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Does Ozawa run the show as Hatoyama foots the bill?

Only two months in office, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama appears to be losing his political influence primarily because of (1) his failure to exercise leadership in foreign diplomacy and on the domestic agenda, and (2) the extraordinary concentration of power vested in Ichiro Ozawa, whom Hatoyama has chosen to manage his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as secretary general.

On Oct. 26, Hatoyama delivered his first policy speech before both houses of the Diet, playing up his oft-repeated slogans of cleaning up the political mess piled up during the postwar years, serving as a bridge between nations and working toward a restoration of the nation.

These slogans sounded somewhat hollow, however, 40 long days after he was elected to head the government. To add insult to injury, his administration came under fire for inconsistencies in his words and for contradictory statements from some key Cabinet ministers.

A typical example relates to the projected realignment of U.S. military forces stationed in Japan. Veteran officials at the Foreign Ministry have lamented that both Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada have acted in a puerile manner in dealing with the agreement reached between the previous Japanese administration and Washington to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air facility on Okinawa to another part of the island and to transfer some of the Okinawa-based marines to Guam.

These officials had warned the Prime Minister’s Office that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who came to Tokyo ahead of President Barack Obama’s first visit to Japan, would strongly demand prompt implementation of the accord. They even called his visit a “reconnaissance” of sorts to determine Japan’s intentions.

Indeed, Gates told top Japanese officials that unless Tokyo implements the relocation of the base as agreed, Washington will nullify the entire deal, including the transfer of some 8,000 marines to Guam. Hatoyama has on many occasions said he would pay due respect to the wishes of Okinawans, a majority of whom say they want the base relocated outside their prefecture, while asserting that strengthening Japan’s relations with the U.S. was his top priority. This has led an American embassy official in Tokyo to wonder which of the two issues is of greater importance to the prime minister.

During the campaign for the Aug. 30 general election, in which Hatoyama led his DPJ to a resounding victory, he appealed to voters with the slogans of promoting “a close and equal alliance relations with the U.S.” and of reviewing past arrangements for realigning American forces in Japan. At his meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, he went so far as to say that Tokyo had been excessively dependent on Washington.

It did not take long for such rhetoric to taper off. He admitted at a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Thailand that American participation would be indispensable for his pet project of creating an East Asia Community. This change in his stance would indicate that Hatoyama did not possess enough determination and strategy for taking on ambitious challenges after unseating the Liberal Democratic Party.

His lack of leadership is not limited to the diplomatic front. Hatoyama is said to have not known that Japan Post Holdings Co. was about to get a new president until only a day before Shizuka Kamei, minister for financial and postal issues, announced that former Administrative Vice Finance Minister Jiro Saito would replace Yoshifumi Nishikawa, who had been forced to resign. It is very unusual for the prime minister to be kept in the dark until the last minute on such an important appointment.

Also hitting a snag was his plan to appoint 32 lawmakers to screen a large number of projects included in budgetary requests. DPJ Diet Policy Committee Chairman Kenji Yamaoka complained that 14 of the 32 were not fit for the job because they were freshman lawmakers. It was obvious to all that Yamaoka was acting under the influence of party secretary general Ozawa. Instead of defending Hatoyama, Yoshito Sengoku, state minister for administrative reform, is said to have apologized to Ozawa for selecting such inexperienced members.

Ozawa’s move to get a firm grip on the party continues. He shifted 25 ranking staff members of the DPJ party headquarters to work at the government’s Cabinet secretariat for the express purpose of “helping senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries of various ministries translate the party election slogans into action.” It is suspected by many insiders that Ozawa’s ulterior motive is to fill the secretariat with party officials close to him.

Since Hatoyama is also president of the DPJ, Ozawa is supposed to be his subordinate, even though Hatoyama asked Ozawa to take full charge of party and parliamentary affairs. But Ozawa appears in control not only of the party but of the government.

Another feature associated with the start of the Hatoyama administration has been the “hollowing out” of bureaucrats’ routine work, as the prime minister pursues his policy of reducing or eliminating reliance on them. But his political appointees do not seem capable of making full use of the bureaucracy.

A similar condition could conceivably spread to the legislature, where the DPJ holds 419 seats — 308 in the Lower House and 111 in the Upper House. About 80 of these legislators have been given positions in the government and another 80 in party and Diet posts. That still leaves more than 200 lawmakers whose only job is to vote for or against bills.

Less than 100 days after the toppling of LDP rule, which lasted almost a half century, the new ruling political party led by Ozawa is strengthening its command over the government, as Hatoyama rapidly loses influence.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.