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SET APART BY FINANCIAL SAVVY

Ex-BOJ man hopes to wield LDP clout as reformer

by Sayuri Daimon

A glance at his Web site can tell you quite a lot about his position.

In a recent “Yasuhisa’s monologue” on the site, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 52, a lawmaker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, bashed the Financial Service Agency’s proposal to let ailing insurance companies cut the yields they have guaranteed to policyholders.

“Even children are taught to keep their promises,” wrote Shiozaki, one of a few LDP politicians with expertise in the financial sector. “If insurance companies are facing a risk of collapse and cannot keep their promises, they should first take the legal procedures for failure. The yield-cut plan should not be discussed before making the responsibility of management crystal clear.”

Shiozaki, a new breed of policy-oriented politician, captured public attention in 1998 when he drafted financial reform bills jointly with other young members of the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.

The bills spelled out several options for dealing with failed banks, including forced nationalization.

The drafting of the bills was epochal in that not only were they the product of politicians well-versed in financial affairs, they were opposed by top LDP members.

“He is a true reformist, and I can’t think of anybody else in the LDP who is better-versed in the financial and economic affairs than Mr. Shiozaki,” said Yoshimasa Hayashi, an Upper House member of the LDP who has worked closely with Shiozaki on many policy issues, including financial ones.

“But it is also true that because of his passion for reforms, he often clashes with people who want to maintain the status quo,” Hayashi said.

Shiozaki’s radical character was already apparent when he was in high school. Before entering the University of Tokyo, he was actively involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, which shook the world in the late 1960s.

After graduating from the university, Shiozaki worked for the Bank of Japan for several years before going to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Upon returning from the United States in 1982, he became a political aide to his father, Jun Shiozaki, director general of the then Economic Planning Agency.

The junior Shiozaki was first elected to the Lower House in 1993. Though he became an Upper House member in 1995, he ran again for the Lower House and captured a seat in 2000 out of the Ehime No. 1 district.

“During my BOJ years, I saw various economic woes, from corporate bankruptcies to social welfare problems,” he said in an interview with The Japan Times.

“I came to the strong realization that if the economy malfunctions, it will be a disaster for the entire nation. I felt that becoming a politician would be a much quicker and more viable way to help deal with the country’s economic problems than trying to become BOJ governor,” Shiozaki said in his Nagata-cho office, which is stacked high with documents and files of regulations.

Shiozaki uses his experience and knowledge as ammunition when he confronts the nation’s top bureaucrats and even senior LDP members when they come up with policies he considers incoherent, the latest of which being the proposed yield cut on insurance policies.

“Why should the weak (policyholders) bear the burden first, when insurance firms don’t even admit their management failed?” he asked.

Shiozaki, currently director of the LDP’s treasury and finance division, also slammed FSA officials, calling them a bunch of nonprofessionals who know little about the industry and whose positions change every two years.

But despite Shiozaki’s strong dissent, an LDP policy group that counts him as a member decided last week to push the bill to allow insurance companies to cut interest returns on policies during the current Diet session. Hideyuki Aizawa, who heads the group, told reporters after the meeting that from the standpoint of policyholders, cutting the promised yields is better than letting life insurers go under.

Because powerful senior members still hold sway in the LDP, Shiozaki is viewed as a lone wolf. A Japanese diplomat who has known him for 30 years sees drawbacks to his go-it-alone approach.

“To be a successful politician, he needs to be considerate of the feelings of others who work hard in making policies with him,” the diplomat said. “Because of his character, he may be creating unnecessary foes and closing his ears to key information.”

Shiozaki also believes the nation’s troubled banking industry, like the insurance sector, must acknowledge it has been mismanaged and undergo drastic structural reforms.

“Banks must transform themselves into institutions that can make profits. To do that, they need to adopt a new business model,” Shiozaki said, citing the example of IYBank, the new branch-free bank created by the major retailer Ito-Yokado Co. and its convenience store subsidiary Seven-Eleven Japan Co.

Opening up management to new blood, such as people in their 30s and 40s, or inviting foreign investors, may also accelerate changes in the financial industry, he added.

Shiozaki’s reform visions are not limited to the financial sector.

Asked what he would pursue were he to become prime minister, Shiozaki’s answer is simple — revamp government policymaking and strengthen the Cabinet.

“The ministers should be the ones who appoint senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries, since they need to work as a team,” he said. “And those senior vice ministers should concurrently serve as heads of the ruling party’s policy divisions, so they can coordinate policies between the Cabinet and the party.”

Shiozaki is also calling for a new system similar to the “policy unit” in Britain’s Downing Street, in which each Cabinet minister has full-time special advisers, who are political appointees, for outlining policies.

“There are many people with distinguished abilities in the private sector,” he said.

The question is how to create a system whereby politicians take the policymaking initiative without relying on information and ideas from bureaucrats, he said.

Last March, as a leading member of an LDP committee tasked with outlining a national vision, Shiozaki submitted those proposals to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but so far, he feels Koizumi’s response has been slow.

“I don’t know whether Mr. Koizumi is willing to follow any of our proposals,” Shiozaki sighed. “But if we maintain the current system, politicians will merely end up being like vending machines that spew out policies made by bureaucrats.”