Hatoyama ushers in new era in politics

'Historic turning point' ends 54 years of LDP rule

by Masami Ito and Alex Martin

Japan saw the dawning of a new political era Wednesday as Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister, ending five decades of almost unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

The nation’s 93rd prime minister inaugurated his Cabinet, kicking off a tripartite coalition with the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).

“Today is the beginning of a new turning point in history, a day to start a drastic change in the framework of politics and the government,” Hatoyama said at a DPJ meeting. “Let’s actively work together to make sure that future historians will say today was a wonderful day.”

The day marked what could be the start of two-party politics in Japan following nearly half a century of virtual one-party rule — a fact that was not lost on the new leader.

“The moment I was elected prime minister in the Lower and Upper houses, I felt myself tremble with deep emotion knowing that Japanese history would change,” Hatoyama said at his first news conference. “But on the other hand, I also felt the gravity of responsibility, the need to change the world so that it will become a sovereign state led by the people.”

He appointed former DPJ President Naoto Kan as state strategy minister and vice prime minister, making the veteran lawmaker a cornerstone of his new government.

Kan will head the National Strategy Bureau, a policymaking organization that will be designed to help the DPJ rein in civil servants. Kan and Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii will be the key players in bringing about change in the way policies are implemented and budgets compiled, observers said.

With the launch of the strategy bureau, “the Cabinet will now be able to prioritize policies without having to consider the vested interests of the ministries and its bureaucrats,” said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor emeritus of comparative politics at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.

“Power may now return to the hands of politicians from bureaucrats,” he said.

Former DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada was appointed foreign minister, and Hirofumi Hirano, a close Hatoyama aide, became chief Cabinet secretary — the government’s top spokesman and the prime minister’s right-hand man.

Akira Nagatsuma, one of the most popular DPJ members, who revealed that the government had lost millions of pension records, was tapped as health minister. Upper House lawmaker Keiko Chiba got the justice minister’s slot.

Kawai pointed out that Hatoyama has drawn on a wide range of members from the DPJ, including Yoshito Sengoku as government reform minister and Seiji Maehara as infrastructure minister, two members who have distanced themselves from newly appointed DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa.

“This isn’t a team that will only be known for a single star player, like Ichiro Suzuki,” Kawai said. “It’s rather a well-balanced team, with all the players asked to play their best.”

Nihon University political science professor Tomoaki Iwai said he felt that Hatoyama’s Cabinet picks were balanced and obviously were made with next year’s Upper House election in mind.

“A number of the Cabinet posts are occupied by Upper House lawmakers — the emphasis has shifted toward the upcoming election,” he said.

SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima is now a minister in charge of consumer affairs, the birthrate problem, food safety and gender equality.

The position of defense minister went to DPJ Upper House lawmaker Toshimi Kitazawa, who is now tasked with coordinating defense policies with the SDP, a pacifist party.

The SDP is against sending the Self-Defense Forces overseas, and Kitazawa and the DPJ will have to find other ways to contribute as a member of the international society.

Kokumin Shinto chief Shizuka Kamei, a former heavyweight in the LDP, was concurrently appointed to serve as the postal and financial affairs ministers.

Kamei and his small party oppose postal privatization, and he was looking to acquire the internal affairs and communications portfolio so postal services would fall under his jurisdiction.

Although Iwai said he considered most of the appointments reasonable, he questioned the wisdom of appointing Kamei as minister of both postal services and financial affairs.

“Since postal privatization has been a core theme for Kokumin Shinto, it’s understandable that Kamei, it’s leader, has been appointed to oversee the matter,” Iwai said. “But why also finances? It’s puzzling.”