Thursday, October 15, 2009

Early Days

The new Japanese government, headed by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was one month old on Friday Oct. 16. His Democratic party of Japan (DPJ) swept into power on a powerful sentiment of change. It is, of course, early days, but it is not too soon to see if it is delivering on this promised change.

The prime minister himself spent much of his first month in office on the road, visiting New York and Pittsburgh for the opening of the United Nations and the G-20 Summit. He flew to Copenhagen to lobby for Tokyo’s unlikely bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games. Then he flew to Seoul and Beijing to meet with leaders of China and South Korea.

His cabinet ministers, however, have been in the news constantly. The cabinet had hardly been sworn in before Lands and Transport Minister Seiji Maehara flew to Gunma prefecture in central Japan to inspect the Yamba Dam project in central Gunma and declare it would be terminated.

The DPJ campaigned on the notion that the old regime spent too much taxpayer money on wasteful public works projects of which the Yamba Dam is the poster child. During the month the minister announced that the government was freezing construction of 48 of the 143 dam projects approved by the previous administration.

The Hatoyama government eventually plans to terminate about 100 dam projects budged at approximately 8 trillion yen in construction costs (some of the saving may be offset by local reimbursements for the disruption and job losses that will accompany these terminations.)

Indeed, Maehara is turning into something of a star of the new government’s first month in office. It seems as if he is on television every day meeting with prefectural officials over dam projects, conferring with Japan Airlines over bailout plans, meeting with local governments over plans to turn Haneda Airport into a major regional aviation hub, meeting, meeting, meeting . . .

Of course, the fact that he has movie-idol good looks doesn’t hurt, but it is also true that many of the new government’s most important initiatives fall under his portfolio, Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. This includes plans to eliminate the tolls on express ways and the “temporary” (in place for the past for past 30 years) gasoline surcharge to fund new road construction.

Maehara also has the Okinawa portfolio, and has made at least one inspection trip to the southern island, where the relocation of American forces is the hot topic. However, as it impacts relations with the U.S., it is likely that Hatoyama himself and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada will take the lead in this sensitive issue.

If Maehara is the star of the month, then Shizuka Kamei, Minister for Postal Reform and Financial Services, is the “bad boy” of the new government. In his latter role, he went off the reservation early on by proposing a blanket debt moratorium on small businesses and some individuals.

The Hatoyama government clearly does not like this proposal, which some estimate could cost the country’s banks trillions of yen in lost interest. But it is not easy to rein him in. Kamei heads his own small party in coalition with the government and is not subject to party discipline. He is a loose cannon.

The government needs the votes, few as they are, of Kamei’s New People’s Party and its other coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDR) since it is just short of a majority in the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. One can assume that the DJP will strive mightily to win a clear majority in July’s election so that can dump its partners.

Another prominent figure in the new government is Yoshito Sengoku. As minister of state for administration he is the man responsible for finding and cutting the “waste” in government spending that it plans to apply to fulfill its campaign promise to provide cash allowances to parents and end tuition for secondary schools.

In the first month in office Sengoku reportedly has axed 2.5 trillion yen from the previous administration’s proposed 14 trillion yen supplementary budget. When finished, the party will be turn attention to cutting fat from the 2010 fiscal budget. The implementation of the child allowances will likely be incorporated into that budget, which goes into effect in April.

In other ways, the new administration is pointing to change, Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, the only woman besides SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima in the cabinet, wants to fulfill a long-time ambition of Japanese feminists to permit married women to keep their maiden name if they choose. She plans to introduce legislation permitting this when the Diet convenes later this month.

During the long period of Liberal Democratic Party government, 20 attempts were made to change the Civil Law to allow women to use their maiden names; all were defeated by conservatives who argued that such a change would impact family unity. The influx of many young freshmen legislators, many of them women, may change this.

It is also possible that Minister Chiba may lead a de facto moratorium capital punishment, as she is a member of the Parliamentary League for the Abolishment of the Death Penalty. The above-mentioned Kamei is also a longtime opponent who happens to head the League; SDP leader Fukushima also opposes the death penalty.

It falls to the justice minister to sign death warrants for convicted murderers after their appeals are exhausted. The number of executions was accelerating under the previous administration (Hatoyama’s brother Kunio signed 11 warrants when he was justice minister). There are about 100 prisoners on Japan’s death rows.

Matters impacting the alliance with the United States are likely to be put off until President Barack Obama’s visit in mid-November. However, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said flatly that Japan’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean will end in January when the authorization expires.

Washington seems to be taking this expected news equitably. It is more likely to resist any changes in plans agreed to with the previous government to relocate some American marine forces in Okinawa, and there were signs from Hatoyama this past week that the Japanese government may acquiesce in thism matter.


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October 19, 2009 at 10:17 PM  

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