Japan’s new “voluntary militia” cabinet under PM Kan

June 14, 2010
Newly-appointed Banking Minister Shozaburo Jimi bows to the Japanese national flag  after a news conference. REUTERS/Issei Kato .

Newly-appointed Banking Minister Shozaburo Jimi bows to the Japanese national flag after a news conference. REUTERS/Issei Kato .

When Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshito Sengoku, was asked — as new Japanese leaders often are — to characterise the government’s new cabinet line-up, he fumbled a bit and then awkwardly said something about it being “fresh and hardworking.”

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 “kiheitai” – a 19th century volunteer militia that played a key role in helping to topple Japan’s feudal overlord to open the door to the country’s modernisation.

The “kiheitai” 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.

“The 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,” Kan said. “We need to courageously act to make a breakthrough from the current stagnating condition of Japan.”

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 voters’ 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 Japan’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.

“I 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,” Kan said.

The 63-year-old Kan’s rise to the nation’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 Japan’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 –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.

Kan’s “volunteer militia” cabinet is targeting cutting Japan’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 Kan’s historical imagery may be catchy, there was at least one sign that the “kiheitai” analogy might not resonate all that well with the broader public.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency, reporting the phrase in an early article on the day, used the wrong Chinese character for “ki” so that the word referred to “calvary” rather than the historically famous “volunteer militia.”

Not itself, perhaps, a bad analogy, since given all Japan’s woes, a metaphorical cavalry riding to the fiscal rescue might be most welcome.

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