Japan is a weary country. Two decades of economic stagnation, coupled with a spate of catastrophes—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown—have left the nation in desperate need of hope and reconstruction.
Enter Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s new prime minister, who on the surface at least appears to be ill suited for the job. Criticized as a lap dog of Tokyo’s powerful bureaucrats, Noda doesn’t seem a bold, strong leader. He’s self-deprecating to a fault, often introducing himself as “an ordinary man,” and has all the charisma of a bowl of cold rice.
Despite these shortcomings, he may be exactly what Japan needs to overcome its malaise. Over the past two years, the country has elected two prime ministers who made big promises, only to be hounded out of office due to scandal or incompetence. Now with the nation scarred and a state of emergency still in place following the recent disasters, Japan needs someone who can get the job done. And Noda—the country’s previous finance minister—is a competent technocrat who can speed the pace of reconstruction, reunify his governing party, and rein in the country’s rising currency.
For years, Japan’s economy has been plagued by deflation and sluggish consumption. Now its export sector, already battered by natural catastrophes, is being hurt by the yen, which climbed to record levels in August.
Noda seems intent on a hard-nosed approach. Already he’s indicated that he wants to double the sales tax to cover the rising cost of social security. Even before the election, Noda was one of the few politicians to advocate increasing taxes to curb government debt, which, at 212 percent of GDP, is the worst among wealthy nations.
Whether he will act soon, however, is another matter; the weak economy may put constraints on immediate action. What’s important, though, is that the new prime minister has sent a clear message, and following last month’s decision by Moody’s to downgrade Japan’s government debt rating, that’s a welcome sign.
In the near term, reconstruction efforts will likely get a jolt, as Parliament is expected to pass a supplementary budget to foot the bill. Until last month, political squabbles in the country’s legislature had slowed the rebuilding process. Yet Noda has already made important overtures to leading opposition figures, and many view him as a man they can work with.
Questions remain about Noda’s longevity.
Dealing with his own fractious party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), will also be crucial. In particular, Noda will have to mend ties with Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s former president, who remains piqued at his compatriots for watering down many of their 2009 campaign promises, such as increasing child-care benefits. Known as the dark lord of Japanese politics, Ozawa is infamous for his backroom dealing, and allegations of corruption have trailed him throughout his career. Noda will have to find a way to placate the controversial politician while still keeping him at arm’s length.
Still, questions remain about Noda’s longevity. Japan has seen five premiers in six years. Yet unlike his predecessors, Noda may be able to stick around. Despite his bland reputation, the politician displayed grit and mettle on the campaign trail. And since beginning his political career some two decades ago, he’s given speeches to his constituency in Chiba prefecture every day, save for weekends.
More important, Noda also has a squeaky-clean résumé. Petty money scandals have unseated many in Tokyo, especially in recent years, and having a corruption-free past is a definite plus in this scandal-weary nation. Considering the obstacles, Noda will need every advantage he can get.