The first question about Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is: how long will he last? He is Japan's sixth Prime Minister in five years, and the third to assume the office since the historic victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009. The promise of clean politics and good governance that came with the ousting of the Liberal Democratic Party — and with it a sleazy back-room style of functioning — appears to have all but faded from public memory. Instead, there is the uncertain economy, sharpened by the world's recession woes. Japan is burdened by a public debt of 225 per cent of the gross domestic product, high social security and pension costs due to an ageing population, and a shrinking work force. A strong yen threatens to hit exports. On top of it all, there is the daunting task of the nuclear clean-up and rebuilding after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Prime Minister Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, had to step down following searing criticism of his handling of the disaster and the accompanying catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Not surprisingly, the DPJ fared poorly in the April local elections. Mr. Kan survived a no-confidence vote in June, but promised to quit after seeing three pieces of legislation through the Diet in August.
Mr. Noda held the finance portfolio in the Kan cabinet, and advocated a tax hike to meet Japan's post-disaster public spending — a move opposed by his own party. One of the biggest challenges facing him is the task of playing the conciliator between the bitterly opposed factions within the DPJ. His election as Prime Minister showed how deep factionalism runs — Mr. Noda had to wrestle four other candidates off the mat, and he won only in a second round run-off. The DPJ's woes are compounded by the opposition LDP's control over the upper house of parliament, from where it has opposed all government policies. Prime Minister Noda has emphasised Japan's relations with the United States as “its greatest asset,” signalling his intention to strengthen the ties. The two previous Prime Ministers walked a tightrope between the perceived Japanese need for the U.S. as a guarantor of regional peace, and the growing desire to cut dependence on the superpower and improve ties with China and other regional neighbours. As for Tokyo's reservations about a civilian nuclear deal with New Delhi, these could have only got strengthened. Post-Fukushima, the Japanese want to reduce their dependence on nuclear energy. The new man in the job has to prove himself on many fronts before the next elections, due in 2013. That is, if he lasts until then.