New Japan PM Yoshihiko Noda Faces Major Policy Problems

With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s approval rating dropping 10 points to 55% in a recent Yomiuri Shimbun poll, many experts have concluded that Noda’s honeymoon period in office is over. In the coming months, Noda will have to take concrete steps towards establishing effective domestic policies in order to win over both the Japanese public and some skeptical members of his own party.

Noda’s sinking poll numbers should not be surprising – the temporary jump in approval ratings at the beginning of every new administration seldom lasts long. In fact, given the current turmoil facing the new administration, approval ratings above 50% should be seen as a sign of at least temporary faith in Noda’s leadership. In the past few weeks, Noda has tackled several contentious political issues, including a financial scandal surrounding former Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) President Ichiro Ozawa, an unpopular “Reconstruction Tax” plan, and inter-party squabbling over Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional free-trade agreement. Noda’s approach to these short-term issues will likely affect his ability to tackle larger and longer-term issues, particularly reconstruction and economic revitalization in the areas affected by the March 11th disaster and subsequent Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and may help determine how long he stays in office.

Ichiro Ozawa, an influential member of Noda’s party, may present one of the most difficult short-term challenges. With Ozawa currently on trial for conspiring to falsify political funding reports, the recent conviction of three of his aids has already convinced many Japanese of his wrongdoing – 62% of Yomiuri poll respondents felt that Ozawa should resign from his position in the House of Representatives, with an additional 17% saying that he should leave the DPJ. Ozawa seems unlikely to do either, blasting the investigation as “unfair” and calling the verdict “unbelievable … in a democratic country.”

While ousting Ozawa would be a positive step for the DPJ, Noda will be unlikely to push the issue, knowing that it could fracture the party. While the former DPJ president’s reputation has been tarnished by scandal in the last several months, his supporters in the DPJ, if angered, could undermine Noda’s position on key policy issues, including the tax proposal and TPP negotiations.

This inter-party divide has already begun to complicate deliberations over joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is lauded by Noda, who explained in a press conference on Monday the “benefits for Japan from forming high-level economic partnerships.” The agreement is also widely supported by the Japanese public, with 51% urging Japan to join and only 23% opposed to it. However, a significant faction of the DPJ – including many members aligned with Ozawa – opposes signing the agreement. Unlike other free trade agreements, the TPP would eliminate all tariffs between signatory nations, raising concerns about destabilizing small-scale rice farmers in Japan, who are currently protected by a 778% tariff on imported rice.

Noda’s administration submitted a report to the TPP project team within the DPJ on Monday, emphasizing the 18 sectors in Japan that would benefit from the agreement. However, key figures like Shizuka Kamei, head of the DPJ coalition partner People’s New Party, and Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano have expressed doubts about the initiative. Still, Noda must ensure that Japan joins the TPP negotiations, helping to craft an agreement that will strengthen the competitiveness of Japanese manufacturing.  

The Yomiuri poll also showed waning support for a new income and corporate tax, approved to help pay for reconstruction in areas affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Noda’s administration has been very publically engaged in deliberations over the new tax, which could prove to be a liability if anti-tax sentiment increases.

Sinking approval ratings will not necessarily stop the Noda administration from implementing effective policy, but it will certainly complicate the effort. With the rival Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) beginning to edge out the DPJ in early polling for the next lower house election, Noda will no doubt be anxiously watching his ratings. Still, caving into pressure on these issues now would make Noda seem ineffective and weak – hardly the kind of leader that Japan needs.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons