A Kyodo News poll released Wednesday revealed a 63 percentapproval rate for the cabinet of newly-elected Prime Minister Naoto Kan, an impressive increase from the dismal 19.1 percent rating that dogged the cabinet of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama. This is despite the fact that eleven of Hatoyama’s seventeen cabinet members- including the ministers of Justice, Defense and Foreign Affairs- were retained by the new prime minister.
Analysts say that the reason behind the favorable support rate for the new cabinet, despite the retention of key Hatoyama stalwarts, is the result of Kan’s trying to dilute the influence of Ichiro Ozawa, the powerful DPJ secretary-general who also resigned with Hatoyama last week. Shortly after Kan assumed the position of prime minister, he told Ozawa to lie low and keep his comments to himself, and appointed staunch Ozawa critics Yukio Edano and Yoshito Sengoku to the posts of DPJ secretary-general and chief cabinet secretary, respectively.
“He may gain further in the polls if he continues providing an anti-Ichiro Ozawa flavor,” said Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser Micheal J. Green in a report by the Associated Press.
Ozawa had become very unpopular as a politician in Japan for two reasons: His history of political turncoatism– he was a ranking member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) before he engineered its temporary demise in 1990, then hopped from the Renewal Party to the New Frontier Party, to the Liberal Party and, eventually, to the DPJ– and his reputation as a master of transactional politics. These were compounded by allegations of his misappropriations of his political funds that cost him the presidency of the DPJ and the chance to be prime minister in 2009, and which continues to dog him to this day.
Although Hatoyama as prime minister was the nominal chief executive of Japan, Ozawa was seen as the real source of power in the DPJ government. As secretary-general, he single-handedly steered the direction of the party, dictated the government’s policy and at times undermined the leadership of the prime minister.
For example, when a team of 32 lawmakers were recruited, with Hatoyama’s blessings, by the Government Revitalization Unit as inspectors tasked with examining the budget and recommending cuts in unnecessary spending, Ozawa intervened by opposing the recruitment of neophyte lawmakers who he claims to be too inexperienced to be inspectors. Ozawa got what he wanted, thereby highlighting the fact that his authority outshadowed that of the prime minister.
His dictatorial means also extended to the Imperial Household Office. He allegedly pressured the said agency to reverse its earlier decision not to grant the request made by the visiting Chinese vice president for a meeting with the Emperor for reasons of protocol. Ozawa stressed that relations with China were more important than Imperial protocol. Here too, Ozawa prevailed; but he got criticized for using the Emperor, who is supposed to be above politics, for political considerations.
“If Mr. Ozawa says turn right, we turn right. If he says turn left, we turn left. And if he says five plus five is 15, then we just have to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ ” said Kozo Watabe, the oldest member of the DPJ. He was sacked by Ozawa as party adviser last year.
The reason why Ozawa had become so powerful is because it was he who led the Democrats to an overwhelming victory in last year’s parliamentary elections. Under previous DPJ leaderships, including that of Hatoyama and Kan, the Democrats have failed to end the almost uninterrupted five-decade dominance of the Liberal Democrats. In 2007, Ozawa won the less powerfulupper House of Councilors of the Diet (Japan’s parliament) by capitalizing on the blunders of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who focused on pushing for constitutional revisions at the expense of important bread and butter issues. It marked the first time in fifty years that the LDP had lost its majority to an opposition party in the upper house.
He then used the upper house majority to block key legislations of the LDP and force a parliamentary deadlock that led to the resignations of Abe and his successor, Yasuo Fukuda, and eventually to the dissolution of the more powerful lower House of Representatives and the announcement of snap election by Fukuda’s successor, Taro Aso, in September 2009. Ozawa, as chief election strategist, delivered a landslide victory for the party in that election.
Around 150 of the winning parliamentarians in 2009 were political neophytes whom Ozawa recruited for their youth and popularity (many of them are TV personalities or high profile activists). These neophytes were dubbed as the ‘Ozawa Children’ because they are perceived to be loyal to Ozawa, to whom they owe their positions. Observers agree that they are a force to reckon with within the DPJ. This force has intimidated the other heavyweights of the party- Hatoyama, Kan, Transportation Minister Seiji Maehara and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada- and in the process allowed Ozawa to consolidate his power and influence despite his unpopularity to the public. Further, many in the party believed that Ozawa is indispensable in light of the important House of Councilors elections that the party needs to win this coming July.
But because of the US air base fiasco that dragged down Hatoyama’s approval ratings, and along with it the party’s prospects in the coming polls, Ozawa’s unpopularity became a serious liability for the party. Not only was Ozawa forced by circumstances to resign as secretary-general, his opponents within the party moved to oust him as ’shadow shogun.’
In terms of fundamental principles, the new Japanese government will be a continuation of the previous one. Hatoyama, Ozawa and Kan are from the same party, afterall. The core message of these principles is the dismantlement of the old system that encourages pork barrel politics and makes the Diet and the Cabinet mere rubber stamps to the all-powerfulbureaucracy. Similarly, Kan will continue to seek to better relations with Japan’s Asian neighbors including the Philippines while at the same time striving to promote a more equal alliance with the United States.
Nevertheless, breaking with Ozawa would mean at least two significant changes in direction for the Japanese government: Reform of the intra-party mechanisms and abandonment of Ozawa-style populism in favor of fiscal discipline.
Reform of the intra-party mechanisms of the DPJ will focus on doing away with the one-man leadership style of Ozawa and on encouraging free market of ideas among the party members. To this end, Kan has resurrected the party’s Policy Research Council and appointed another Ozawa critic, Koichiro Genba, as its chairman. The Council, abolished by Ozawa last year under the pretext of harmony in execution of cabinet and party policies, will revive lively discussion on policy among party members and improve communications between the party’s rank and file and the cabinet, thereby increasing transparency.
Ozawa-driven focus on the realization of the party’s populist campaign promises– monthly allowance for every Japanese child, free high school tuition and toll-free expressways– is likely to be put in the backburner. Ozawa believes that the party would lose its electoral support if it does not focus on delivering these perks to the electorate, but Kan believes it is more important to focus on the economy.
In his first policy address before the Diet, Kan stressed the importance of trimming Japan’s debt– which at 200 percent of the GDP dwarfs that of Greece’s– as well as combating rising unemployment and deflation. Kan’s new social welfare minister has hinted that the government might backpedal on the Ozawa promises. Also, the new prime minister has appointed two fiscal conservatives, Yoshiko Noda and Renho as Minister of Finance and Minister In-Charge of Government Revitalization, respectively.
Renho, who goes only by one name, spent her first day in office by calling for a major cut in wasteful government spending. The former model and TV personality gained prominence as a fiscal conservative when, during a televised budget hearing, she asked, “Why do we have to be number one? What’s wrong with being number two?” when questioning a science ministry bureaucrat who was asking for a multi-million budget for a project that aims to develop the world’s fastest supercomputer.
In order for Kan to pursue these new changes in government priorities, he must first win the elections for the House of Councillors this July. If he loses, his government would face grueling parliamentary gridlocks that would take its toll on his political capital, the way the gridlock with the United States over the Okinawa air base issue took its toll on Hatoyama’s.
While Kan and his cabinet are enjoying a comfortable approval rating in the latest survey, it is a rating that would be difficult for him to maintain. This is especially because the Yomiuri Shinbun has discovered that his new minister in charge of national policy, Satoshi Arai, has “registered a condominium where an acquaintance of Arai resides as its office for seven years from November 2002, and booked 42.22 million yen in expenses over six of those years.” While this potential scandal does not involve the prime minister directly, the Japanese are very strict with regards to the principle of command responsibility and would surely hold Kan accountable for appointing Arai in his cabinet.
Also, even if Kan manages to solve the Arai question and win the elections this July, he would be facing another important battle this September: the election for the presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan. It is highly likely that Ozawa and his children would be very ready to try to pull a come-back by then.