Likeable, shows promise, but Tarutoko who?

by Sayuri Daimon

When he emerged Thursday to run against Naoto Kan for the Democratic Party of Japan presidency and hence the prime ministership, many probably asked who is Shinji Tarutoko?

Although Tarutoko, 50, was not well-known and hasn’t held a Cabinet post or an executive position in the DPJ, he managed to garner 129 votes in Friday’s race against Kan, who captured 291 of the ballots. Observers say he fared well despite limited time to prepare for the election against a big name like Kan.

Many but not all lawmakers who are close to now ex-DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa are said to have backed him.

Though he is little known outside the party, Tarutoko’s frank way of speaking, accented by his Kansai dialect, and friendly personality have garnered him many supporters within the DPJ, especially among its junior ranks.

The five-term representative has even been called one of the party’s seven next leading figures, or “nana bugyo” (seven samurai magistrates). The term was coined by former Vice Speaker of the Lower House Kozo Watanabe, who put Tarutoko’s name on a list with the DPJ’s other star politicians, including now ex-Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, ex-land minister Seiji Maehara, and ex-administrative reform minister Yukio Edano.

Since many of the “seven samurai” have taken an opposing stance against Ozawa, Tarutoko distanced himself from the group earlier this year. Although he is not so close to Ozawa, his neutral stance may have caught the attention of a pro-Ozawa group in the leadup to Friday’s presidential race.

Tarutoko first entered politics as a member of the now-defunct Japan New Party led by former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, in 1993. He then joined Shinshinto and other smaller parties before entering the DPJ.

Elected from Osaka’s No. 12 district, Tarutoko served four consecutive terms in the Lower House from 1993 to 2003. After failing to get re-elected in 2005, he made a comeback in last August’s historic general election.

In the DPJ’s opposition days, he was listed as transport minister in the party’s unofficial Cabinet, but now serves as chairman of the Lower House Environment Committee. Among the policies he advocates is a generational change in politics and government decentralization.

Tarutoko is a graduate of Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, better known as Matsushita Seikeijuku, the brainchild of Panasonic Corp. founder Konosuke Matsushita.

The institute was designed to nurture leaders, and Tarutoko’s peers include former Lower House member Shigefumi Matsuzawa, the current Kanagawa governor; Suginami Ward Mayor Hiroshi Yamada, who has tendered his resignation so he can run in the Upper House election next month; and former Diet Affairs chief Yoshihiko Noda.