Ozawa’s influence in Japan’s DPJ still questionable

Author: Michael Cucek, MIT

As Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years, settles into office, much speculation surrounds the various internal party appointments taking place inside the troubled ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

In particular, the purported return to influence of Ichiro Ozawa, via Noda’s appointment to prominent positions of numerous Ozawa allies, is attracting much attention.

The appointment of close Ozawa ally Azuma Koshiishi as DPJ secretary-general is notable. But Koshiishi’s appointment of former Ozawa secretary Takeshi Hidaka as deputy secretary-general of the DPJ need not be read into too much. Hidaka is no more powerful or significant than the DPJ’s 14 other members occupying the same position. Koshiishi has even been chided for vastly expanding the number of identical title holders (he has, for example, 19 official ‘Advisors’) in his efforts to placate the various forces in the party, such that the meaning of particular nameplates has been considerably diluted.

Despite being added on as something of an afterthought, the appointment of Katsumasa Suzuki as senior deputy secretary-general is likely of more consequence, as Suzuki outranks Hidaka by a wide margin. The appointment of such a prominent near-rebel (he, like all the other rebels except for Kenko Matsuki, eventually fell into line and voted against the no-confidence motion against previous Prime Minister Naoto Kan) to the number-four position in the secretary-general’s office is indeed surprising.

Equally, Shinji Tarutoko’s appointment as acting secretary-general, the number-two position in the hierarchy, deserves greater attention. Tarutoko is a product of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, like Prime Minister Noda. And from media reports, Koshiishi, who is the first secretary-general to be appointed from out of the House of Councillors, has all but allowed Tarutoko to set up a parallel and independent administration inside the more-powerful lower house, the House of Representatives. With Koshiishi’s advanced age (he is 75, and looks it) there is the possibility that the postings inside the formal secretariat of the DPJ are more for show than for real power brokering, and that the youthful Tarutoko (he is 52) and his entourage are the real locus of power.

It should be noted that Tarutoko was the recipient of Ozawa group support when he ran unsuccessfully against Naoto Kan in the race to replace Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. But Tarutoko later switched sides during the course of the Kan administration and became a strong supporter of the so-called mainstream (read anti-Ozawa) coalition of forces within the DPJ. Given that Ozawa is both under indictment and has his party rights suspended, it is unlikely that Tarutoko would tilt his sails in Ozawa’s direction.

Assessing these appointments and power plays based upon Japanese source material is extremely difficult. Factions and individuals use elements of the mainstream media to float trial balloons or spread rumors. One would assume that mainstream media outlets would have a vested interest in vetting these bits of news flotsam; the sad fact is, they do not. It is not without reason that nearly every salient assertion in Japanese news reports comes from anonymous sources. These sources have agendas, and the media makes no effort to identify, examine or explain them.

For no individual is the assessment of reality more difficult than Ichiro Ozawa. He is without question Japan’s least trusted politician. The mainstream press, in particular, hates him. No act of political mischief, no twisting of the wills of others is put beyond him.

Ozawa, however, is not as irresistible a force (nor either as nefarious a one) as he is made out to be. He took on former prime minister Naoto Kan three times and three times walked away the loser. Current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, having thoroughly beaten Ozawa’s anointed candidate in the DPJ leadership election, is probably not so stupid as to hand over the keys of the kingdom to Ozawa pawns.

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate at the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.