Japan gets a new prime minister

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra

The top two contenders for the presidency of the governing DPJ in Japan (and therefore Japan’s prime ministership) on 29 August are Banri Kaieda and Seiji Maehara. Kaieda represents the combined Ozawa-Hatoyama camps.

Not only is he a member of the Hatoyama group, but he has managed to secure the backing of Ichiro Ozawa. Who Ozawa would support has been one of the biggest questions in Japanese politics in the past week.

Given that the choice is between these two, what kind of prime ministers would they make?

It seems that all is quickly forgiven and forgotten in Japanese politics if power and ambition are at stake. Kaieda was once a strong critic of Ozawa for all the usual reasons. He felt so strongly about Ozawa’s faults that he wrote a book entitled The Real Reason Why I Don’t Like Ozawa (Politics) [Boku ga Ozawa (Seiji) o Kirai na Honto no Wake], published by Niki Shuppan in 1996. On the back cover of the book are the words, ‘That’s why I don’t like him’ printed in English.

Kaieda begins the book saying: ‘He was the man who has been controlling Japanese politics from behind the scenes since former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka … He was the man who has been having his way in a high-handed manner in the dual power structure of politics as though he were a shadow shogun’. Kaieda then reflects on the ‘history of Ozawa’s imperious disposition’ and relates numerous stories of Ozawa’s power plays and their far-reaching effects not only on the individuals involved but on political developments in Japan. Kaieda also provides commentary on what he regards as Ozawa’s unfinest hours, including a series of grand political and policy failures from the time of his first stint as LDP secretary-general in 1989.

At one point in the book, Kaieda refers to Ozawa’s role in the Sagawa Kyūbin scandal, when he was identified by witnesses as a party to the discussions during which illegal deals were allegedly made involving former LDP Deputy President Shin Kanemaru and the head of the Sagawa Kyūbin trucking company. Ozawa testified in the Diet that his own role in the scandal was merely to empty ashtrays and refill glasses without participating in any of the discussions. But as Kaieda writes, ‘I don’t think anyone could believe this testimony … Would Ozawa, who was being favoured by Kanemaru … really be called … only to work like a porter? … He might have said he wasn’t listening, but he must have been listening for sure’.

It now seems that Kaieda has volunteered to play the role for Ozawa that he described in his own book when he wrote, ‘Ozawa does not appear on centre stage, but rather accomplishes things through using other people. Isn’t this true? … This means that Ozawa likes a dual power structure’. Undoubtedly, Ozawa would seek the position of DPJ secretary-general in a Kaieda government.

On policy, Kaieda appears to have completely capitulated to the Ozawa line, not only in opposing an increase in the consumption tax and forming a coalition with the opposition, but also in implementing a policy of unbridled spending on public works. He proposes to use the earthquake and tsunami disaster as the reason for a public works spending spree in the best tradition of LDP politicians of yore.

Kaieda was far from Ozawa’s first choice to run for DPJ leader. Ozawa only agreed to support Kaieda because he could not get his personal choice to stand as a ‘front man’. He reached into the ranks of party elders — Azuma Koshiishi and Takeo Nishioka — asking both if they would stand. Such candidates would have been pure puppets with little support from either the wider party or the public, but with Ozawa pulling the strings. Any support they might have attracted would have been simply drummed up from the ranks of his own group and Hatoyama’s. In the event, Koshiishi turned Ozawa down and Hatoyama’s support could not be secured for Nishioka. The fact that Ozawa approached these unelectable leaders for the DPJ presidency reflects both his old LDP factional reflex in attempting to inflict his choice on the party and the public, and perhaps an ambition to return as the saviour of the party at a later date. In the end, Ozawa settled for Kaieda because the combination of his and Hatoyama’s group gave him a good chance of being on the winning side.

Maehara is generally recognised as being outside the Ozawa camp, crossing swords with Ozawa over the road toll issue last year and supporting Kan’s datsu Ozawa (‘escaping Ozawa’) line. This does not mean that he is altogether eschewing support from the Ozawa camp, particularly through his call for party unity — code for allowing Ozawa back into the DJP.

Maehara is the strongest candidate in terms of public support but the public are bystanders in this election, which only involves DPJ Diet members. Among party members, his prospects are far from assured.

Maehara’s personality is often criticised by observers who have had first-hand experience of it. His single-minded ambition to reach the pinnacle of Japanese politics has never been in doubt. His political judgment is another matter. His propensity to do backflips on policy issues and his inability to carry things through, such as cancelling the Yamba Dam project and restructuring Japan Airlines when he was Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in the Hatoyama government are considered among his weaknesses. Maehara is also known for making rash public statements, which suggests that he speaks before he thinks. An article published in the Japanese weekly magazine, Shukan Gendai in February this year called him ‘the most dangerous person in the DPJ’, someone who makes ill-considered remarks, a ‘human time-bomb’ whose administration would not last beyond three months’. In an apocryphal story, his former professor at Kyoto University is said to have advised him to become a politician because he was not clever enough to be a scholar.

The DPJ presidential election is, therefore, a choice between an opportunistic convert to Ozawaism with all the risks of backroom manipulation that would bring, and a superficially attractive figure but one without a great deal of policy substance. If the former wins, it will be testimony to the fact that Ozawa still calls the shots in the DPJ. Neither leader could be relied on to follow through on earlier policy positions, such as their commitment to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.