The easy part is over for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Now the difficult part resumes.
Noda was re-elected president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan on Sept. 21, but he faces a plethora of lingering problems that will prove much tougher to overcome than his challengers in the election.
Japan’s relations have frayed with two of its most important neighbors, and the escalating territorial dispute with China has already reached uncomfortable levels in terms of security.
At home, Noda has promised to tackle a number of issues, including electoral system reform and social security. But he needs the cooperation of the main opposition party, which is now eager for a chance to dump Noda from office.
The issue of dealing with China was brought up in an extraordinary DPJ convention before the vote in the party’s election.
“I will firmly say what I have to say. I will not make concessions,” Noda said. “But I will not make provocations, either. I will not react to provocations. I will implement diplomacy in a calm manner from a broad perspective.”
After Noda decided to nationalize the Senkaku Islands earlier this month, relations with China deteriorated and anti-Japan demonstrations turned into riots. Chinese government ships continue to traverse around the islands in the East China Sea, while the tensions now threaten the bottom lines of Japanese companies and the Japanese economy.
Still, Noda said, “The policy to nationalize the islands is unchanged.”
Politically, the prime minister seems to have no choice but to remain tough against China.
Candidates in the presidential election of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party all say that Japan must take a firm stance with China over the Senkaku Islands.
But Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to replace Hu Jintao as the nation’s top leader, also showed no indication that Beijing intends to ease its pressure on Noda, calling Japan’s nationalization of the islands a “farce.”
“China will make no concessions, either,” a high-ranking official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry said. “Therefore, the conflict will become a long-running battle.”
Although the ministry is countering China’s claims of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba emphasized that he will make efforts to hold diplomatic negotiations to resolve the dispute.
“It is important to calm the tensions,” Genba told reporters on Sept. 21.
Noda and Genba will travel to the United States on Sept. 24 to attend the U.N. General Assembly. The Foreign Ministry is trying to arrange a meeting as early as on Sept. 26 between the foreign ministers of Japan and China.
The ministry is also considering having Noda emphasize in his speech to the General Assembly that it is important to resolve territorial disputes based on international laws.
Japan tried that approach in the other territorial feud that recently flared up, but the tactic currently appears futile.
Noda emphasized that Japan plans to bring the dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan to the International Court of Justice.
However, South Korea has refused to offer its consent to the plan, which is required for deliberations at the ICJ.
Japan-South Korea relations worsened after South Korean President Lee Myun-bak landed on one of the Takeshima islets on Aug. 10.
Lee expressed dissatisfaction with the Japanese government’s stance toward compensation for Korean “comfort women” who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
Noda countered, saying, “The (compensation) issue has been already settled legally.”
The dispute escalated on Aug. 14, when Lee reportedly demanded an apology from Emperor Akihito for Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula as a condition for his visit to South Korea.
Noda demanded that Lee apologize for the remark.
Amid the increasing friction between the two U.S. allies, Genba assured U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that Japan will not stall cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea in the field of security.
However, Tokyo and Seoul will refrain from holding an official meeting between their foreign ministers on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly to prevent a showcasing of their worsened relations.
Noda also does not have it easy domestically.
He needs the LDP’s cooperation to pass bills through the Diet, but the main opposition party will likely take a confrontational stance against the DPJ to pressure Noda to live up to his promise to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election “before long.”
Due to such opposition in the ordinary Diet session this year, the government failed to pass bills to issue deficit-financing bonds to secure funds for this fiscal year’s budget. As a result, 40 percent of funds necessary for the general account have yet to be secured.
The Noda government this month began to reduce expenditures, including grants to local governments. But these measures might not be enough.
According to the Finance Ministry, if the Diet does not pass the bills in the near future, the government’s coffers could dry up in October or November, resulting in a backlash from the public.
Other bills that have yet to be passed include legislation to reform the Lower House election system to rectify the gap in the values of votes between the most populated and the least populated constituencies. The Supreme Court has ruled that the disparity was too large and, therefore, unconstitutional.
To correct the situation, the DPJ and the LDP agreed to decrease the number of seats in single-seat constituencies by five. However, Noda also wants to reduce the number of seats under the proportional representation system.
If Noda does not decrease the number of proportional representation seats, he could face criticism that he is punishing the public with a consumption tax increase while avoiding reforms unfavorable to lawmakers.
The DPJ and the LDP have already shown disagreements over the election system reform.
The two parties, along with New Komeito, also agreed to set up a national conference to discuss social security system reforms, but there are no signs this organization will be established soon.
“The national conference will issue its conclusion (on social security system reforms) within a year,” Noda said on a television program on Sept. 20. “The countdown has already started.”
To avoid criticism that the government is only focused on Noda’s plan to double the consumption tax rate to 10 percent by 2015, Noda wants to open the national conference before the next Lower House election.
However, LDP Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara said, “We cannot agree to the idea of setting up the national conference before the people make a judgment (on the DPJ-led government) in the next Lower House election.”
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