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No-name team boasts policy wonks but does Fujimura have the strength to lead it?

Lineup competent but lacking buzz

by Masami Ito and Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writers

The new ministers hand-picked Friday by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda lack the star power or celebrity status needed to reverse the Democratic Party of Japan’s dwindling popularity.

But the lineup is well-balanced and was chosen carefully to ensure that the ruling party can heal its internal rifts and unite, political analysts said.

Indeed, many of the new faces are low-profile politicians. But Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, said that given their experience, each represents a practical choice made with an eye to implementing policy.

Noda wisely reappointed the two ministers in charge of the Fukushima nuclear crisis and Tohoku’s reconstruction.

He also promoted Vice Health Minister Yoko Komiyama to lead the ministry, picked veteran Tatsuo Kawabata as internal affairs minister and reappointed farm minister Michihiko Kano.

“I think the lineup revealed Noda’s true colors — after careful consideration, he chose ministers based on their ability, not their looks,” Narita said.

“(The Cabinet) doesn’t look gorgeous, but just like Noda said, they are diligent workers, like ‘dojo’ (loaches) rather than fancy goldfish.”

After it became clear he would become prime minister, Noda said he intended to work steadily like a dojo rather than play to the crowd.

During the Naoto Kan regime, the DPJ was divided between supporters of party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, who is awaiting trial over a political money scandal, and his foes.

A rebellion by the deeply frustrated Ozawa loyalists, who were excluded by Kan from key party and government posts, eventually led to Kan’s resignation.

Noda’s Cabinet includes two key Ozawa aides — National Public Safety Commission Chairman Kenji Yamaoka and Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa — in an apparent gesture to appease his followers.

It is also devoid of lawmakers widely considered “anti-Ozawa,” including former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku.

“Noda learned from Kan’s mistakes,” Narita said. “The most critical thing for the government is party harmony and cooperation with the opposition parties.”

One of the most critical decisions was the appointment of Osamu Fujimura as chief Cabinet secretary. In this position, he will have to act as the key coordinator between the government and the ruling party. Fujimura is a long-time friend of Noda and his closest aide.

Noda at first was keen on appointing Katsuya Okada, a former DPJ secretary general, ex-foreign minister and party chief to the powerful post. But Okada firmly refused the offer.

One of the reasons was reportedly that the appointment would not have gone over well with the Ozawa faction. Okada, as secretary general, played the central role in eventually suspending Ozawa’s DPJ membership after he was indicted.

But Fujimura is a low-profile politician and has little experience in key party or government posts. His resume lists only several months’ experience as vice foreign minister, vice health minister and acting DPJ secretary general.

Fujimura appears to be aware of the party’s widespread concern about his relative lack of political experience.

“I don’t think I am the type to stand at the front, stepping ahead of the prime minister. Rather, I would like to serve as the right-hand man and work behind the scenes . . . to create a foundation so that the ruling and opposition parties can cooperate in the Diet,” Fujimura said at his first news conference Friday morning.

Meanwhile, Noda, who won the presidential election Monday over four opponents, gave rivals Banri Kaieda and Sumio Mabuchi the cold shoulder, denying them posts both in the Cabinet and the party. But his other two rivals, Kano and Seiji Maehara, were allotted the farm minister and DPJ policy chief posts, respectively.

Pundits say that was a matter of course because Kaieda and Mabuchi disagree with Noda’s policies, especially the tax hike Noda so clearly champions.

“Noda avoided choosing people who have different views from himself,” said Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan.

“He wanted to steer clear of creating an inconsistent Cabinet with some members voicing opposition to a tax hike.”

Some political observers also said the relatively subdued lineup shows Noda has no intention of dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election anytime soon.

Shiratori said he expects this Cabinet to last a year, until the next DPJ presidential election in 2012. Noda is currently serving out the rest of Kan’s term, which ends in September 2012, and a Lower House general election must be held at some point by the end of the current four-year term in August 2013.

Noda has stressed his intention not to call for an election immediately, but the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition force, will be trying to corner him to dissolve the lower chamber after the passage of the third extra budget for fiscal 2011 to fund reconstruction measures.

“Noda didn’t choose big names because he is thinking of (the lineup) as a one-year span,” Shiratori said.