Prime Minister Noda’s cabinet assignments have been dictated less by the aptitude and experience of the candidates than by his desire to maintain party unity. He must have known the risks he was taking, the danger that any one of them could wilt in the national spotlight as the consequence of any combination of their verbal incontinence, occupational ineptitude and/or dubious associations*. He must have felt that he did not have the luxury of selecting what he thought was the best and brightest and let them pick their respective political teams, as Hatoyama did.
In the event, the risks materialized, forcing him to dress up four de facto dismissals as a couple of cabinet reshuffles within the first year of his regime, yet he failed to achieve his objective of maintaining DPJ unity. A drizzle turned into a downpour on June 26 as Ichiro Ozawa was virtually frog-marched out of the DPJ by supporters who feared the public backlash from Noda’s agreement with the opposition LDP-Komeito coalition to raise the consumption tax rate out, and wound up a couple of weeks later founding the People’s Life First Party consisting of 49 Diet members. It is unlikely that more than a sliver of that number would have left the DPJ if they had not believed that it would give them a better chance for political survival.**
But one of Noda’s more obvious traits is stubbornness, often but not always a virtue, and his third cabinet reshuffle in little over a year gave the public more of the same. On October 23, a little over three weeks after his third reshuffle in little more than three years, he wound up accepting the resignation papers of Keishu Tanaka, his Justice Minister for political financing irregularities—he had known that his political organization had accepted donations from a company controlled by a foreign national, which is illegal in Japan, and 30 year old associations with yakuza executives that he claimed to have severed after he became aware of their livelihood. Tanaka was a 71 year old pol who had been given a “safety” assignment despite his lack of legal expertise almost surely because of his role as leader of the group of DPJ members who traced their origins to the old Democratic Socialist Party***. Tanaka’s demise proved to be yet another nail in the Noda administration’s coffin, which continued its public opinion poll free-fall.**** And that brings me to the other hotspot in the latest cabinet reshuffle.
On November 2, another public relations disaster for the Noda administration occurred as Makiko Tanaka, the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, went against the advice of the duly required recommendation from the MEXT advisory council and denied three prospective universities permission to open for the next school year (April-March). Tanaka had been chosen purportedly to assuage dissidents who had talked of backing her in the leadership election. The reason given for Tanaka’s perfectly legal refusal is a plausible argument: more and more universities are chasing fewer and students, and the quality of the education is suffering as a result.*****
However, there was also a good case to be made for disconnecting the decision on the three prospective universities from the broader question of higher education reform and a very good case to be made for at least one and possibly two of them to go forward regardless of the direction any eventual reform goes.****** But Tanaka’s well-chronicled impulsiveness and willfulness got the best of her, drawing attention away from the very real problems of the Japanese higher education system, of which allegedly too much competition is but one, and towards the also very real problems of denying permission to three education business groups that had expended considerable resources to meet MEXT requirements, not to mention sending prospective students scrambling for alternatives—each of the three universities-to-be had a readymade customer base, at least for the first two years—that may not be readily available for them. As it is, given the dismal prospects for the DPJ in the next lower house election and the Noda administration even before that, it is all but certain that Tanaka will have a few months at most to oversee the reform process as MEXT Minister, all but ensuring that the three schools will open in 2014 after a one-year delay, possibly in 2013 in the case of an early snap election.
What is amazing if not surprising is that Noda assigned her despite the fact that many people had expected something of the sort to happen sooner or later. In fact, this will probably turn to be less devastating for Tanaka personally than the outbreak of ills during her last cabinet assignment as Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was her reward from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for having helped him to win the LDP leadership election, leading to his election as prime minister. Of course Koizumi and the LDP were in much stronger positions than Noda and the DPJ, respectively, and they weathered the troubles free of the kind of existential threats that Noda is currently facing. As it is, the controversy provides yet more ammunition for the LDP and its leader Shinzo Abe, who currently have little more to offer the Japanese electorate than prospects that they may be less incompetent and less incoherent than the DPJ experiment is turning out to be.
* Amazingly, he appointed Kenji Yamaoka, Ichiro Ozawa’s one of few remaining longtime associates, Minister for Consumer Affairs even though his close association with the multilayer marketing industry was public knowledge. In Japan, multilayer marketing businesses are viewed with suspicion and are often conflated with Ponzi schemes. Actually, they are closer conceptually to the iemoto system for ikebana and other traditional arts, where each business group consists of layers of teacher-acolyte relationships piled on above another as a pyramid that the constituents climb layer by layer, coughing up ever greater sums of money for each laborious step up along the way. One wonders if the Japanese affinity for roleplaying games is not related with this historical cultural experience.
** Note that Ozawa himself was always reluctant to leave, since he was aware that it would leave him with a much smaller power base and little prospect of founding new, meaningful alliances .
*** The DSP is a conservative offshoot of the old Socialists hatched during the progressives’ version of the 1955 political reshuffle.
**** The Noda cabinet had fared considerably better (or considerably less bad) than the DPJ in public opinion polls. The most recent media polls clustered around the November 3-4 weekend showed the gap closing considerably.
***** The counterargument, which also has merit, is that competition is good. Just look at the proliferation of cheap, reasonable-quality merchandise and service at all the supermarkets and convenience stores. And don’t try to make me, the everyman consumer, sympathize with all those small, neighborhood grocery stores that went out of business as the consequence. However, let’s give the MEXT Minister the benefit of the doubt here, if only in view of the mismatch between social needs, personal aspirations, and the educational product and its packaging, as well as the massive personal investment involved for the customers.
***** One is being founded by a large group of vocational schools in medical and healthcare, both growth industries in a rapidly aging society. Another is an upgrade of a public two-year art school in a Northeast prefecture where such four-year education is not available. The third school is an upgrade of a junior college for women. Vocational school groups seeking more official status; junior colleges adding two more years to their program; and unisex colleges, almost always for women, going co-ed: those are the basic strategic decisions being made by existing higher education institutions, and the three examples fit right into those patterns.