Japan’s new “voluntary militia” cabinet under PM Kan
When Japanâ€™s top government spokesman, Yoshito Sengoku, was asked — as new Japanese leaders often are — to characterise the governmentâ€™s new cabinet line-up, he fumbled a bit and then awkwardly said something about it being â€śfresh and hardworking.â€ť
Doubtless hoping to come up with a zippier sobriquet, new Prime Minister Naoto Kan responded to a similar query a little later by comparing his 18-member cabinet to the â€śkiheitaiâ€ť â€“ a 19th century volunteer militia that played a key role in helping to topple Japanâ€™s feudal overlord to open the door to the countryâ€™s modernisation.
The â€śkiheitaiâ€ť were notable for breaking norms of the time by bringing together men of different social classes, including farmers . At a time when hereditary samurai warriors were usually the only ones joining such groups, the kiheitai chose its leaders based on their abilities rather than family status.
â€śThe kiheitai was not a militia of the sons of feudal lords. People outside of the warrior class participated and made this group, just like the Democratic lawmakers who come from a wide range of people,â€ť Kan said. â€śWe need to courageously act to make a breakthrough from the current stagnating condition of Japan.â€ť
Kan, a former grassroots activist whose father was an ordinary salaryman, may have hoped to capitalise not only on the colourful imagery of a militia fighting a worn-out established order but on Japanese votersâ€™ resentment of the political dynasties that have produced many of his recent predecessors as premier, including the indecisive and unpopular Yukio Hatoyama, who quit office this month after just eight months in the job.
Critics say the dynastic tradition has been a big factor behind Japanâ€™s lack of strong political leaders in the country because it floods the system with lawmakers of questionable ability and puts pressure on potential leaders who lack connections and riches to fund their campaigns.
â€śI am a son of a normal salaryman, and many of us are sons of salarymen or those running their own businesses. Democracy, by nature, should allow for young people who grew up in such regular families to have goals, work hard, and be able to flourish in the political world,â€ť Kan said.
The 63-year-old Kanâ€™s rise to the nationâ€™s top job has bolstered support for his Democratic Party since he took helm, brightening their prospects in an upper house election expected on July 11 that it needs to win to forge ahead with policies to rein in Japanâ€™s huge public debt and engineer growth after decades of stagnation.
But his government has already gotten off to a rocky start, after media reports â€“denied by those in question — that some cabinet ministers had fudged their office expenses and the head of a tiny coalition party resigned as banking minister just days after the cabinet was formed.
Kanâ€™s â€śvolunteer militiaâ€ť cabinet is targeting cutting Japanâ€™s huge public debt, already about twice the size of the economy, as its top priority, and the prime minister warned last week that the country risked fiscal collapse if nothing were done to reduce reliance on borrowing.
While Kanâ€™s historical imagery may be catchy, there was at least one sign that the â€śkiheitaiâ€ť analogy might not resonate all that well with the broader public.
Japanâ€™s Kyodo news agency, reporting the phrase in an early article on the day, used the wrong Chinese character for â€śkiâ€ť so that the word referred to â€ścalvaryâ€ť rather than the historically famous â€śvolunteer militia.â€ť
Not itself, perhaps, a bad analogy, since given all Japanâ€™s woes, a metaphorical cavalry riding to the fiscal rescue might be most welcome.