Yukio Hatoyama and Katsuya Okada, the two candidates in the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election Saturday, both stuck to the party line in a public debate in which the only way they seemed to differentiate themselves from each other was in their choice of ties.

The two were apparently wary of media reports that the election may divide the party just when it needs to unite for the general election that must come by fall.

Having been President Ichiro Ozawa’s right-hand man as party secretary general, Hatoyama and his supporters are naturally considered pro-Ozawa, while Okada, who had distanced himself from the departing chief, is gaining encouragement from the anti-Ozawa clan.

According to media reports, support for the candidates is evenly split, with the focus being on whether DPJ members are for or against Ozawa, who earlier this week announced his resignation after coming under fire over over his chief secretary’s arrest in a political funds scandal.

As if to dispel the image that the party is split down the middle, Hatoyama, said at the debate held at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo that both he and Okada share a common enemy in the Liberal Democratic Party.

“We are fighting not against each other but rather Prime Minister Taro Aso and his government,” Hatoyama said. “In other words, this is a battle for change . . . we must thoroughly clean up the old political structure taken by the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc.”

Throughout the debate, both Okada and Hatoyama agreed that power and money must be shifted from the central government to local authorities and all contributions from corporations to politicians or political parties, which have often been likened to bribery, should be banned by law.

Banning corporate donations “is especially a major difference between the LDP and the DPJ and we stressed this point together,” Hatoyama said.

The two lawmakers admitted their policies are in the main the same.

“There is no major difference in our policies because we are both from the DPJ,” Okada said, stressing that the party’s presidential race is the preliminary stage for the next general election, in which the DPJ is hopeful of seizing control of the government from the ruling coalition.

While opinion polls show that Okada is the favorite, Hatoyama reportedly has more internal party support, which could be the key in Saturday’s poll as only DPJ Diet members have the right to vote.

Hatoyama came out and said he would include Okada in the DPJ leadership if he is elected president. Okada, on the other hand, refused to elaborate, but did stress he intended to cooperate with Hatoyama and Ozawa if chosen as leader.

Party unity will be formed “easily as long as Hatoyama and I firmly cooperate after the race and aim to oust” the LDP, Okada said. “And not only the two of us. Naturally, we need to play ball with many of the party leaders, including Ozawa and Kan, to achieve this goal.”

In the end, their only clear difference was their ties — Okada, a known advocate of environmental issues, sported a bright green one, while Hatoyama, stressing the word “love,” went for fiery red.

Later Friday evening, the two candidates visited the Yurakucho shopping district in Tokyo, in their only opportunity to appeal directly to the public.

The two took the opportunity to attack the LDP and Aso’s government.

Hatoyama said many people are currently experiencing difficult times, including elderly who cannot get medical services due to financial difficulties and young married couples who hesitate to have children due to the high expense their upbringing entails.

“Who is responsible for the current state of Japan? How did the country get like this?” Hatoyama asked.

Okada noted that since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as prime minister in 2006, the LDP has changed prime minister every year without holding an election.

“The (LDP) lawmakers lack a firm resolve to serve as prime minister,” he said.

Nishimatsu scandal

Kyodo News

Nishimatsu Construction Co. said Friday that President Tadashi Ishibashi will step down over a political fund scandal involving Ichiro Ozawa, who has resigned as president of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Director Harusada Kondo will succeed Ishibashi, the company said. The appointment is to take effect June 26.

The scandal involves Ozawa’s top secretary, who was indicted in March for receiving millions of yen in donations from Nishimatsu, in violation of the Political Fund Control Law.

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