Tokyo Notes

Kan Weakens Ozawa Grip

Naoto Kan’s cabinet reshuffle was limited, but suggest he’s weakening Ichiro Ozawa’s hold.

New Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan formally launched his Cabinet on Tuesday amid surging opinion polls showing close to 60 percent support for him. The changes Kan has made haven’t been sweeping, projecting a certain image of continuity following the sudden resignation of Yukio Hatoyama last week. But Kan has made clear his intention to make a distinct shift away from controversial party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.

Ozawa critics Yoshihiko Noda and Yoshito Sengoku have been made finance minister and chief cabinet secretary, respectively, while another Ozawa opponent, Yukio Edano, has been made general secretary of the DPJ. Meanwhile, Koichiro Genba has been made minister for civil service reform following his earlier appointment as head of the party’s resurrected policy research council.

Ozawa stood down with Hatoyama last Wednesday. Like Hatoyama, Ozawa has been linked to a scandal involving his fundraising organization, but he’s also been seen as the party’s main string puller who had restricted policy debate within the party while retaining his own veto, despite being outside the cabinet.

The so-called Shadow Shogun has always had a reputation for fixing and meddling behind the scenes from his formative days in the Liberal Democratic Party, which he eventually broke away from with a group of over 40 defectors, and his subsequent responsibility for the fall of the Hosokawa government in 1994.

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The DPJ’s ability to recast itself as a party able to act beyond the control of the diehard veteran will be a key aspect in determining the party’s fortunes in this summer’s upper house election.

Another important factor in that election will be the DPJ’s ability to communicate as one. Sengoku will have the important task of returning cohesion to the voice of the administration, one of the critical roles of chief cabinet secretary that the outgoing Hirofumi Hirano didn’t handle well.

The return of the party’s policy research council will please many rank and file DPJ Diet members who felt they had been frozen out of policy debate when Ozawa scrapped the policy forum last year. Along with Edano, 46, and his waste-trimming sidekick Renho, 42, Genba, at 46, also gives the new line-up a whiff of generational change, even if he’s hardly wet behind the ears. Mind you, when it comes to the Cabinet’s composition, Renho’s appointment as minister for administrative reform still only gives it two female members.

The most controversial appointment was that of Edano as party general secretary, a non-cabinet but still crucial post.Edano has won plaudits for his grilling of bureaucrats on TV in the process of trying to claw back public funds, but has been outspoken in his criticism of Ozawa.

In its editorial on Tuesday, Japan’s biggest business daily, the Nikkei, pointed out that while Ozawa supporters in the party were against Edano’s selection as general secretary, even some members of Kan’s support group opposed the choice. In sticking to his guns, the Nikkei said Kan had made clear his intention of showing a move away from Ozawa. But the Nikkei called on Edano to make Ozawa explain himself to the Diet regarding the funding scandal that has seen three of his aides indicted, otherwise the new administration’s anti-Ozawa colours would soon fade.

While plenty of establishment players would love to see Ozawa get a roasting in the Diet, it’s weakening his grip on the DPJ that will remain Kan’s main concern, together with his administration’s ability to take a consistent line on policy and to deliver on its promises. Otherwise the currently vibrant colours of his fresh administration, as witnessed by the notoriously fickle support rating, will indeed fade in the summer sun.