterwards In mid-November 2012, Noda dissolved the House of Representatives and scheduled the lower house election for December 16. See separate article LDP WINS DECEMBER 2012 LOWER HOUSE ELECTION, RETAKES POWER

Image Sources: Kantei, Office of the Japanese Prime Minister

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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