Sengoku’s growing influence causes a stir

Top government spokesman's power evident in Cabinet shuffle

by Kanako Takahara

On the first day of the Lower House Budget Committee session last week, Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, chose to deride the growing power of Yoshito Sengoku, chief Cabinet secretary of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

Ishihara had pressed Prime Minister Naoto Kan for further answers on the diplomatic row with China over the Senkaku Islands. But before Kan could reply, Sengoku took the stand.

“I read in a magazine article that there are two prime ministers in the official residence,” Ishihara said of Sengoku’s move. “I think that is the case.”

Recently, Sengoku made headlines for reportedly working behind the scenes with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo to set up a bilateral summit between Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels earlier this month.

Sengoku was also said to have instructed prosecutors to release a Chinese skipper whose trawler rammed Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Japan-controlled Senkakus during an attempt to board the boat, despite the prosecution’s wish to indict him.

Sengoku’s political clout started to grow when Kan in June appointed him as the top government spokesman in his first Cabinet. Following his re-election as DPJ president in September, Kan kept Sengoku in the post.

“For Kan, Sengoku is a person who would act as a sandbag to shield him from criticism, while at the same time having no ambitions to take his post,” said a DPJ source close to Sengoku.

Their relationship goes back a long time, before Sengoku entered politics. During his years as a lawyer, Sengoku used to make political donations to Kan, said the source, adding that the two are close enough to recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

Although it is not clear how amicable their relationship is, Sengoku’s influence in the administration was demonstrated in September’s Cabinet reshuffle, in which many of the ministers Kan appointed have close connections to the chief Cabinet secretary.

Tomiko Okazaki, state minister in charge of tackling the declining birthrate, Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto, health minister Ritsuo Hosokawa and Sengoku were all members of a group called New Wave back in the early 1990s, when they belonged to the Social Democratic Party of Japan, the predecessor of the Social Democratic Party. The SDPJ was what the Japan Socialist Party had renamed itself.

Also joining or staying in the Cabinet were Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, Koichiro Genba, state minister in charge of national policy, and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi, all members of Ryounkai, an internal DPJ group of which Sengoku is a core member.

Sengoku is also known as the archenemy of DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, who lost out in the party’s leadership race to Kan. Ozawa is facing imminent indictment for allegedly falsifying political funds reports.

The conflict between the two politicians surfaced in 2002, when Sengoku opposed the merger of the DPJ and Ozawa’s Liberal Party.

“It’s not like I hate Mr. Ozawa,” Sengoku was quoted in an article in the weekly magazine AERA published in February. “But when we founded the DPJ, we agreed to put weight on transparency, disclosure and accountability. He is not like that.”

Ozawa has a reputation as a behind the scenes operator, something he learned from his mentor, the late LDP Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, Sengoku was quoted as saying, adding that such tactics clash with the DPJ’s political culture.

“I was opposed (to the merger) because I didn’t want him to bring that kind of culture to the DPJ,” he said, according to the article.

The two parties, however, merged in July 2003.

Sengoku was also critical of Ozawa when he tried to start negotiations in 2007 on a grand coalition with the then ruling LDP without first consulting party members. The idea backfired, causing Ozawa to announce his resignation, although he retracted it three days later.

Despite Sengoku’s growing influence within the administration, little is known about his political background.

A native of Tokushima Prefecture, Sengoku, 64, was born to Shoichi, a court clerk, and Makiko, a high school teacher. He sympathized with the student movement during his years in the University of Tokyo, and worked to release students who had been arrested for barricading themselves in the university’s Yasuda Hall.

He later became a lawyer, working for nearly 20 years on human rights and labor cases.

Sengoku turned to politics when he was 44, and was elected as a Lower House member of the SDPJ in 1990, aiming to oust the LDP from power.

“Because the LDP has been putting priority on economic growth, they put more weight on benefits for industry than the lives of people,” Sengoku wrote in his book “The Imaginative & Creative Politics,” published in 1992.

“They are expanding their party strength through money and vested interests, creating an unfair society and increasing the gap between the rich and poor,” Sengoku wrote. “We should do something about it.”

As a rookie, he drew media attention from the very start, taking initiatives in establishing New Wave and criticizing party executives for failing to reform the party.

One episode that illustrates Sengoku’s early days was his impromptu visit with four other SDPJ members to Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, in an attempt to free Japanese nationals who were being held as human shields.

Sengoku and the others had been in France researching electoral systems, when they contacted the Iraqi ambassador to France, acquired visas and hopped on a plane to Iraq, despite strong opposition from party executives.

But despite their efforts, they were unable to meet the Japanese hostages, let alone negotiate their release.

The elite lawyer-turned-politician has suffered two major setbacks — his defeat in the 1993 Lower House election and a bout of stomach cancer in 2001.

After he lost his seat, he quit the SDPJ, joined the DPJ and returned to politics in the 1996 general election.

The cancer, which was found during a routine health checkup in 2001, forced doctors to remove about 3 kg of his stomach and other organs. Although politicians normally hide the fact that they have cancer, Sengoku became one of the few to disclose his illness.

“I thought I should disclose the truth to promote the fact that cancer is curable if treated properly,” he said in a statement in February 2002, two weeks after his operation.

More than eight years later, Sengoku is now in one of the busiest, high-pressure posts in government, coordinating policies and holding news conferences twice daily as the government’s top spokesman.

Sengoku raised his voice last week when asked to comment on the media reports of his growing political influence.

“This Cabinet is the Kan Cabinet, where Prime Minister Kan is governing with strong leadership,” Sengoku said. “I consider (the articles) a joke.”