Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Few Random Thoughts on the New Cabinet

Last night, the cabinet ministers were trotted out one by one to face the media, like some kind of a beauty contest, if you can imagine a beauty contest of mostly 60-something guys in suits. In fact, the average age of the ministers is 62. Some impressions:

Say what you will of Bunmei Ibuki, the Finance Minister, he has the chops for the job. He can take anything about the economy and public finance and explain it in a layman’s terms without talking down to you. Seriously, he acknowledged the structural fiscal pressures—specifically raising the government subsidy for the minimum public pension payment from 1/3 to 1/2 in fiscal year 2009—and the eventual need to raise the consumption tax (if not in exactly those same words), but referred to a “two-, three-year span” to deal with the problem, eliminating waste in the meantime to gain public acceptance. He more or less told the audience that there was enough money in the coffers to tide the government over this period.

So we now have an LDP stance that looks remarkably like the DPJ’s. Even the reconciliation of fiscal conservative Seiji Maehara and his minions with the DPJ’s 2007 no-consumption-tax-hike manifest (near the end) is matched by Kaoru Yosano’s conversion to fiscal permissivism. They all want to fight the Lower House election on a promise to cut waste thorough the next election cycle. They will deal with the fiscal consequences after that, dipping into the “buried treasures” to bridge the temporary gap. “We are all Hidenao-Nakagawaists!” For those of you who can’t get enough of this stuff, I hope to have more to say in a separate post about the General Budget.

No one in this cabinet is obviously stupid in a non-partisan sense, although most of the newbies did appear to rely on crib sheets prepared by the bureaucracy. If there’s a loose cannon in this group though, it’s Seiichi Ota, the new Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister. Mr. Ota has a strong agricultural and academic background. He doesn’t hide it either, or much else. A lot of knowledge can be a dangerous thing though. He’s been known to shoot from the hip, and he did do a lot of thinking out loud during the press conference. Keep an eye on him; he could be this cabinet's Kunio Hatoyama.

Each of the ministers would make a mercifully brief nomination speech (the inauguration would come the following day), then take a few questions before the kisha club mediator called in the next minister-in-waiting. Holdover Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura fielded two questions—both about the abductees. Which brings me to the appointment of Kyoko Nayama as Minister of State for the Abduction Issue—and Gender Equality and Social Affairs as well as Minister of Public Records Management and National Archives.

Mrs. Nakayama’s remarkable progress from Cabinet Counselor to Head of the Abduction Issue Headquarters to Special Advisor to the Prime Minister to now cabinet minister is paralleled by a singular lack of progress on the issue itself. Mrs. Nakayama of course has no responsibility whatsoever for this lamentable state of affairs. And she will continue to dutifully play her role as long as the Japanese media will continue to play along too. As a gaijin scholar said the other day, there are some policymakers who admit to her that Japan needs to reorder its priorities with regard to North Korea, but none of them are willing to go on the record to say so.

That’s it for now.

* That is what it says on the official Prime Minister’s website. The Japanese version says 少子化対策=Shoshika Taisaku or “Countermeasures for Dwindling Number of Children”, not “Social Affairs”.

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