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Prime minister makes bold move in shutting out Ozawa’s influence

by Alex Martin

Taking the podium following the announcement of his victory against Ichiro Ozawa in the Democratic Party of Japan presidential election Tuesday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for party unity and promised that now the battle is over, “there were no sides.”

But Kan’s new Cabinet and party leadership lineup announced Friday indicates a continued shift away from Ozawa, the party heavyweight often dubbed the “shadow shogun” for his political clout and penchant for backroom deals, with virtually no lawmakers from Ozawa’s camp granted important posts.

Observers say the prime minister made a bold move by shutting out Ozawa’s influence and siding with the popular voice resenting Ozawa’s style of old-school money politics and sticking with his promise of striving for scandal-free “clean” politics.

“I believe it was quite an audacious decision on Kan’s behalf,” said Toyo University political science professor Satoru Matsubara.

He said Kan’s resolve to move further away from Ozawa was illustrated by his reappointment of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, Kan’s old ally and right-hand man, and shifting Katsuya Okada from foreign minister to the post of DPJ secretary general.

“Both of them have kept their distance from Ozawa — Kan has cemented the nucleus of both the government and the party with ‘anti-Ozawa’ lawmakers,” Matsubara said.

Former DPJ Secretary General Yukio Edano, another lawmaker critical of Ozawa and who was demoted to take the blame for the party’s losses in the July Upper House election, was assigned the post of deputy secretary general.

And with the reappointment of Koichiro Genba as the DPJ’s policy affairs chief — along with also being named minister in charge of national strategy — and Okada ally Yoshio Hachiro assuming the post of Diet affairs chief, the DPJ leadership now consists of lawmakers who have all kept their distance from Ozawa.

Matsubara said Kan’s decision was likely backed by the high approval ratings he enjoyed during the DPJ presidential campaign, and from the results of the votes, which indicated his overwhelming support among the estimated 350,000 general party members.

“Rather than striving for so-called party unity, Kan and Sengoku have placed their bets that they can depart from everything ‘Ozawa-like’ and pull through with the backing of the popular will,” he said.

Tomoaki Iwai, politicals science professor at Nihon University, gave satisfactory marks to the new lineup and said he believes it represents a clear departure from Ozawa.

While several Cabinet members have been reappointed, including the popular administrative reform minister Renho, and postal reform minister Shozaburo Jimi from DPJ coalition partner Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), Iwai said it makes sense considering that Kan’s administration was launched only three months ago.

“The reappointments are the result of an emphasis on continuity,” Iwai said.

He said one of the highlights in the new Cabinet may be the appointment of Yoshihiro Katayama, former governor of Tottori Prefecture and now a professor at Keio University graduate school, to the post of internal affairs minister.

“Katayama has been involved in regional governance and has been an advocate of decentralizing power — he knows the reality of the situation,” he said.

Iwai, however, said he believes Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku probably had much say in deciding the Cabinet and new party lineup, and it is more of a “Sengoku Cabinet” than Kan’s.

“Sengoku seems to be taking the initiative” in personnel decisions, Iwai said.

But he pointed out that another reason for the lack of lawmakers from Ozawa’s group in important Cabinet and party posts is the simple fact that most of Ozawa’s followers are either young rookies without sufficient experience, or those adept at political infighting rather than policymaking.

Kazuaki Tanaka, a political science professor at Takushoku University, agreed, saying Ozawa’s camp lacks the personnel for high-rank posts.

“Ozawa has a tendency of cutting ties with those with whom he has worked closely,” Tanaka said, citing how even ex-Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii, a longtime friend of Ozawa, severed ties with him.

“So inevitably, there aren’t many seasoned, policy-savvy politicians in Ozawa’s group to begin with,” he said.

Matsubara of Toyo University said that while he expects Ozawa to remain quiet for now, he believes the power broker may cause ripples again if the Kan administration faces a political deadlock when deliberating budget-related bills at the end of the fiscal year. The budget-related bills are necessary to implement the fiscal 2011 budget.

“At that point Ozawa could initiate a political realignment by splitting the party . . . but I believe he will remain still until then,” he said.

But Tanaka of Takushoku University said that with the mounting economic issues facing the nation, the new team has no time to worry about possible future backlashes from Ozawa’s camp and should prioritize rebuilding the nation above all else.

With the DPJ lacking an Upper House majority and a Diet session set to convene next month, the new Cabinet and party leadership are bound to encounter difficulties trying to win support from the opposition to pass legislation.