When the Democratic Party of Japan suffered a serious rift earlier this year over contentious war-contingency bills, the fate of the nation’s largest opposition force hinged on Seiji Maehara, the DPJ’s security policy chief.

The bills in question were forged by the government and the ruling coalition and include Maehara-brokered DPJ compromise points. Having cleared the Diet earlier this month, they give the government more power to deploy the Self-Defense Forces in the event of military emergencies.

DPJ executives, including policy chief Yukio Edano, President Naoto Kan and Secretary General Katsuya Okada, all trusted Maehara with the task of drawing up the party’s own version of the bills, cajoling dissenters and negotiating with the ruling coalition, which had hoped to weaken the DPJ with the legislation.

“I only asked Maehara twice if he could pull things off by the deadline. That’s all I did,” said Edano, a longtime friend of the 41-year-old Lower House member.

Maehara succeeded in his tasks. The lawmaker, who was elected from the Kyoto No. 2 district, managed to contain dissent within the ranks by holding several intense discussions over the DPJ bills.

Although the DPJ bills were not acted on, Maehara won large compromises from the ruling bloc in revising the government-sponsored legislation so that key proposals of the DPJ were included.

“War-contingency legislation is necessary, and it doesn’t matter if (politicians) are in the ruling camp or in the opposition,” Maehara said in an interview with The Japan Times. “Mr. Kan, Mr. Okada and Mr. Edano left everything to me. I really thank them for that.”

Maehara was undoubtedly entrusted with the task because of his expertise on security issues. Having studied under Kyoto University professor Masataka Kosaka, a noted security expert, he is an advocate of a proactive security stance and a more powerful military that can defend Japan by itself.

In this regard, Maehara and other like-minded younger politicians are seeking radical security policy changes and a bolstered Japanese military capability.

During the interview, Maehara said the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 should be revised to allow Japan to engage in collective defense and to strengthen the security alliance with the United States.

Because the strategic importance of U.S. bases in Japan will decline over the medium to long term, Japan will need to take a more active military role in the future to keep the bilateral security ties solid, he said.

Not all DPJ members, however, agree with Maehara, especially those who are former Socialists. Many of them advocate pacifist policies and believe Article 9 should be kept intact.

To placate those DPJ members opposed to the party’s war-contingency bills, Maehara included provisions to protect the basic rights of the public. He then struck compromises with the ruling bloc to insert these provisions in the revised government-sponsored bills that were ultimately passed.

DPJ policy chief Edano said that younger-generation lawmakers defy traditional rightwing-leftwing labels in the post-Cold War era, now that ideological confrontation has declined.

“(Maehara) is neither hawkish nor conservative. He’s a realist and a politician who emerged after the so-called 1955-system era,” Edano said, referring to the year the Liberal Democratic Party and its arch rival, the Japan Socialist Party, were established, remaining the dominant forces in the Diet until the early 1990s.

People close to Maehara also say he is passionate and cool-headed at the same time — a combination that makes him attractive.

Among his passions are the popular Osaka-based Hanshin Tigers baseball team — and steam locomotives.

His office in Tokyo’s Nagata-cho district sports several enlarged photos of old trains, including one he took during his honeymoon to Hokkaido.

“The purpose of my honeymoon was to take pictures of steam locomotives,” said Maehara, who has loved old trains since he was in elementary school.

“I handed a camera to my wife and had her take pictures by herself. She still complains about that.”

On the cool-headed side, he is known for his logic, as is often demonstrated in various debates and Lower House sessions. This may have been nurtured through his passion for mathematics.

Maehara said that in high school, he could get so absorbed in solving mathematical problems that he often ended up concentrating at his desk for seven or eight hours.

“That was my hobby. I really enjoyed it,” said Maehara, who went to a private school specializing in math.

More recently, he impressed his colleagues with his superb debating skills during the current Diet session by grilling Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi over an apparent contradiction in her argument in defense of the government’s support for the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

But close friend Tetsuro Fukuyama, an Upper House DPJ member, said that Maehara’s sincerity and sense of responsibility are his true symbolic traits. As a member of the now defunct New Party Sakigake, Fukuyama, who was also elected from Kyoto, joined Maehara’s move to build up local party organizations from scratch in 1995.

“New Party Sakigake had only two members in Kyoto at that time — Maehara and me,” Fukuyama said.

Thanks to their efforts, New Party Sakigake’s local organizations, which later developed into the DPJ’s Kyoto chapter, grew steadily in an area long known as a stronghold of the Japanese Communist Party.

The DPJ now is the No. 2 force in the Kyoto Prefectural Assembly, after the Liberal Democratic Party. The JCP is No. 3.

Fukuyama also recalled when the DPJ’s Kyoto chapter suffered an internal dispute over the fielding of a candidate in the Upper House election in the Kyoto constituency in 2001. At that time, Maehara headed the local chapter and Fukuyama was vice chairman.

Though the chapter was split over who should be the official DPJ candidate in that constituency, Maehara insisted on sticking to the original nominee and persuaded the others to support him.

“If either Maehara or I had tried to stick to the sidelines, the party would have suffered serious turmoil. But he never did that, so I couldn’t, either,” Fukuyama said.

“He always attaches a high value on trusting others,” Fukuyama said, praising his friend for his earnest and sincere efforts to form a party consensus and negotiate with the ruling bloc over the war-contingency bills.

Maehara’s efforts over the bills apparently helped narrow the gaps between the ruling bloc and the DPJ. This stems from his belief that the two sides should no longer clash over security issues, which have kept the ruling and opposition camps sharply divided for five decades.

Elsewhere, however, he hopes to differentiate the DPJ from the LDP, especially over economic policy. As the largest opposition party, whose members were primarily elected from urban districts, he feels the DPJ should push for a reduction in public works projects and budgets, which have come to define the pork-barrel nature of LDP politics, especially in vested-interest rural Japan.

Between October 1999 and September 2001, Maehara served in the DPJ’s shadow Cabinet as social infrastructure minister. He now heads the party’s policy research team on public works.

“Public works projects now account for about 6 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product, while those in European countries and the U.S. are around 2 percent to 3 percent of GDP,” he said. “(The budget) should be cut to half or one-third of the current size.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.