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September 21, 2012

Japan Retains Prime Minister Amid Changing Political Landscape

by Steve Herman

Japan's prime minister on Friday coasted to re-election in his party's presidential election. That means he will remain the country's leader until the next general parliamentary election. The Japanese political landscape is shifting.

In a country that has seen six prime ministers since 2006, the incumbent in office for just over one year has received an extension.

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) official Minoru Yanagida announces prime minister Yoshihiko Noda has soundly defeated three challengers to remain as party president.

Noda says he has nothing to smile about and pledges to put smiles back on the faces of Japan's children.

Noda, who easily defeated three challengers, tells fellow party lawmakers that the strong leadership of the DPJ can bring about a recovery from the disasters that befell Japan 18 months ago.

The March 11, 2011 earthquake triggered a lethal tsunami that swamped much of the northeastern coast, including a nuclear power plant.

Noda's biggest challenge to keep his job running the world's third largest economy will come after he calls a general election, which could occur within months.

That will pit the prime minister and the DPJ against the party which governed Japan for most of the post-World War Two era.

The Liberal Democratic Party (which is conservative, despite its name) will choose its contender for prime minister September 26.

Among the candidates are former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who abruptly resigned just three days into a new parliamentary session in 2007, citing health problems and stress.

Abe says he wants a second chance at the helm, asserting that compared to the other candidates he has long leadership experience.

To become prime minister again Abe will have to fend off four other LDP contenders and then help the party capture enough seats in the parliamentary election to form a government.

It is no longer, however, a two-party contest.

A new third party, started by the 43-year-old mayor of Osaka (the country's third largest city), Toru Hashimoto, has almost overnight upended the political landscape.

The former lawyer-turned-TV talk show celebrity wants less intervention by central government in local affairs, more free-market competition and a strengthening of Japan's military, which is restrained by the country's pacifist constitution.

Some polls show his Japan Restoration Party more popular than both the ruling DPJ and opposition LDP and in its first election could gain enough seats to determine which other party governs Japan.

Former foreign ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi says Hashimoto's flamboyant appeal and gift of the soundbite might not easily translate into a lot of his followers winning seats in parliament.

“He is more TV savvy than all other politicians. That much is for certain," he said. "But when it comes to his party members they are vastly unknown so rather than relying on unknown stock such as those, people may shift their ideas to rely more upon ‘knowns’ like the old guards of the LDP.”

All three parties share one key policy position. They back a hawkish line regarding the maritime territorial disputes with Japan's neighbors.

Analyst Taniguchi says the parties are responding to growing public concern.

“The sense of weakness has filtered into the minds of a lot of people in Japan. There has been an awareness that looking at the weakening Japan they sense that countries like China, South Korea and Russia are taking advantage of that newly realized weakness on the part of Japan,” he added.

The political establishment also finds itself facing unprecedented anti-nuclear sentiment in wake of last year's reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. That has prompted regular demonstrations with sizable numbers of protestors on the streets of Tokyo for the first time in decades.

The LDP and DPJ politicians will also be challenged about their failure to reverse Japan's long economic malaise, complicated by how to adequately take care of a rapidly aging population in a country of 125 million people.