Japan from the inside out

Run silent, run deep

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 19, 2010

THE SILENCE is disquieting.

To be sure, the nation does need a breather from politics. It’s been in a state of either semi- or full-scale upheaval since Koizumi Jun’ichiro left office in 2006. Events culminated in the historical change of government after last September’s lower house win by the Democratic Party of Japan—and then the bottom fell out with their staggering display of incompetence in the management of governmental and political affairs. The replacement of Hatoyama Yukio with Kan Naoto did not improve matters, and might have made them worse. Regardless of who wins the race to the bottom, both have clearly demonstrated they are not of prime ministerial caliber.

The respite from politics comes none too soon for the people, who will turn their attention to more relaxing pursuits now that the school year’s summer vacation begins this week.

While the public begins to enjoy the stillness, political observers are growing concerned about the disquieting silence from other quarters—former DPJ Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro.

Mr. Ozawa has still not appeared in public or talked to reporters since the election, maintaining a silence that some are starting to call eerie. He’s told supporters that he’s resting after the election campaign, which is probably true, but few think that’s all he’s doing.

No one’s sure where’s he been during the week—he hasn’t been at home, though he seems to have gone on a fishing trip on Sunday. Most observers, however, suspect that he’s sharpening his swords for the DPJ party presidential election in the first week of September.

The silence must be disconcerting for Mr. Kan and his allies, who, after all, were the ones to suggest that Mr. Ozawa keep quiet for a while. (He did, except to blast the prime minister in the middle of the campaign for bringing up a tax increase.) Likely compounding their discomfort is Mr. Ozawa’s refusal to accept any calls from Mr. Kan. He sent word instead through a third party for Mr. Kan to specify in advance what he wants to talk about.

Meanwhile, Hirano Tadao, one of Mr. Ozawa’s most trusted confidantes, appeared on the Asahi TV program Scramble and said:

It was a terrible insult (for Prime Minister Kan) to tell the man who contributed to the achievement of the DPJ government to stay silent.

Did that heighten the sense of alarm among the old-line DPJ members, or are they still deluding themselves that things will somehow work out—even though nothing’s worked out for them since last September?

They should be alarmed. Had it not been for Mr. Ozawa’s practical lessons in political conduct, they’d still be coffeehousing on the outside looking in. That didn’t stop them from trying to make him the scapegoat in public, starting with the master political blunderer Hatoyama Yukio at the end of May.

Yet it’s almost as if the current DPJ leadership is trying to pretend that nothing very bad happened last Sunday. Not only have they shown no willingness to accept responsibility for their defeat, their behavior seems to suggest they intend to stay in office for the indefinite future.

But if there is anything Mr. Ozawa knows how to do, it is how to maneuver in situations such as these. That is precisely what the old-line DPJ members do not know how to do. Now they seem to be on the verge of a confrontation with a man who is motivated, angry, contemptuous of their abilities, and has a political war chest rumored to be as much as JPY 300 billion (almost $US 3.5 billion). Japanese law has no spending restrictions on internal party elections, either.

It’s quiet now, but if a battle breaks out in six weeks, it could be very noisy, very bloody, and will have the potential to reconfigure Japanese politics even more drastically than last year’s lower house election.

The ideal outcome would be if both of these camps were flushed out of Japanese politics forever. They may yet find a way to bring that about on their own. Until that happens, however, half a loaf will be much better than none.

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