Japan from the inside out

Are Japan’s political tectonic plates shifting?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 16, 2008

JAPAN’S POLITICAL CLASS didn’t need to gulp down any coffee to kickstart their morning—all they had to do was scan the brief newspaper article reporting that former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro had summoned a meeting of business and political leaders last week to confirm plans for periodic confabs to discuss political issues in a Japan plagued by government gridlock.

In addition to Mr. Koizumi’s supporters and associates in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party–most notably Koike Yuriko–others with seats at the table included Maehara Seiji, current vice-president and former president of the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, and several of his allies.

The meeting was held on the evening of the ninth—the same day the DPJ had rejected the LDP’s fourth nominee for a post at the Bank of Japan. That the rejection generated considerable frustration within the LDP is no surprise, but there are indications the DPJ’s obstructionism is causing more than a little unpleasantness within the opposition party as well.

The newspapers are calling this a “study group”, which is sometimes the form new political groupings take in Japan when the participants are scouting the prospects for creating a new faction or party. They plan to begin regularly scheduled meetings after the weeklong holidays in the beginning of May.

During the meeting, Mr. Koizumi is reported to have said:

Two (potential) candidates for prime minister are here. This could be interesting.

According to a person present, the guest list included the following:

Okuda Hiroshi, former chairman of the Keidanren, a past president and chairman of Toyota and a special Cabinet advisor. Toyota has generally kept some distance between itself and the LDP in the past because of its union’s ties with the DPJ. Mr. Okuda, however, openly mobilized Toyota support for Mr. Koizumi after the prime minister shocked (and electrified) Japan in 2005 by dissolving the lower house of the Diet and calling a new election to push through his plan for privatizing the postal ministry.

The LDP Contingent

Koike Yuriko, former Environmental Minister in the Koizumi Cabinet, and a national security advisor and briefly Defense Minister in Abe Shinzo’s Cabinet. Some observers think she has a chance to become Japan’s first female prime minister, and everyone assumes she wants the job. Her background also includes membership in the now-defunct Liberal Party, then headed by the current opposition head Ozawa Ichiro, when it was the junior partner in a coalition government with the LDP. Politics makes for some strange bedfellows in Japan.

Motegi Toshimitsu, a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, former Senior Vice Foreign Minister in the first Koizumi Cabinet and the Minister of State for Okinawa in Second Koizumi Cabinet

Hayashi Yoshimasa, also a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government, and an upper house member (unlike the previous two, who are lower house members). He has Finance Ministry connections, as does Mr. Koizumi.

Nishimura Yasutoshi, a lower house member in the Machimura faction (to which Mr. Koizumi once belonged in a former incarnation), and known to be politically close to Abe Shinzo

The Gang from the DPJ

Maehara Seiji, the second potential prime minister, is known for specializing in security and defense issues, and favors revising the Constitution to allow Japan more leeway to conduct military operations (by eliminating the second paragraph of Article 9, the so-called Peace Clause). He is also on excellent terms with Abe Shinzo, and was not averse to the suggestion for a grand coalition between the two parties that caused Mr. Ozawa so much trouble last fall.

Sengoku Yoshito, a member of the Maehara group (the DPJ doesn’t like to call them factions), he has held several shadow cabinet positions. Interestingly enough, he also directly criticized Mr. Koizumi for the deterioration of relations with South Korea during his term.

Genba Koichiro, a lower house member who is also in the Maehara group.

Fukuyama Tetsuro, ditto.

Also stopping by to say hi was Mikitani Hiroshi, the president and chairman of Rakuten, a giant in Internet shopping in Japan, and one of the 10 largest Internet companies in the world. Their website has the second highest total of unique hits in the country, behind only Yahoo!

In retrospect, neither the meeting itself nor the participants should have been entirely unexpected. Mr. Koizumi has downplayed any interest in a major post-retirement political role by referring to himself as “a man of the past”, but he has become more active since February. Was it a coincidence that his former political right-hand man, Iijima Isao, sat for an interview with a friendly magazine at the same time and floated what looked like a trial balloon for a Koizumi comeback?

In the interview, Mr. Iijima offered a white knight scenario by suggesting that Mr. Koizumi is the only person with the experience and credibility to break through the current impasse and take political reform to the next level. He further noted that it wouldn’t be necessary to form a new political party; it would be enough for Mr. Koizumi to “take the ship out of the harbor and into the sea”, and that a crew of 50 members each from the LDP and the DPJ would be enough to man the ship.

In addition to political gridlock, the Koizumi allies within the party are dismayed at LDP recidivism by failing to maintain the momentum of his political and governmental reforms. The former prime minister’s Man Friday in the Cabinet for implementing those reforms, Takenaka Heizo, has criticized Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo for allowing the LDP of the bad old days to come back “like a zombie” since he took office in September.

For his part, Mr. Maehara and his group members share some common ground with the LDP reform wing; indeed, they perhaps have more in common with them than they do the left-leaning and leftist elements of their own party. They are also likely to be among those in the DJP unhappy with Mr. Ozawa’s leadership (an unhappiness that predates the party’s strong showing in last summer’s upper house election), and his tactics in the Diet since then.

To be fair, Mr. Maehara has reportedly been telling associates since last week’s meeting that it is not a formal study group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and it’s still too soon to be burning bridges.

Whether this leads to the political realignment that everyone is talking about, to the comeback of Koizumi Jun’ichiro, or merely to informal political discussions across party lines held in expensive restaurants, Mr. Koizumi’s description of the latest development was dead on:

This could be interesting.

3 Responses to “Are Japan’s political tectonic plates shifting?”

  1. Ken said

    Minor correction: The name of ex-chairman of Toyota is OkUda.

    Anyway, both parties are said to have conservatists and liberalists.
    Mass media are prompting them to shuffle and re-organize in accordance with such classification.
    But I hope they would divide into monetarists (I say rationalist) and Keynesians.
    I dislike such barren dispute as rightist and leftist.

  2. ampontan said

    Thanks for the correction.

    I dislike such barren dispute as rightist and leftist.

    You and me both!

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