Japan’s parliament has elected former Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda as Prime Minister — the country’s sixth leader in five years.
Mr. Noda, seen as a fiscal conservative, will face a host of daunting problems, including the post-tsunami recovery, nuclear crisis, sluggish economy and yen’s surge. The vote took place Tuesday.
Mr. Noda was elected on Monday to head the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, virtually insuring that he would be named Prime Minister in the Parliament vote expected later Tuesday. He succeeds the unpopular Naoto Kan, who quit after 15 months in office.
Mr. Noda must seek to unify the fractious ruling party and restore public confidence in politics amid widespread disgust over squabbling in parliament and perceived lack of leadership in the wake of the triple disaster.
Mr. Noda is a “moderate voice” in the ruling party, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “He has a steady temperament and a reputation for fairness in a party where loyalties have been severely tested of late.”
On Monday, Mr. Noda, defeated Trade Minister Banri Kaieda — who was backed by a party powerbroker —in a run-off election 215-177 among ruling party members of Parliament after none of the initial five candidates won a majority in the first round.
After the vote Mr. Noda called for party members to put aside differences and “sweat together for the sake of the people.”
Mr. Noda supports free trade and building a stronger partnership with the United States, but given the pressing needs at home, “diplomacy is not likely to be at the top of his priority lists,” Ms. Smith said.
Mr. Noda has angered China and South Korea for comments about convicted wartime leaders revered at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of all Japan’s war dead are enshrined. Earlier this month, he reiterated his claim that the wartime leaders had paid their debts and should no longer be seen as war criminals. He made similar comments in 2005.
Yasukuni visits by post-war politicians have often enraged Japan’s neighbours, who bore the brunt of Japan’s colonial aggression and are sensitive to any efforts by Japan to whitewash its past. Mr. Noda made his comments in response to a reporter’s question on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender. He and the rest of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Cabinet chose not to visit the shrine this year.
China’s official news agency warned Mr. Noda on Monday to not to ignore Beijing’s “core interests” or seek to portray it as a threat to regional peace and stability. In a harshly worded editorial, Xinhua demanded Mr. Noda not visit Yasukuni and said Tokyo must recognise China’s claim over Japanese-controlled islands known as Senkaku, or Diaoyutai in Chinese.
The two countries got into a spat last year when a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested — and later released — by Japan after his boat sailed close to the islands.
Mr. Noda will likely be preoccupied with tackling the huge tasks at home. Nearly six months after the quake-spawned tsunami devastated Japan’s north-eastern coast, dozens of towns are still cleaning up and struggling to come up with reconstruction plans. The nuclear plant in Fukushima has displaced about 100,000 people, and the quake-prone country is also striving to hammer out a clear stance on the future of nuclear power generation.
Japan’s economy, the world’s third-largest, has been sluggish for the last 20 years and its population is aging, putting a greater tax burden on the younger generation.
As finance minister, Noda has been battling the yen’s recent rise to record highs against the dollar, which hurts Japan’s exporters. Earlier this month, he authorized Japan’s intervention in global currency markets to try to weaken the yen.
Mr. Noda has also said Japan must rein in its huge deficit — twice the country’s gross domestic product —and has voiced support in the past for raising Japan’s 5 percent sales tax, but has toned that down lately.