The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s historic defeat in the August general election can in part be blamed on the media and its manipulation of public opinion, LDP heavyweight Yoshiro Mori told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
Mori, who served as prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has long been one of most influential figures in the LDP. While heading the party’s largest faction, he was once dubbed “the kingmaker” of the LDP, a title he strongly rejects today.
Reflecting on the Aug. 30 election that catapulted the Democratic Party of Japan to power, the former prime minister, 74, said his party could not swim against the strong tide calling for regime change, but said the LDP was also partly responsible in being unable to use the media to its advantage.
“I don’t think there was much we could have done at that point,” Mori said of the election.
“The media led the public to believe in the need for a regime change,” he said. “But we also must admit that we’re not the best in using the media to our benefit, and that’s including myself.”
Mori was never on good terms with the domestic media and was often portrayed as gaffe-prone during his time in office. Later, he was described as a key behind the scenes player in factional power struggles.
Before and during the election campaign, the phrase “regime change” repeatedly made headlines as many media polls suggested the possibility that the DPJ would win and end the LDP’s almost unbroken rule since 1955. Mori claims this media hype helped oust the LDP from power in the poll.
Mori lamented that many of the LDP’s younger, talented lawmakers lacked sufficient public exposure, while the DPJ seemed to know how to use the media to cast itself in a better light.
He seemed especially unhappy with the LDP’s recent presidential race that elected Sadakazu Tanigaki as the party’s chief, and said the LDP should instead have fielded young and able lawmakers to promote a revitalized image.
“The election would have been a great opportunity to present the media with the younger faces within the party,” he said.
However, Mori claimed that despite the election defeat, many in the public want the LDP back in power, and said that the current tide is bound to change at some point.
“There is a certain (segment of the) population that’s waiting for the revitalization of the LDP and its conservative ideals,” Mori said, adding that the new administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had its own concerns that could eventually backfire.
Mori criticized the Hatoyama Cabinet for handing over too much authority to DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa and creating a dual power structure between the government and the ruling party.
“Ozawa has a say in everything — personnel decisions, policymaking, Diet proceedings — and if he says ‘nyet,’ (no) then that’s it,” Mori said.
“Some in the DPJ are concerned with what’s happening, but there’s nothing they can do.
“Rather, I believe that’s an issue they would like the LDP to pursue,” he said.
The heavyweight lawmaker also said that while he could sympathize with portions of the DPJ-led government’s key policies, he believed some were downright unrealistic, and added that the LDP for the time being would “wait and see” how the ruling coalition’s agenda unfolds while it seeks ways to return to power.
Mori, a Lower House lawmaker currently serving his 14th term, dared the DPJ to follow through on its campaign promise of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa, or even out of the country.
“This is a very, very difficult and sensitive issue — something the LDP could not resolve,” Mori said, referring to the controversial 1996 decision between the Japanese and U.S. governments to move the Futenma air base from its location in the middle of a densely populated area in Ginowan, central Okinawa Island.
Under the current relocation plan based on a 2006 accord, the two nations agreed to close the Futenma base and transfer its flight operations to a new airfield to be built off Camp Schwab in Nago, farther north on the island, by 2014.
The plan, however, has encountered widespread opposition in Okinawa, and is now a major headache for bilateral relations just in time for U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit Friday.
The new administration’s evasiveness in recent weeks on how it plans to deal with the issue has not helped matters, with Hatoyama saying he intends to spend more time considering the matter and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada talking of merging Futenma’s operations with nearby U.S. Kadena Air Base.
On Sunday, 21,000 people attended a demonstration in Ginowan calling for the closure of Futenma and protesting the government’s vagueness on the issue.
“But I’d say to Hatoyama that if he really has the guts to relocate U.S. bases outside Okinawa — then try and do it,” Mori said.
He also questioned the DPJ’s pledge to review the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, saying that if Japan truly wanted to stand on an equal footing with the U.S., it would have to go as far as revising the war-renouncing Constitution.
“The DPJ stresses the importance of an equal Japan-U.S. alliance, but is Japan ready to protect itself?” Mori asked.
“The U.S. is willing to fight for us — are the Self-Defense Forces in turn willing to shed blood for the U.S.? The answers are ‘no,’ and that definitely doesn’t sound ‘equal’ to me,” Mori said. “Realistically speaking, I don’t think the DPJ can resolve the question” of the U.S. military presence in Japan, he said.
Mori did, however, positively evaluate some of the administration’s other policies.
While stressing that it was only his personal opinion, he voiced strong support for transport minister Seiji Maehara’s idea of turning Tokyo’s Haneda airport into a 24-hour international hub.
The nation currently lacks a hub airport for international flights, while demand for such a hub is expected to grow.
“That’s definitely a good idea, another issue the LDP could not touch upon,” due to a long history of local opposition to the LDP-initiated construction of Narita International Airport in the 1970s.
During his prime ministership, Mori was actively involved in diplomatic negotiations with African and South Asian nations, as well as Russia, even developing a close relationship with former Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I’ve told both (former Prime Ministers Shinzo) Abe and (Yasuo) Fukuda that it was important to establish firm ties with other nations while you are in power,” Mori said. “One can serve as prime minister for only a limited time.”
Mori, a native of Ishikawa Prefecture and a Waseda University graduate, succeeded Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who had suffered a fatal stroke, in April 2000 and served until April 2001, when he was replaced by Junichiro Koizumi.