The ‘theme’ of the new Japanese cabinet

Later this afternoon PM Kan will (ja) announce (ja) the new cabinet line up that will lead the DPJ into battle for 2011, or for what part of 2011 the DPJ survives.

(It is less than clear what is going to happen this year, although Yosano ruffled some feathers by saying that the government may not be able to call an election given certain legal intrigues in regards to current activities focused on redistricting the single-member electoral districts – intrigues which I am sure are (or should be!) surmountable in a democracy).

As expected experienced former chief cabinet secretary and minister of finance Yosano Kaoru, having recently left Tachiagare Nippon, will take up a prominent role in the new cabinet as minister of state for economic and fiscal policy. The key themes for the next cabinet as reported by the Japanese media are reform of the taxation system and social security (including specific consideration of the role of consumption tax) and preparing Japan to enter negotiations for Japan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (the ‘Heisei opening up so to speak). The apportionment of roles appears to be appropriate given these aims. Needless to say Yosano has the experience, credibility, and seemingly single-minded devotion to pursuing fiscal reform and raising the consumption tax needed to perform well in his appointed cabinet role.  His lack of DPJ credentials might also benefit the cabinet as PM Kan will need to reach across the aisle to both pass any sweeping fiscal reforms and also mitigate the political and electoral impact of what everyone knows is needed but is still sure to be wildly unpopular no matter the decision made ie. increases in taxes of any kind or the cutting of government expenditure.

In terms of TPP negotiations the changes to the cabinet are not inconsequential and suggest a strategic matching of commitment to entering TPP negotiations to bureaucratic and parliamentary resources. While Kano Michihiko will remain as minister of agriculture and Katayama Yoshihiro will remain minister of internal affairs, two other important positions will see “pro-agriculture1 executives move out and more TPP-friendly DPJ members move in.

First of all Kaieda Banri, who previously held Yosano’s new role, will move into the position of minister of economy, trade and industry (ie METI’s minister). He replaces Ohata Akihiro who had tried to pour water on TPP negotiations late last year and is an ex-socialist from a rural constituency in Ibaraki. Ohata is being moved to the position of minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism. Kaieda Banri has come out in strong support of entering TPP negotiations and having someone in charge of METI who is pro-free trade will enable METI resources to be mobilized efficiently and appropriately to support this goal. With Yosano joining the cabinet this also effectively adds an additional pro-TPP voice.

Secondly on the legislative side of things, and important given that anti-TPP sentiment does not just come from DPJ cabinet ministers but also parliamentarians, is the replacement of Hachiro Yoshio (AGM: “an ex-socialist, a former farmer and employee of an agricultural cooperative in Hokkaido”) as chairman of the National Diet Affairs Committee. He will be replaced by Azumi Jun who will also continue as senior vice-minister of defense where he has a strong interest and expertise, and additionally as a Maehara supporter appears to be in support of Japan’s participation in TPP negotiations. Hachiro Yoshio was considered to have been performing poorly in his role and originally the position was offered to Sengoku but Sengoku declined given apparent opposition from Okada who, correctly, pointed out that such an important role in facilitating legislation may not be appropriate for someone as divisive both within and outside the party as Sengoku (legislation was being held up by Sengoku’s presence in cabinet….surely putting him closer to the legislative action would only give the LDP and opposition parties more or at least equal excuse to continue to do nothing). Okada and co. also worried that Sengoku is disposed to circumventing the appropriate political channels and thus such an important role as Diet Affairs chairman was not appropriate. Sengoku will become “acting” leader of the DPJ, a largely procedural position, and advise Kan on party matters. Former DPJ secretary general Edano will take over Sengoku’s previous role as chief cabinet secretary.

If fiscal reconstruction and the TPP are indeed the two main themes for the Kan government moving forward this year, both tough issues that will involve significant intra- and inter-party negotiations (and perhaps, some may fear, political skill and nous), then Kan appears to have done the right thing by appointing persons to positions where their talents may be best used,  instead of using cabinet positions to reward supporters or quell dissent. Needless to say further alienation between Kan and Ozawa may have something to do with this and Kan may have come to the conclusion that the relationship is beyond salvaging.

Edit: To add to the last point Japanese media is now reporting that Fujii Hirohisa, who was the much touted minister of finance in the Hatoyama cabinet (and who resigned 5 months later due to exhaustion/Ozawa-itis) will become the lower house deputy chief cabinet secretary. This further suggests that Kan is going to get serious and concentrate on fiscal reconstruction….one assumes after the record 2011 budget (??) is passed. The article notes that is unusual for someone of Fujii’s experience to perform the role although given that Edano is ‘young’ at 46 and did not necessarily perform that well the last time he was appointed to an important role (DPJ Secretary General) then this makes some sense.

1 Aurelia George Mulgan describes these members of Kan’s cabinet as possessing “what the agricultural cooperative organisation’s political arm (the League of National Farmers Agricultural Policy Campaign Organisations) describes as a ‘deep’ understanding of agricultural policy (meaning pro-agriculture sympathies).”

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