The decade-old Democratic Party of Japan is facing what members describe as its biggest crises ever.

This time around, no fresh face wants to step forward to take the helm of the main opposition party, whose president has been reshuffled several times in recent years to find someone charismatic enough to vie with the popular Liberal Democratic Party leader, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The latest self-destructive episode to befall the DPJ entailed efforts by party member Hisayasu Nagata, with the approval of DPJ President Seiji Maehara, to besmirch LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe by trotting out an e-mail last month in the Diet that was allegedly an order last August by Livedoor Co. founder Takafumi Horie for staff to transfer 30 million yen to Takebe’s son in the leadup to Horie’s unsuccessful September election bid with Takebe’s support.

The DPJ ended up eating crow after admitting the e-mail was in fact not made by Horie, and not provided by a Livedoor insider, but was instead the work of an unnamed freelance journalist.

The incident raised serious questions about both the leadership of Maehara, who has only been party head since September, when the DPJ suffered a huge setback in the election, and about the DPJ’s overall direction, observers said. Maehara had only stepped in when Katsuya Okada bowed out over the poll setback.

“The DPJ has lost the public’s trust as an opposition party that (had) the potential (wherewithal) to be a governing party,” said Fukashi Horie, a former political science professor at Keio University and president of Shobi University.

Further complicating matters is Maehara’s presidency, which expires in September, and the lack of a fresh face to replace him.

The party has had many reshuffles in recent years as it groped to find a leader who could boast the same type of popular appeal as Koizumi.

“It’s a very tough question,” DPJ Yamanashi Prefectural Assemblyman Hisataka Takekoshi said in a recent telephone interview when asked who might succeed Maehara. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Takekoshi and other regional DPJ bigwigs gathered in Tokyo on March 4 to demand new leadership so the party can regain voter appeal.

DPJ leaders “now say they will exert all of their strength to try to recover the people’s trust, but I think that’s totally impossible,” Takekoshi said, noting Maehara has lost that trust.

But while Takekoshi and many other DPJ members want Maehara replaced, they fall short of proposing a viable successor.

The lack of Young Turks was underscored by the recent appointment of Kozo Watanabe, 73, the party’s top adviser, as Diet affairs chief.

The choice surprised many observers because a lawmaker of Watanabe’s seniority and experience — he previously served as vice speaker of the House of Representatives — is not usually tapped for a working-level post such as Diet affairs chief.

“I felt as if the hands of the clock had been wound back to the days of my father,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe told reporters after hearing of the appointment. Abe’s late father was a foreign minister in the 1980s and served in the LDP with Watanabe.

DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama apparently had to twist Watanabe’s arm to get him to take the job after other candidates refused. Watanabe said on a recent TV news program that he accepted post only after Hatoyama threatened to resign if he turned the job down.

“The DPJ now faces the most serious crisis since its establishment,” Watanabe was quoted as telling reporters March 2. “I decided to push my old bones hard and accept” the post.

The DPJ was formed in 1996, with House of Representatives lawmakers Naoto Kan and Hatoyama serving as coleaders of the party. Since then, Kan served as party president twice and ran a third time but lost to Maehara last September.

Kan, who previously bowed out due to a scandal, might be asked to step in again, given his high name recognition with voters, but such a move could further underscore the party’s threadbare image.

Ichiro Ozawa, another LDP defector once considered a powerhouse in the DPJ, has so far not surfaced as a prospective candidate.

“I personally prefer a politician like Kan, but wonder if he can project a fresh image to voters” after having been forced to resign as DPJ president twice in the past, Takekoshi said.

Maehara and ex-DPJ Diet affairs chief Yoshihiko Noda were seen as the new blood that would take over the reins from Kan and Hatoyama.

But both played a part in the e-mail fiasco — Maehara as DPJ head and Noda because he gave Nagata the nod to go public with the fake e-mail.

According to a telephone survey conducted by the daily Yomiuri Shimbun on March 1 and 2, 78 percent of 932 respondents said Maehara’s handling of the e-mail incident was “inappropriate,” and 72 percent said the snafu showed the DPJ lacked the ability to run the government.

Before the scandal, Koizumi, who has said he will not run again for LDP president when his term expires in September, was increasingly seen as a lame duck, under fire from the DPJ over the LDP’s connections with Horie, a scandal over structurally unsound buildings and problems with the reopening of Japan’s market to U.S. beef.

But the DPJ’s missteps have taken the heat off Koizumi.

The most recent poll revealed the LDP’s support rate rose 4 percentage points to 42.9 percent, compared with a survey in January, while backing for the DPJ fell 2.1 points to 15.1 percent.

The DPJ faces a critical test in the party election in September, said University of Tokyo professor Ikuo Kabashima, who studies voting behavior. He said recent elections have shown public perceptions of a party’s leader are more important than ever in an era of unprecedented media influence.

“Now a party that has an ‘excellent’ president will prosper, while the failure to have one means a downhill slide,” Kabashima said, adding that whoever becomes the leader determines the party’s fate.

It is not clear at this point if Maehara will seek re-election, but even if he manages to hold onto the top spot, he faces an uphill battle to regain the trust of the party rank-and-file and of voters, he said.

According to Kabashima, Maehara is more conservative on security and social welfare issues than the average DPJ member and the party’s voter base.

“If this situation is left unresolved, it would be difficult for Maehara to win over unaffiliated voters who supported the LDP” in the September general election, he said.

Indeed, Maehara has hinted he will resign if he fails to get a party consensus on a new security policy based on his position that China should be considered a “military concern” for Japan, a position that seems watered down compared with the unofficial hawkish stance of the LDP.

Already, lawmakers who want a softer security policy have begun to voice opposition to Maehara’s views.

Kan wrote on his personal Web site on March 4 that he turned down the request to serve as Diet affairs chief because “I have had some doubts about the consensus-building process in foreign and security policy based on the ‘China concern’ argument promoted by Maehara.”

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