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Last month, the political situation in Japan was roiled by three big events: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s surprise visit to North Korea (Sept. 17); the confused leadership election in the Democratic Party of Japan (Sept. 23); and a Cabinet reshuffle (Sept. 30).

The Koizumi visit has been hailed by South Korea, the United States, China and many other nations as a potential catalyst for rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula, the last remaining bastion of Cold War hostility.

At home, Koizumi’s approval ratings have soared again, approaching the high of about 80 percent recorded in the early days of his administration. Ratings had remained below 50 percent for half a year following the dismissal of Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka in late January.

Now, however, the initial applause and excitement are giving way to the grim realization that normalization talks with North Korea are going to be extremely difficult because the abduction issue – the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korea – stands in the way.

There is a wide perception gap between Japan and North Korea. Japan’s basic position is that the kidnapping problem must be resolved before relations can be normalized. North Korea, however, sees normalization talks as an opportunity to save its impoverished economy.

Compounding the difficulties is the fact that the abductees’ families and their supporters are deeply suspicious and distrustful of the secret and bureacratic ways in which the Foreign Ministry has been dealing with this issue.

For its part, the United States is primarily concerned about securities issues, such as North Korea’s suspected nuclear program. President George W. Bush’s administration has been seeking an early resumption of dialogue with the North.

Koizumi seems proud that he has opened the door to Japan-North Korea dialogue while taking into account the different positions and perceptions held by Japan, North Korea and the U.S.

He stands by the summit pledge to resume normalization talks in October. But the going promises to be rough.

As for the DPJ leadership election, Yukio Hatoyama defeated his chief rival, former party secretary general Naoto Kan, in a close runoff. In the first voting, all four candidates, including Takahiro Yokomichi and Yoshihiko Noda, failed to win a majority.

However, Hatoyama had trouble forming a new executive lineup as he met strong opposition to his decision to appoint Kansei Nakano, a stalwart with socialist background, as secretary general. Although Nakano eventually got the job, his appointment has left deep schisms in the party.

Nakano, formerly a leading member of the defunct Democratic Socialist Party, had declared his candidacy early on, but immediately before the election he dropped out and sided with Hatoyama. Thus Nakano effectively engineered Hatoyama’s victory.

Naturally, the Nakano appointment was seen widely as a reward for his electoral cooperation with Hatoyama. The party would not have been thrown into confusion if someone else — either Kan or Katsuya Okada, the party’s chief policy planner and leader of the younger members — had been selected for the No. 2 post.

The DPJ faces grim prospects under the new Hatoyama leadership. Although the party vows to seize power from the Liberal Democratic Party in the next general election, the betting is that the largest opposition party will continue to stagnate.

By contrast, the LDP under Koizumi, whose popularity has received a big boost from his bold diplomatic gambit toward North Korea, remains the largest of Japan’s political parties by far. The nation’s parliamentary politics still has a long way to go before it reaches maturity.

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