Yes He Kan?

Article excerpt

Byline: Tobias Harris

Restoring confidence in Japan's DPJ.

With the election of Naoto Kan, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has achieved a miracle. Following the resignations of embattled Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and scandal-tainted secretary-general Ichiro Ozawa, the public has returned to the party that won a majority of historic proportions less than a year ago. According to Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, the new government boasts a 60 percent approval rating, compared with 17 percent for the Hatoyama government in May. The Yomiuri Shimbun, another daily, found that government support among independent voters--by far the most important bloc--swelled from 9 to 52 percent.

More significantly, the DPJ's chances of winning a majority in upper-house elections in July have improved dramatically. The lesson is that the public has by no means lost faith in the DPJ as an agent of political change. If anything, low public approval reflected the idea that Hatoyama and Ozawa were insufficiently distinct from LDP rule and its pathologies. Kan does not suffer from that problem. Having begun his career as a member of a small center-left party and earned a reputation as a crusader for clean government and participatory democracy, Kan will enable the DPJ to reclaim the platform that first brought it to power: the creation of a transparent government that answers to the public's fears about Japan's economic future.

The problems facing Kan are no less daunting than those that greeted his predecessors. The IMF recently predicted that Japan's national debt will reach 250 percent of GDP by 2015. Like previous governments, Kan's has to find a way to rein in public spending while providing for Japan's aging population, promoting new forms of economic growth, and reducing carbon emissions.

In Kan, Japan may have its best chance to make progress on these fronts. As the son of a salaryman, Kan has Everyman credentials that his patrician predecessors lacked. It will be easier for a middle-class prime minister to ask for sacrifices like a consumption-tax increase than for prime ministers like Aso and Hatoyama, who hailed from wealthy political dynasties.

Moreover, for Kan, improving Japan's democracy is not just political boilerplate: he has spent his career working on behalf of greater public participation in government and more communication between policymakers and citizens. …