Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s finance minister, is increasingly tipped as the frontrunner to take over from Naoto Kan when the prime minister finally bites the bullet and resigns.

No one seems to know what Noda stands for, if anything — an impression that was cultivated this month when he had a golden opportunity to speak out on a matter of great financial and political moment for Japan and the world. He uttered not a word.

The issue is who will succeed the disgraced Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF’s executive board begins its discussions Tuesday on whether to choose yet another French candidate, finance minister Christine Lagarde, or Mexico’s central bank governor Agustin Carstens.

As the second biggest shareholder of the IMF, Japan will have a leading seat at that boardroom table. I trawled through Google to try to find some pearls of wisdom from Noda or any other Japanese financial figure on the IMF succession. In May, Noda said that Japan wants an “open, transparent and merit-based selection process.” After that, silence.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported in early June that Lagarde “will likely become the next head of the IMF, with the backing of the United States and Japan,” citing unidentified “global financial industry sources in Washington.”

Lagarde did not bother to visit Japan but flew to Brazil, India and China to campaign.

Carstens did visit Tokyo and met Noda and Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa, but neither Japanese is recorded in more than 2.69 million Google hits as saying anything on or off the record or even through unidentified financial or government sources about the meetings. Carstens said Noda “listened carefully to my position,” a gracious way of acknowledging he had been brushed off.

Of course, Noda may claim that Japan does not have a dog in the fight for the IMF succession. But it does: Japan’s position within the fund is very much at stake.

Lagarde hinted that she had dangled some juicy carrots before China as a reward for backing her, and the press following her suggested that these might be boosting China to second position in the IMF or giving Beijing the job of deputy chief. Either move would be at Japan’s expense.

Luckily, it is not within the gift of the IMF’s managing director to reshuffle the shareholdings. China’s move to be number 3, with 6.394 percent of the shares, 0.07 percent fewer than Japan, still awaits ratification through increased quotas after several years of intensive horse-trading, so taking over from Japan as No. 2 — entirely logical now that China is the world’s second biggest economy — may have to wait several more years.

However, the new managing director might wish to reward China for its support by promoting current special adviser Zhu Min or another Chinese to deputy managing director.

It is unlikely that the United States would surrender the job of first deputy managing director, held by John Lipsky and rumored to be going to White House official and former U.S. Treasury official and Citibanker David Lipton when Lipsky steps down in August.

So, move over deputy managing director Naoyuki Shinohara, your time may be up. A new IMF chief might try to appoint a Chinese alongside Shinohara as a deputy managing director, but that would devalue the post and set up howls from other developing countries that they should also be represented on the IMF executive floor.

Back in 1997, Japan shoehorned retired Finance Ministry official Shigemitsu Sugisaki to succeed Prabhakar Narvekar, a 40-year IMF official, as a deputy managing director, and the job has been held by a retired Finance Ministry official ever since.

To be fair, the ex-Kasumigaseki men have done a professional job as officials of the IMF, but the worry must be that people placed in the job through political pressure would see their first loyalties to their home countries. It is not a new concern: Washington has used both the No. 2 job and its veto-wielding shareholding to influence day-to-day IMF business.

It is impossible to avoid politics in the IMF. The fund is owned by its 187 shareholder governments, which make their views forcefully known in board discussions. The U.S. has insisted on retaining more than 16 percent ownership, comfortably more than enough to veto policies it doesn’t like.

But if the IMF is to do a proper job for the world economy, its senior staff have to be professional in day-to-day operations and to present the political owners with options and their consequences based on their best economic judgment.

Whoever takes over faces a challenging time. Whatever his faults, Strauss-Kahn brilliantly revived the IMF and put it at the center of the global economy. He understood the social and political consequences of policies and was outspoken about growing dangers of widespread unemployment — which President Barack Obama has been slower to appreciate.

By insisting on another European managing director, the European Union has wasted valuable capital that it will need to win sympathy for Greece and for the EU itself in negotiations still to come. Europe has itself to blame for much of its plight, and yet is damaging the global economy by its failure to get to grips with the worsening debt and banking crisis. Lagarde comes with too much European baggage.

There is of course a view that Japan does not need the IMF. With foreign exchange reserves of more than $1.14 trillion, and most of its heavy debts owed to domestic creditors, it is neither Greece nor another of the “PIIGS” (international bond analysts’ reference to the economies of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), and wouldn’t expect to go cap in hand to the IMF any time soon.

But this is shortsighted, even if Japan turns its economy round and discovers magic bullets to reduce its debts, get the economy moving and solve growing problems of an aging society.

As a major economy and leading exporter, Japan cannot shut itself off from the world, however much the pro-Galapagos romantics might wish it. With the yen again nudging above 80 against the dollar, too many Japanese industrial jobs are at risk of being exported.

Noda and his Finance Ministry officials should have used the IMF election to build coalitions with countries that are nervous of U.S. and Chinese economic domination and fear that the Europeans are losing their way.

At the very least they should have encouraged other candidates and demanded a truly open election where candidates answered questions publicly about the grave economic and financial issues facing the global economy and IMF.

Is it too late to retrieve the situation?

Realistically, it probably is. Noda will no doubt say that he has his hands full with the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, supplementary budgets and the succession to Kan.

That’s tough, but if he can’t handle pressure from many different directions and keep an eye on the rest of the world, then he shouldn’t even think of being prime minister.

Noda’s officials should have alerted him to the dangers and opportunities in the IMF election — or were they sleeping too?

Financial journalist Kevin Rafferty was editor of independent daily newspapers during the IMF’s annual meetings from 1988 to 1996, and was subsequently managing editor at the World Bank.

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