Mr Naoto Kan, who takes over as the Prime Minister of Japan on June 8, 2010, is an unknown quantity in international relations. As the finance minister in the outgoing Cabinet of Mr Yukio Hatoyama, his time was largely taken up by Japan’s economic problems arising from its massive public debt, sluggish growth and an aging population. Economic problems will continue to take up a lot of his time as the Prime Minister too.
In a written statement issued on June 4, he described economic recovery and growth as the biggest challenges that he would face as the Prime Minister. Japan is the slowest growing economy in Asia, and is expected to be overtaken by China later this year. Industrial production and exports are picking up, but this has not had any impact on the unemployment situation and deflation. He said in his statement: “I will tackle and pull Japan out of deflation through comprehensive measures from the Government and the Bank of Japan." He promised fiscal reforms and spoke of possible tax hikes to facilitate a strong social security system for the old people.
His remarks on foreign policy as the finance minister and now as the Prime Minister-designate have been sparse. It is, however, already evident that like Mr Hatoyama, he attaches importance to the “Get Closer To Asia” policy. But he will not allow this to weaken Japan’s relations with the US, which he regards as vital. Closer and stronger relations with the rest of Asia, yes, but not at the expense of the existing close and strong relations with the US. The maintenance of close relations with the US have become even more important in view of the increasingly erratic behaviour of North Korea, China’s reluctance to hold North Korea accountable for the March incident in which it allegedly torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel killing many South Korean sailors and the increasingly assertive actions of the Chinese Navy in the South and East China Sea. Japan is not in a position to deal with an assertive China alone without the solidarity of the US.
Some significant pre-swearing-in remarks of his on foreign policy give an indication of his mind:
- “With the U.S.-Japan alliance the cornerstone of our diplomacy, we must also work for the prosperity of the Asian region."
- He would honor an agreement to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps. Futenma Air Base on Okinawa, and work to rebuild trust between the two allies.
- He would place equal emphasis on improving ties with China.
- “Japan is situated at a very advantageous geopolitical position. Asia is currently the most rapidly and widely developing area in the world and its scale (of development) is the most outstanding in history. Japan is located at the corner of such an area. It is true that the situation on development in Japan and in Asia is different, but Japan is still in a position to be able to strike a win-win relationship with such developing powers such as China, India and Vietnam.”
With five Prime Ministers in four years, who hardly had any time to work out and implement a national strategy on any issue--whether relating to the economy, national and regional security or foreign policy-- Japan has been drifting from scandal to scandal and crisis to crisis. Mr Kan’s predecessors as the Prime Minister were hardly able to settle down and find their feet on the ground before they were forced to quit by unfavourable public opinion or inner party pressure or both.
Mr Hatoyama came to office as the Prime Minister eight months ago with three major promises.He failed to implement two of them and the time and energy spent by him in unsuccessfully trying to implement the first two did not give him much time to attend to the third. The two promises which he failed to implement related to the shifting of the US base from Okinawa to which the Barack Obama Administration was strongly opposed and to set up a national strategy bureau to promote habits of long-term strategic thinking. His preoccupation with these two issues and with the usual scandals regarding unaccounted political funding hardly gave him time to give shape to a new foreign policy, which he had promised with a greater focus on Asia than had been the case under his predecessors.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr Kan was not born into an elite political family. He is not from a political dynasty. He said of himself after it became clear that he was likely to be the party’s choice to succeed Mr Hatoyama: "I grew up in a typical Japanese salaryman's family.I've had no special connections. If I can take on a major role starting from such an ordinary background, that would be a very positive thing for Japanese politics."
Comments of others on Mr Kan:
- "He's less dreamy than Hatoyama. He's a common man just like us”-- Mr Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
- “Kan is more proactive about fiscal discipline and about raising the consumption tax than any other Cabinet Minister" -- Mr Hirokata Kusaba, a senior economist at the Mizuho Research Institute.
- “ Kan himself has been cautious of being branded a fiscal hawk. He also has a talent for nuanced remarks that can be interpreted in many ways, and may shift away from his stress on fiscal austerity if needed to win votes in the upper house poll”-- From a Reuters dispatch.
- “He is everything Yukio Hatoyama was not — decisive, outspoken and a populist with common roots. He has a record of acting on the basis of his beliefs and not backing down. Those are good signs for a Prime Minister, and I think those are qualities that Hatoyama did not have”-- Mr Tobias Harris, a political analyst who once worked as an aide to a Democratic Party lawmaker in Japan.
Mr Kan, who is 63 years old, is the son of a businessman from Yamaguchi in Southern Japan. He has never been a a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that had ruled Japan for more than five decades before it was replaced by the Democratic Party last year. He co-founded the Democratic Party along with Mr Hatoyama in 1996. Before 1996, he belonged to a small opposition party. In September 1997, he was elected as the party President and contined in that post till September 1999. From September 2000 to September 2002, he served as the Secretary-General of the Party. In December 2002, he was elected again as the party President and continued in that post till May 2004. He was named the Deputy Prime Minister in September 2009 in the Hatoyama Cabinet and was appointed as the Finance Minister in January 2010.
India views Japan as an important strategic partner. The two countries would benefit from close consultations on China. How to befriend China while at the same time being beware of it? That is a question of common interest to both. At the same time, the utility of this partnership to India will not reach its full potential so long as Japan continues to be in its present state of drift with successive Japanese Prime Ministers being unable to work out and sustain a long-term strategy.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat,. Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.