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IDEALISM HONED ON SOAP BOX

DPJ’s Noda intent on pursuing noble cause in Diet

by Reiji Yoshida

Before Yoshihiko Noda took over as Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan in December, his early morning weekday schedule was set in stone.

For 17 years, the Chiba-based lawmaker delivered marathon speeches at town squares in front of local railway stations.

A stout and modest man, Noda’s behavior in social settings was usually characterized by a certain diffidence.

Yet from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m on Mondays and Tuesdays and from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, he used his podium to exude an eloquent resolve.

Indeed, this was the only campaign strategy available to a man who launched his political career from scratch, receiving no organizational support. Noda was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1993.

Chiba, meanwhile, is notorious for holding dirty bankrolled elections in which vote-buying has been a regular occurrence.

Between 1979 and 2000, for example, police tied 3,655 people — or 2.8 times the national average — in Chiba to violations of the Public Offices Election Law in relation to the eight House of Representatives elections that took place during the period.

“If you don’t spend a lot of money (for campaign purposes), you have to use something else,” Noda said in a recent interview.

He said he used his physical strength, bolstered by his high-level judo training, to drag himself out of bed every morning to make his speeches.

But the Lower House lawmaker, elected from the Chiba No. 4 district of Funabashi, did not have a high public profile until September, when he emerged as a candidate in the DPJ’s presidential race.

Despite his quiet demeanor and lack of media exposure, the 47-year-old politician had steadily won the trust of young DPJ members who admired his consistent positions, as well as his ability to deliver well-organized speeches without the use of a prepared draft.

“I pushed Noda (to be a presidential candidate) because I thought he would best engage in one-on-one debate with the prime minister during party leaders’ debate and plenary sessions,” said Yasutomo Suzuki, a DPJ Lower House member and longtime friend of Noda.

Noda failed to win the presidential race, which he contested with then DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama, current DPJ leader Naoto Kan and former DPJ Vice President Takahiro Yokomichi.

Through this internal election, however, he emerged as the leader of a group of young lawmakers within the largest opposition party.

Noda is now the key figure tasked with mapping out the DPJ’s negotiation strategies with the ruling camp, along with its handling of matters related to Diet proceedings.

He has adopted a fresh approach to the job of DPJ Diet affairs chief, declaring that Diet sessions will not be boycotted as a means of forcing the ruling camp to swallow opposition demands. This marks a striking departure from the tactics traditionally deployed by the opposition camp.

Instead, Noda places greater emphasis on grilling ruling lawmakers in open Diet debate.

“We have lots of young people with good debating skills,” remarked Noda, referring to new lawmakers who have impressed the public in this regard.

It is also true, however, that deliberations over the fiscal 2003 budget generally proceeded at the pace set by the ruling camp — partly because Noda had made it clear the DPJ would not threaten to play the boycott card.

“I think he’s a person who takes responsibility for what he says,” said Junji Higashi, Noda’s counterpart in New Komeito, one of the ruling coalition parties.

But Higashi also described Noda as an idealistic politician who may find it difficult to behave flexibly in Diet tug-of-war scenarios.

In this sense, Noda is a person with whom the ruling coalition can easily deal, Higashi said.

Nevertheless, Noda’s consistency in backing up his words with actions has won him many admirers.

The starting point of Noda’s political awareness can be traced back to Oct. 12, 1960, when Inejiro Asanuma, then chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was stabbed to death in public by a rightwing youngster. Noda was just 3 years old at the time.

According to Noda, he was watching the news on a black-and-white TV and asked his mother what had happened.

He recalls being impressed with his mother’s response; being a politician, she said, requires one to work at the risk of one’s own life.

Noda’s perceptions of political nobility were bolstered after he learned of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, along with that of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968.

Having grown up, Noda has realized there is a huge chasm between this perceived noble cause and the grimy reality of money scandals, such as those involving former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and others centering on local elections in Chiba.

Anger over political corruption prompted Noda in 1980 to enter the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a private foundation tasked with fostering political personnel, he said.

Noda was among the first students at the institute, which is now considered a prestigious gateway for young people aspiring to become successful politicians, with many of its graduates having since occupied key national and local positions.

But when Noda joined, no one was certain whether the institute’s graduates could ever forge successful careers in the political arena, since there was no established curriculum or method aimed at nurturing students.

While it was Noda who first began stumping his constituency every morning, many at the institute learned from his campaign techniques, according to Junichi Kawai, Noda’s secretary and political aide.

Kawai, who is also a graduate of the institute and a longtime friend of the lawmaker, said he decided to become Noda’s secretary after being impressed with his conduct during the resignation of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in 1994.

Hosokawa stood down amid allegations of financial wrongdoing tied to funds from the trucking firm Sagawa Kyubin in the 1980s.

Noda was first elected to the Diet as a member of the now-defunct Japan New Party, which was founded and led by Hosokawa.

After Hosokawa stepped down, many young JNP members panicked over their own re-election prospects, with some even plotting to move to other parties. But Noda remained calm and consistently argued that JNP members should pursue party unity in the name of political reform, Kawai said. “Deep inside, he is passionate. But in everyday life, he is a quiet and very mild-mannered man,” Kawai said.

Noda described himself as an advocate of deregulation and a free economy.

To implement drastic reform, Noda insists that the Liberal Democratic Party must be ousted from power, as the LDP embraces too many lawmakers who represent groups with vested interests.

“So any attempts to reform something have always ended up in minor adjustments,” he said. “You can’t do drastic reforms (under the LDP-led administration).”