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Tokyo Notes

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The DPJ’s poll ratings are sliding. Is Hatoyama (or Ozawa) under threat?

Support for the ruling administration here has plunged to 32 percent according to a monthly opinion poll released this week, with respondents citing political funding scandals among the reasons for their discontent.

While all the main dailies released results this week showing a decline in support for the Democratic Party of Japan-led government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, it was a poll in the relatively progressive Asahi Shimbun that gave his administration the lowest approval rating, mirroring those of unpopular cabinets in the recent past led by Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda at the six-month stage.

Coverage of cabinet support polls can be somewhat relentless in this country, but the figure on this occasion is significant in that it marks an assessment of the government six months after its inauguration. The vertiginous decline from September’s support figure of 71 percent in a poll by the same newspaper clearly shows that the public is feeling disappointed by the new government. Indeed, the figure is perilously close to what the media here sees as the critical rating of 30 percent, below which an administration’s long-term future starts to be called into question.

Inconsistent policy statements by cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, coupled with the dithering over the relocation of the Futenma US air base in Okinawa have removed the initial shine from the administration’s reputation. But it is illicit financing that is tarnishing it.

Money scandals have already claimed one victim this week, with lower house DPJ member Chiyomi Kobayashi resigning after allegations of an illicit 16 million yen donation from a teacher’s union for her election campaign last year. But the main funding scandals involve Hatoyama himself and DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, giving the impression that while a new party has taken power, the same old connections between cash and politics exist.

With Hatoyama, it’s more a case of privilege and projected naivety than the more typical combination of backhanders-for-public works contracts—he hadn’t been paying tax on the billion-plus yen his incredibly wealthy mum has bankrolled his political career with.

The stink around Ozawa involves a dubious 400 million yen property purchase that was not registered by his funding organization, possibly because this would involve declaring where the money came from. In the latest poll, 74 percent said Ozawa should resign over the scandal, but Ozawa—the man the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun describes in heavy-handed terms as having dictatorial control over the DPJ—is standing his ground.

Were it not for the LDP’s hapless performance as an opposition party—incredibly, its own support also fell in the poll—the DPJ would surely have pressed some kind of panic button by now. But at the very least, the alarm bells must now be ringing loud and clear for all in the party to hear.

Should the DPJ slide below 30 percent in next month’s polls, surely the party will have to take rot-stopping action, signaling the end of the line for Ozawa.