Features | Politics | East Asia

Why DPJ Leadership Race Matters

Japan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan selects a new leader today. Michael Cucek takes a look at what the candidates stand for.

By Michael Cucek for

Today, the 398 eligible members of Democratic Party of Japan will vote for a replacement for current Prime Minister Naoto Kan. It’s easy to make light of the proceedings, which will elect the seventh prime minister Japan has had in the last five years. Just another election, some might argue, giving the country a leader without giving it leadership. 

There’s certainly much merit in such scepticism. Given that the partisan political divisions that bedevilled the premiership of Kan – both of the Diet (Japan’s parliament) and the DPJ – will still be present and waiting to shackle the initiatives of the new DPJ leader, there’s little hope of Japan’s next leader’s lasting any longer than his five immediate predecessors. 

Still, it would be unwise to dismiss Monday’s DPJ election as simply an empty exercise, because there are some serious issues facing the unprecedented five candidates vying to become the next leader of the party and country.

Since last July, Japan has had two opposing coalitions in charge of each of the two Houses of the Diet. The DPJ holds control of the House of Representatives, the House that elects the prime minister; its bitter rival the Liberal Democratic Party controls the House of Councillors. This leads to an anomalous situation where the party in power can’t pass any of its own legislation. Instead, the only legislation that has any hope of passage is drafted by the party that is outside the Cabinet. As the ruling DPJ doesn’t want to defer to the political programme of the minority LDP, action in Japan’s most important branch of the government has ground to a near halt. Only the calamity of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident of March 11, and Naoto Kan’s unnerving threat to not resign unless three major bills were passed, brought any cooperation between the two Houses on vital pieces legislation.

The next leader of the DPJ will need to provide an answer over how to break the deadlock in the Diet. Most public opinion polls show the populace favouring the DPJ and LDP working together on a bill-by-bill basis. Unfortunately, this approach was tried by the departing Kan administration with zero success.

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The candidates in Monday’s election offer various solutions to the problem of the divided Diet. Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and former foreign minister Seiji Maehara favour a grand coalition of the two major parties, with Maehara seeing the coalition as being for a fixed period of time and Noda the coalition as a more open-ended affair. The three other candidates in the race – Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Michihiko Kano, former minister of transport Sumio Mabuchi and Minister of Economics, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda – argue that a more unified DPJ, another major problem that bedevilled Kan’s premiership, will somehow lead the party to find better ways of negotiating with the LDP on significant legislation. Just how the one follows from the other is unclear.

Looming over the selection process of a new leader is the great shadow of Ichiro Ozawa. He has been shut out from direct influence in party affairs since he was persuaded to resign as party secretary general in May 2010. He’s currently under suspension by the party, the second most severe punishment after expulsion. However, thanks to the deep personal loyalty of around 120 of members of the Diet, he remains the chief power broker in the selection process.

Ozawa is a political genius. Indeed, it isn’t an exaggeration to say he is the most creative political strategist of his generation. He was the architect of the strategy that guided the DPJ from a perennial nice guy loser into a political machine capable of seizing power, which it did in spectacular fashion in August 2009.

But Ozawa is also flawed. First, he selected as his mentors Kakuei Tanaka and Shin Kanemaru, men whose names are synonymous with political corruption. It has never been clear the extent to which Ozawa absorbed the corrupt ways of these two infamous power brokers and Ozawa himself has never been credibly connected to direct instances of corruption. However, his significant personal wealth, his body of retainers and his seemingly endless capacity to raise political funds for his protégés has always raised suspicions. A citizens’ jury committee indicted him early this year, charges connected to possibly illegal accounting for political funds by his former secretaries.

Second, he brooks no equals. When he was secretary general of the party during the brief Hatoyama administration, he obliterated all the DPJ’s and the government’s policy crafting institutions, leaving himself as the sole guide of the nation’s policy making. It was this power grab that turned the other major party leaders against him, leading to the division of the DPJ into two streams: a ‘mainstream’ group whose guiding principle is to keeping Ozawa away from the levers of power, and an ‘anti-mainstream’ group of both Ozawa loyalists and DPJ members who have noticed that since Ozawa’s ouster, the DPJ has known only electoral failure.

The candidates split on whether or not Ozawa will be free once again to influence party affairs. Kaieda has received Ozawa’s promise of support and speaks strongest of reintroducing Ozawa into the leadership. Kano has indicated he would favour the lifting of the suspension. Mabuchi and Noda have tried to evade the question of Ozawa’s status.  Only Maehara has come out strongly against the lifting of the suspension, and by extension opposing Ozawa having any formal role in the party.

In the eyes of the press, the opposition and most of the populace, an unshackled Ozawa will be the real leader of Japan, not the prime minister. As he’s the most disliked politician in Japan, a move to set him free would furthermore spell doom for the DPJ’s claims of a popular mandate.

Four of the five candidates, meanwhile, have clearly different views of Japan’s role in the world. Maehara was recently mocked by the head of the Socialist Party as being the ‘yes man’ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense. The mockery has more than a grain of truth in it: under a Maehara administration, the Japanese government would likely expand its diplomatic and security activities. Maehara, a favourite of Washington think tanks and a strong believer in the US-Japan alliance, is generally believed to be in favour of a Big Japan foreign policy, where the country acts in accordance with its status as the world’s third largest economy.

Noda, coming from the Finance Ministry, is more apt to follow a Small Japan policy. He’s a strong supporter of the alliance with the United States and of international activism, but he is primarily focused on the cost of Japan’s international involvement.  He wouldn’t be in favour of an expansion of Japan’s ability to influence world events, except through the tools it already has.

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Unfortunately for Noda, whether or not Japan can afford its foreign policy would be irrelevant to Japan’s position in world affairs, should he win the election. He has asserted that Japan’s Class A war criminals from World War II weren’t war criminals, under the proper definition of war criminal. This stance crosses an irrevocable red line with China and South Korea, and causes extreme headaches for Japan’s ally the United States. Under a Noda premiership, East Asian diplomacy would be plunged into crisis.

Kaieda’s becoming prime minister, on the other hand, would be seen as the harbinger of a new golden age of Sino-Japanese relations. Following the lead of Ichiro Ozawa, who has been on close personal terms with the leaders of China for the past 20 years, Kaieda would likely try to carve out a space for Japan in between China and the United States, rather in the way the South Koreans have done. This prospect infuriates and frightens Washington, which sees the Ozawan form of Sino-Japanese rapprochement as pushing the United States out from Asia.

As for Kano, his words and actions place him in the category of the Japan that stays focused on domestic affairs and interacts with the world in minimal or even detrimental ways. It was Kano, in his guise as protector of Japan’s agricultural sector, who almost singlehandedly torpedoed Kan’s plan to have Japan be an active participant in the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

How will the government pay the bills?

The Japanese people want a lot of nice things from their government: the rebuilding of the areas devastated by the triple disaster, a comfortable retirement, affordable, high-quality healthcare, a vibrant public education system, secure borders, etc. But quite how the government will provide for these desires, if indeed such a task is at all possible, is another issue dividing the candidates.

Noda, as one would expect from a finance minister, has made economics the focus of his campaign. His primary area of interest is in the Japanese government’s massive debt. In gross terms, Japan has the highest national debt to GDP ratio among the major industrialized countries, and Noda sees a collapse in confidence in Japan’s future as the country ages and the country’s savers drawn down their savings. He has also called current government borrowing an act of fraud being committed by the present generation on future generations.

In order to get a handle on Japan’s deficits and debt Noda has been willing to touch the third rail of Japanese politics: talking about raising taxes, particularly about raising the regressive consumption tax. 

Talk about raising taxes, however, is political poison for most of the rank-and-file in the DPJ. They remember quite well the drubbing the party suffered in the House of Councillors election in July 2010, a defeat in part attributed to Prime Minister Kan’s having talked about raising taxes. They also know that the consumption tax, both its imposition and its being raised to its current 5 percent, led to huge victories by opposition parties in the next election.

Noda’s fears of Japan’s debts are also possibly bad macroeconomics. In an economy such as Japan’s, where the banks can’t find borrowers for the money, companies hoard cash rather than returning it to shareholders and a habit of thrift suppresses domestic consumption, the government has had to take over the role as consumer and investor of last resort.

In light of these two facts, the other candidates in the race have shied away from talk of taxes and balanced budgets. Maehara has gone the furthest out, hinting he might favour a special tax increase to fund the reconstruction of Japan’s devastated northeast. The other candidates have talked only about increasing the government’s total debt burden by issuing special reconstruction bonds.

Of the five candidates, only Mabuchi has talked about Japan’s need for economic growth, even at the cost of a short term increase in the government’s debt. His focus on economic growth at all costs is indeed the only area where he speaks with a strong, individual voice. That he is participating in this race only in the role of spoiler, and as a means of buffing up his resume, is one of this election’s intellectual tragedies.

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate at the MIT Center for International Studies in Tokyo.