Outgoing Yoshihiko Noda a victim of events beyond his control

Embattled prime minister is set to lose his post at this weekend's election

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 2:20am

It is difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for Yoshihiko Noda, who will be unceremoniously removed as Japan's prime minister in Sunday's general election, if the opinion polls are to be believed.

With only four days until the electorate passes judgment on the Democratic Party of Japan's three years in office, the numbers make for grim reading - a mere 10.2 per cent of the public said they are planning to vote for the ruling party. Noda must surely be preparing himself to join the serried ranks of former Japanese premiers.

Yet by most reasonable measures, Noda has been slave to events outside his control, beset by a perennially fractious party, nationalist provocateurs fanning a territorial row with China and a notoriously fickle electorate.

"I don't actually think he has done too many things wrong in the time he has been prime minister, particularly when one considers the hand he was dealt," says Jun Okumura, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. "I would say that he has done a credible job - although it must be pointed out that his two predecessors did set the bar pretty low."

Noda took over from Naoto Kan on September 2 last year, with the nation still reeling from the impact of March's massive earthquake and tsunami, and the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The stresses of having to deal with the worst natural disaster in living memory in Japan had taken their toll on Kan, heaped on top of the nation's ongoing economic and fiscal problems.

Given the scale and scope of the problems it is perhaps remarkable that 55-year-old Noda agreed to take on the post.

He had clearly learned from some of his predecessors' mistakes - for example, reducing his accessibility to the voracious Japanese media.

Less outgoing than his predecessors, Noda sought to bring harmony to his party, but that approach foundered on the reef that is Ichiro Ozawa, long-time kingmaker of Japanese politics.

In the end, a schism was inevitable. Denied the role of national leader that he has always craved, Ozawa stomped off to set up his own party in July and took 49 of his acolytes with him.

The DPJ's slender 15-seat majority in the Lower House was further whittled away as others defected.

"If he made mistakes, it was in the ministers that he appointed and those he put in sub-cabinet positions," said Okumura. "His aim was to keep the DPJ together and he made his appointments with that in mind.

"A number of those ministers fell far short of expectations - and it could be argued that in some cases that was completely foreseeable - but it didn't work anyway as Ozawa left."

If, metaphorically speaking, there was trouble at home, then Noda would find no relief with his neighbours. His leadership period has been marked by ferocious anti-Japan protests in China, sparked by an ongoing territorial row over the Diaoyu islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan.

Noda was not looking to pick a fight with Japan's giant neighbour, but his hand was forced when Shintaro Ishihara, then mayor of Tokyo and an unrepentant nationalist, said he would buy the islands from their private owners and administer them from Tokyo. The howls of outrage from China were inevitable.

Noda had no choice but to step in ahead of Ishihara and buy them on behalf of the nation, to prevent Ishihara from even more dramatics - say, building an embassy on the barren rocks.

The distinction was largely lost on the Toyota-smashing protesters in China.

Nevertheless, Noda apparently reasoned that if he kept quiet the Chinese public's anger would inevitably play out. Feelers were put out to the Chinese leadership and the situation has indeed stabilised, although Chinese warships continue to prowl the waters around the islands.

But any flare-up will be for Noda's successor to handle.