National / Politics


Watanabe his own man -- but honors father's role

Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoshimi Watanabe is an exception to the rule when it comes to discussing his political roots.

While many “nisei giin,” or second-generation Diet politicians, dislike being compared with their forebears and thus eschew the topic entirely, Watanabe proudly proclaims that his father, Michio, inspired his own political career.

“He was always asking himself ‘What mission must politicians pursue?’ I learned so much from him,” said the 51-year-old lawmaker, who inherited his deep voice from his late father.

Watanabe spent more than a decade serving as an aide to his father, a former foreign minister and LDP heavyweight who was once viewed as prime minister material.

Michio Watanabe died in 1995 at age 72. In 1996, Yoshimi Watanabe was elected to serve the Tochigi No. 3 electoral district, his family’s home constituency.

“During the years I worked for my father, I saw Japan’s economy tumble from the summit of prosperity. I came to realize that the biggest task for politicians is to revive the economy,” Watanabe said in a recent interview.

His father once stated, “There are many countries that have prospered, but there is no country or civilization that prospers forever.”

His son, who believes it is up to Japan to revive its own fortunes, has accordingly submitted countless economic proposals aimed at resuscitating Japan Inc.

Yasuhisa Shiozaki, an LDP politician who has joined Watanabe to address various issues, was impressed with his economic policy zeal in 1998, when a group of party lawmakers tried to compile an all-embracing revitalization plan.

Shiozaki and Watanabe, who was serving his first Diet term, were chosen to serve on the panel, whose other members were primarily veteran LDP politicians versed in financial-sector activities.

“Though he was the youngest in the group, several economic proposals — the so-called Yoshimi Watanabe plan — were soon distributed to the panel members,” Shiozaki said, noting this prompted others to subsequently submit proposals.

“Some of his ideas may have been deemed too drastic, but what was important was that he could put forth a strong argument.”

Shiozaki described Watanabe as an anchor set against a tide of LDP members bent on reversing ongoing reforms on the pretext of driving up the Nikkei stock average.

But how drastic are his proposals?

Watanabe believes a comprehensive package of remedial strategies is needed to tackle the big problems: deregulation; reforming the nation’s fiscal structure and restoring its fiscal health; reforming the social insurance and pension systems, and the postal savings and semigovernmental organizations; and disposing of bad loans.

“Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has only focused on ending pork-barrel politics led by the LDP’s Hashimoto faction, by reforming the semigovernmental Japan Highway Public Corp. and postal services,” Watanabe said. “But can these measures pull the economy out of the doldrums? They are not the true priorities at this emergency stage.”

The government must first mend the nonperforming loan problem by completely separating banks from their bad loans, unwinding cross-shareholdings between banks and companies and removing them from banks’ balance sheets, he said.

Watanabe is calling for creation of what he calls the Heisei Revival Bank, which would be like a second Bank of Japan but tasked with purchasing banks’ nonperforming assets.

This measure, he feels, would free banks from the heavy burden of bad loans, prompting them to bolster their corporate lending.

“To implement that, I think the Heisei Revival Bank would need 150 trillion yen to 200 trillion yen. With government guarantees, the existing Bank of Japan should provide the amount necessary.”

Watanabe is similarly aggressive on the diplomatic front.

Accusing Koizumi of failing to engage North Korea in normalization talks, Watanabe said the prime minister should have been more forceful in trying to resolve problems over the abductions of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang’s agents and North Korea’s alleged development of nuclear weapons.

“What North Korea desperately wants is economic assistance from Japan. To legally obtain money from Japan, Pyongyang has no choice but to negotiate,” he said. “Before making the trip to Pyongyang (last September), Mr. Koizumi should have worked out strategies with the United States and thoroughly negotiated with North Korea while he was there.”

The prime minister had no chance of achieving a fruitful outcome by making just one short visit to Pyongyang and failing to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il for meals, Watanabe said.

“He just wanted to create the impression that he is working hard,” he said.

For Japan to have a say in the international community, he believes Japan should engage in collective defense. Once this happens, the country will be able to act according to its interests, he said.

“For example, in the case of the Middle East and Iraq, Japan could have acted separately from the existing Japan-U.S. alliance and pursued its national interests — oil,” he said. “But being unable to exercise its right to collective defense, Japan doesn’t have such a choice.”

While some senior LDP lawmakers say Watanabe must step out of his father’s shadow and establish his own style, he feels confident that he is forging his own path.

“We are living in different times. My father was a faction-oriented politician from head to toe. He worked his way up the factional ladder,” he said.

The senior Watanabe belonged to the faction led by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

But in 2000, the younger Watanabe left the faction led by Lower House members Takami Eto and Shizuka Kamei and is still unaffiliated.

The old political model in Nagata-cho and bureaucratic model that ruled Kasumigaseki in the postwar period are two sides of the same worn-out coin, Watanabe said.

“Unless you spent 30-some years devoting yourself to a faction or a ministry and engaged in distributing the government’s budget, you wouldn’t become a leader,” he said. “Under this system, we can never have a drastic and comprehensive strategy to lead the nation. That must come to an end.”

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