Yes We Naoto Kan — Japan’s new PM (“a social progressive and a fiscal hawk”) will be raising taxes

Jun 11th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief
Former Finance Minister Naoto Kan “reacts to lawmakers of his Democratic Party of Japan after being elected as its new leader,” June 4, 2010. Mr. Kan was subsequently chosen as the next Japanese Prime Minister. Photo: AP.

Former Finance Minister Naoto Kan “reacts to lawmakers of his Democratic Party of Japan after being elected as its new leader,” June 4, 2010. Mr. Kan was subsequently chosen as the next Japanese Prime Minister. Photo: AP.

Japan, which still has either the second or third largest economy in the world (depending on exactly how you measure these things) is back in the news. And its reappearance seems vaguely pregnant with potential intriguing messages for such places as the United States and Canada.

Today’s Globe and Mail, eg, ran an Associated Press (AP) report by Mari Yamaguchi, headlined “Japan warns of Greece-like debt crisis.”  This noted: “Japan could face a financial mess like the one that has crippled Greece if it does not deal urgently with its swelling national debt, the new prime minister warned Friday … While Japan is on firmer financial footing than Greece because most of its debt is held domestically, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s blunt talk appeared designed to push forward his agenda, which may involve raising taxes.”

Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Japan's former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Singapore, November 15, 2009.

Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Japan's former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Singapore, November 15, 2009.

Today’s Japan Times online seems more forthcoming on the tax issue, with a report from Jun Hongo and Alex Martin, headlined “Kan targets tax reform to repair economy.” This went on: “The new prime minister did not specifically touch on the consumption tax, although he has indicated raising the unpopular levy will be inevitable to overcome the country’s snowballing public debt and ballooning social security costs. [HST critics in BC and Ontario take note.] …  Japan ‘has a huge outstanding debt and it won’t be cured in a short span of time,’ he acknowledged. But he assured that his approach to overcome the difficult task will be multidimensional, including creating jobs related to environmental protection and the aging society, as well as exporting Japan’s technologies and experience to Asia’s growing economies.”

The deep background here is intriguing too. Just last week Japan’s new and somewhat Barack-Obama-like progressive Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned — ending “a turbulent eight months in office.” In ancient samurai style he fell on his sword  “to take the blame for his Cabinet’s plunging approval rate, brought on by funds scandals and the row over relocating a US base in Okinawa.” By last Friday Hatoyama had been succeeded by his Finance Minister Naoto Kan as leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — which only came to power with Hatoyama’s triumph eight months ago, after the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had dominated Japanese politics since the mid 1950s.

The Hatoyamas and the Obamas in happier days, Washington, DC, September 2009.

The Hatoyamas and the Obamas in happier days, Washington, DC, September 2009.

Japan has a parliamentary system like Canada, rather than a presidential-congressional system like the United States. With the DPJ and its allies still commanding at least a bare majority in the legislature, Naoto Kan quickly became prime minister. And then: “Japan’s new centre-left Prime Minister Naoto Kan unveiled his cabinet Tuesday [June 8] and vowed to create a ‘vigorous country’, restore its public finances and mend strained US relations … One company has started selling ‘Yes We Kan’ T-shirts online.” (Or so the excellent Agence France-Presse [AFP] has reported: just how it all reads in Japanese is Greek to us. “Yes We Kan” nonetheless suggests that the new Japanese regime wants to keep in step with President Obama in the USA. )

This sudden switch to a new second wave of progressive leadership in Japan has apparently worked surprisingly well: “Kan’s Cabinet has enjoyed more than 60 percent support since he took office Tuesday, compared with about 20 percent in the final days of the Cabinet of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama.”  As a result: “The DPJ is seeking to capitalize on its suddenly improved popularity with voters … by setting” an “Upper House election for July 11, as originally scheduled.”

There had been some talk earlier of moving this Upper House election ahead — to avoid any possible embarrassing legislative-branch defeats for Naoto Kan’s new DPJ government. Back here in North America Canadians might want to note that Japan’s Upper House is analogous to the Senate in  Canada — and isn’t it interesting that Japan actually has democratic elections for its Upper House? In various ways it also seems arguable than the new “centre-left” Japanese Prime Minister is more of a figure in tune with the times than his predecessor. Ms. Yamaguchi’s AP report describes  Naoto Kan as “social progressive and a fiscal hawk” — which could be a template for broader struggles that lie ahead in many parts of the global village?

Meanwhile, the role of a  “row over relocating a US base in Okinawa” in Yukio Hatoyama’s demise remains somewhat troubling. Many Japanese residents of Okinawa do not want any US military bases in their country. And  if you are wondering why, even in the age of President Barack Obama, something or someone in the United States still feels it is necessary to keep “Marine Corps Air Station Futenma” on some part of the island of Okinawa (to say nothing of some 47,000 US troops in Japan at large — 65 years after the end of the Second World War), here is what an AP article posted on the Marine Corps Times website recently had to say:

November 7, 2009 demonstration against any revamped US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma facility on island of Okinawa, Japan.

November 7, 2009 demonstration against any revamped US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma facility on island of Okinawa, Japan.

“Washington and Tokyo have agreed to keep a contentious Marine Corps base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, reaffirming the importance of their security alliance and the need to maintain American troops in the country … US military officials and security experts argued it is essential that Futenma remain on Okinawa because its helicopters and air assets support Marine infantry units based on the island. Moving the facility off the island could slow the Marines’ coordination and response in times of emergency.”

The article goes on: “The US and Japan ‘recognized that a robust forward presence of US military forces in Japan, including in Okinawa, provides the deterrence and capabilities necessary for the defense of Japan and for the maintenance of regional stability,’ said [a] … statement …  issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa … Okinawa hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, and the two countries acknowledged the need to address local complaints.”

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