Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda seems to be having some trouble hanging onto administration-appointed government officials. Just over a week into Noda’s term, Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Yoshio Hachiro resigned after a series of offensive comments related to Fukushima nuclear contamination. In the past several weeks, both Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa and Consumer Affairs Minister Kenji Yamaoka have come under fire for similarly contentious remarks. Although Noda allowed Hachiro’s resignation, he is right to fight for the political survival of Ichikawa and Yamaoka.
While both cabinet members were censured by the upper house of the Japanese Diet, public ire seems to be directed mostly at Ichikawa. Several weeks ago, the Defense Minister caused widespread local outrage by claiming ignorance of the 1995 rape of an Okinawan girl by American soldiers. This admission seems particularly stunning given the incident’s role in catalyzing the reduction of the U.S. military presence on the island. The controversial statement, coming just days after the defense ministry’s top official in Okinawa infuriated locals by comparing an environmental assessment of the area to rape, has been seen by many Okinawans as further proof that Tokyo is ignoring their interests.
The controversy surrounding the Consumer Affairs Minister has been, if not less contentious, somewhat less heated. Discussing the legalization of slot machine gambling, Yamaoka made comments that seemed to endorse pyramid schemes. However, these remarks were made before his appointment to the cabinet, and claims that he has received political donations from such schemes are thus far unsubstantiated.
After making the politically unpopular decision to defend his cabinet ministers, Noda’s approval ratings have – unsurprisingly – plummeted. In a recent Yomiuri Shimbun poll, Noda’s disapproval rating topped his approval rating for the first time, with approval for the cabinet dropping to a low of 42% from its initial 65% just three months ago. Given the pressing political issues facing Noda, from nuclear cleanup to tax reform proposals, he must be cursing his gaffe-prone cabinet members for creating even more controversy. Ichikawa’s comments in particular reveal either an appalling lack of interest in defense issues, or more likely, a complete insensitivity to the delicacy of the negotiations between Okinawa and Tokyo over the U.S. military presence.
But the resignation of either Ichikawa or Yamaoka now would only embolden the obstructionist wing of the opposition Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), which has refused to participate in Diet deliberations until the ministers are dismissed. At least on this issue, the Japanese public is behind Noda, with 71% disagreeing with the LDP stance.
Noda may also be worried about future repercussions. According to one DPJ official, “Should resignations from the Noda Cabinet be set off by dismissals of Ichikawa and Yamaoka, the entire Cabinet would be pressured to step down." While controversial comments and subsequent resignations have long been a part of Japanese politics, the issues facing Japan demand stable leadership. While ministers should own up to and apologize for insensitive comments, frequent resignations will only contribute to already growing skepticism about the Japanese government’s ability to get anything done.
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