Will Noda usher in a hard-edged nationalism?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2011, 12:00am


Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, takes over a system that's divided and weakened by the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March. The surprise winner of a vote for leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Noda leads a government dedicated above all to restoring confidence.

As a former finance minister, Noda appears certain to focus first on reforming an economy that's stuck in a pattern of low, slow growth while the value of the Japanese yen rises alarmingly against that of the US dollar and the euro. As for bucking the trend towards nuclear power, he's expected to press for full recovery, not for turning back the clock on nuclear energy.

Six months after Fukushima, the impetus is towards papering over the cracks and getting along with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which had a stranglehold over government until two years ago.

It was then that the DPJ, led by the reformist Yukio Hatoyama, drove the entrenched LDP from its majority in the lower house of the Diet. Hatoyama promised sweeping reform but lasted less than a year after giving up on his populist pledge to get US troops to leave their historic bases on Okinawa. Noda is not going to revert to calls to break an agreement, reached four years ago, for US forces to move to a new base on Okinawa.

Nothing better dramatises the fundamental conservatism of Japan's ruling establishment, no matter who's in charge, than the attitude towards visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial for millions of fallen Japanese soldiers, including more than 1,000 convicted as war criminals after the second world war. Sensitivities are nowhere higher than in Korea, in view of the record of 35 years of harsh Japanese rule that ended only with the Japanese surrender.

In deference to aggrieved outcries from Beijing, Taipei and Seoul, no Japanese leader has visited the shrine since Junichiro Koizumi paid the last of his six visits in 2006 before he stepped down that year. On the 66th anniversary of the Japanese surrender on August 15, however, Noda created consternation by suggesting those adjudged as 'war criminals' no longer be regarded as criminal.

Now that he's prime minister, after a run-off vote for party leadership dominated by vicious factional politics, Noda may not want to repeat himself. His words, meanwhile, already betray the hard-edged nationalism of a leader striving for unity and recovery. They also raise the fear of deepening tensions among countries and leaders who may not have learned all the lessons of history.

Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, is the author of Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine