It was a small item, but it looms large in my imagination.
On October 14, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko visited a day care center in Yokohama, joining the children for lunch. Here is the photo of the PM saying "Itadakimasu" seated at table with what look like the five year olds.
Considering how small the chair he must be sitting on, the PM's placid, almost beatific composure is remarkable. He looks utterly at ease and in his element.
It is hard to imagine Noda's predecessor Kan Naoto, an incorrigible adult, being able to pull this off. It is flat out impossible to imagine Hatoyama Yukio in this pose, nor any of the trio of Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers who preceded Hatoyama.
Could Koizumi have pulled it off? With teenagers, maybe. But with small children, probably not. Koizumi was cool, not child-like.
In the coming months and quite possibly years, we will have keep a sharp eye on the low key, accommodating style of this prime minister. His common touch -- arising from his literally being from nowhere, or as close to nowhere as one can get (both his parents being the youngest child of a large family -- i.e., the inheritors of nothing -- and his father's being a Ground Self Defense Forces member, meaning that the family had no town to call its home) and his necessary reliance on the national safety net (of all prime ministers in history, he is the one with the fewest assets) is linked to an inspiring, if sometimes overwhelming, desire to get things done. The economist and former minister Takenaka Heizo has warned the Noda Administration that it is tackling too many issues at once, that it should concentrate on two or three main issues, so as to guarantee they receive the attention necessary for success.
Noda and his advisors are ignoring this sound advice, tackling issues both pressing like Japan's galloping demographic imbalance and ancillary, like the recent blowup over participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The PM and the Democratic Party of Japan's policy makers have proposed tax rise after tax rise, even grasping the third rail of Japanese politics -- the raising of the consumption tax to 10% -- and survived. To be sure, the prime minister's poll ratings are down from his initial numbers -- NHK's most recent poll (J) finding support for his cabinet at 45%. Considering how many different sacred cows the PM and his people have gored during his first two months in office, 45% is a very respectable number.
The Noda administration's success will depend on how well it can continue to impress with the themes of humility and sacrifice. Noda has already received a thumbs up review from a very hard-to-please senior figure as regards his low-key demeanor. His response to the provocative Obuchi Yuko speech in the Diet was admirable for its restraint. As for sacrifice, Noda, unlike his predecessor, seems to derive only benefits from calling attention to the needs of those displaced by the triple disaster of 3/11 (he also seems more than willing to wield the suffering caused by 3/11 to batter his opponents senseless). "Sacrifices have to made," has been his motto since his second speech at the DPJ congress that elected him party leader, and not even sacrifice-be-damned stalwarts like Kamei Shizuka, Hatoyama Yukio and Haraguchi Kazuhiro have been able to say much in response.
I would be pushing the envelope to call Noda "better even than Koizumi" -- the other prime minister who was able to call for painful national sacrifice with the populace backing him up -- but from what I have seen these first two months, Noda is certainly "the best since Koizumi."
Image credit: Tokyo Shimbun