One of the great weights around the neck of Japanese politics in the past decade has been the refusal of older party leaders to make way for a younger cohort of politicians who might have better ideas for bringing Japan out of its economic slump. This inertia only became more prominent after the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. Former prime minister Naoto Kan was simply unable to break through to the public, convince them that he had a plan to rebuild Japan, and come up with new approaches that answered both the immediate emergency and long-term problems. Hence, he became the fifth premier to resign after just one year in office, and the second leader of the once-heralded Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to succumb to public pressure.
The new prime minister is Yoshihiko Noda, who was finance minister under Kan. Perhaps most importantly, Noda may represent the beginning of the long-awaited and desperately needed generational shift that will shape Japanese politics for the next several decades. Noda is 54, a decade younger than the most recent Japanese leaders, and he has picked three men in their 40s for key cabinet posts: 47-year-old Koichiro Gemba as foreign minister, 49-year-old Jun Azumi as finance minister, and 40-year-old Hosono Goshi as continuing minister in charge of the nuclear crisis. In addition, 49-year-old former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who challenged to become premier, will be head of the DPJ’s policy-research council. It is true that the powerful position of secretary general of the DPJ went to a 75-year-old ally of disgraced party founder Ichiro Ozawa, but one can’t hope for everything.
Noda may have made his most important impact by bringing in such a large cohort of relatively young (at least in Japanese political terms) and energetic individuals to senior positions. It will be increasingly hard for the party to turn back to older, charismatically challenged politicians. It needs this burst of new blood in order not only to win over the jaded and impatient Japanese public, but maybe actually to come up with some solid policy proposals for reviving Japan’s economy and putting together a comprehensive recovery plan for the areas devastated by March 11.
With any move there is risk, however. The downside here is that the public spotlight is now on this younger generation. If they fail and seem as incompetent as their elders then the last hopes of the Japanese people that their country has capable politicians will be dashed. That type of cynicism and resentment is the last thing that East Asia’s largest democracy needs. It might be too much to say that the fate of Japan rests on the shoulders of these young leaders, but that might be close to the uncomfortable truth.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (2011).