Contenders’ backgrounds

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Staff Writer

Seiji Maehara

Seiji Maehara represents Kyoto’s No. 2 electoral district, a cultural cornucopia where in some ways he could be considered an outsider.

Although he was born in the city, by local standards he is not considered a true Kyoto native because three generations of his family haven’t lived there. Maehara’s parents were both from Tottori Prefecture, and to add further stigma, his childhood was touched by tragedy when his father committed suicide.

Maehara was a gifted student, however, and graduated from Kyoto University, where he studied international politics under professors who strongly supported the Japan-U.S. security treaty. He later became the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s staunchest defender of the alliance and is highly thought of by U.S. policymakers.

“Since I was first elected to the Diet in 1993, I’ve visited the U.S. every year to exchange views with U.S. government officials and experts precisely because I believed the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy,” Maehara told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington earlier this year.

After meeting foreign policy hawks and conservatives, such as former Suginami Mayor Hiroshi Yamada, he enrolled, with Yamada’s help, in Matsushita Institute for Government and Management in 1987. The institute, established by Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita, grooms future political and business leaders.

In 1991, Maehara, at 28, was elected to the Kyoto Prefectural Assembly. Although influenced by conservative, status quo-oriented teachers at Kyoto University and the Matsushita Institute, Maehara campaigned as a rugged outsider, riding around on a motorcycle.

Two years later, he won his first term in the Lower House with the now defunct Japan New Party, whose founder, Morihiro Hosokawa, served briefly as prime minister in 1993.

Throughout the mid- and late 1990s, Maehara was in the opposition camp and used the time to further build his reputation as a foreign policy expert, especially on Japan’s relations with the United States. He also began focusing on certain domestic issues, such as the rapidly aging population and falling birthrate. Maehara is also a strong advocate of greater regional autonomy.

“Currently, 1 in 5 people in Japan is 65 or older. By 2050, 2 out of every 5 Japanese will be 65 or older, which means the social welfare burden on the younger generation will increase,” Maehara said in his 2010 book “Here’s Japan’s Growth Breakthrough.”

His political career caught the eye of Kazuo Inamori, another Kyoto-based outsider, who has become his most influential supporter. Inamori was born in Kagoshima and moved to Kyoto in the late 1950s, founding Kyoto Ceramic Co. (now Kyocera Corp.) in 1959. His backing since the late 1990s has been crucial to Maehara’s election victories.

By the time the DPJ took power in 2009, Maehara was one of its most powerful members. During his stint as transport minister, he tapped Inamori to serve as CEO of bankrupt Japan Airlines Corp.

As state minister for Okinawa, Maehara took a tough stance against local residents who were demanding that a 2006 agreement to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to northern Okinawa be scrapped. But he also indicated the base issue was separate from central government support for development projects in the prefecture.

Sumio Mabuchi

Kyodo

Former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi, who was effectively the first to declare his intention to run in Monday’s Democratic Party of Japan presidential election, strongly opposes raising taxes as a way to pay for rebuilding the disaster-hit Tohoku region.

Mabuchi, who turned 51 on Tuesday, recently described current Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s stance on tax increases as dangerous. “A tax increase amounts to forcing a dying patient with a serious disease to run,” Mabuchi said.

A third-term member of the House of Representatives, Mabuchi represents Nara Prefecture’s No. 1 constituency, which includes the ancient capital of Nara. He was first elected to the Lower House in the 2003 general election.

DPJ sources say that Mabuchi’s support in the party is weak, mainly because of his lack of political experience. He has been a Lower House lawmaker for only eight years.

Mabuchi is nonetheless eager to succeed Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who in June vowed to hand power over to the party’s younger generation following Diet passage of three key bills — the second extra budget, a bill to authorize bond issuances and one to promote renewable energy sources. Those goals have been accomplished.

Mabuchi served as minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism under Kan between last September and January, when he stepped down amid opposition pressure that had dogged him since a Liberal Democratic Party-championed censure motion against him was passed in the Upper House in November.

The opposition denounced him over the leaking of video footage of a September run-in between Japan Coast Guard cutters and a Chinese trawler they were trying to shoo away from the Japan-controlled Senkaku islets, which China also claims. The transport ministry has authority over the coast guard, one of whose ranks leaked the footage.

After exiting, Mabuchi, a body-builder nicknamed “Terminator” after the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, said, “I’ll be back.”

Banri Kaieda

Kyodo

Trade minister Banri Kaieda had a difficult time handling the power shortage issue and his indecisiveness is raising questions about his ability to become prime minister.

Kaieda, 62, took charge of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry when the Cabinet was reshuffled in January and took a positive stance on entering talks on the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership regional free-trade agreement.

But ever since the nuclear crisis erupted in Fukushima in March, he has been preoccupied with containing the fallout because METI has jurisdiction over the national nuclear regulatory authority. Tensions between Kaieda and departing Prime Minister Naoto Kan then formed over whether to restart other reactors in light of the crisis.

His frustration with Kan is believed to be one of the factors that drove him to enter the race, but a lawmaker close to him said Kaieda’s weak point is his lack of decisiveness.

Kaieda said in July that he would resign from METI to take responsibility for confusing local governments about the reactor-restart issue. He had gone to Saga Prefecture to give the assurance that reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Genkai nuclear plant were safe to restart, and won tentative local consent, only to be trumped by Kan’s subsequent demand that all reactors nationwide first undergo quake-resistance stress tests before they could qualify to be put back online.

Yoshihiko Noda

Kyodo

Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a staunch supporter of hiking taxes to address the nation’s deteriorating public finances, will face an uphill battle to become president of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Given that he may be the only candidate to press for increasing the burden on taxpayers, Noda, 54, is described cynically as “the official candidate from the Finance Ministry,” the most powerful branch of the bureaucracy and one bent on restoring the country’s fiscal health, the worst among the major developed economies.

After starting his political career as a member of the Chiba Prefectural Assembly in 1987, Noda won his first Diet seat as a member of the now-defunct Japan New Party in 1993. He lost the House of Representatives seat in 1996 before returning to national politics in 2000 on the DPJ ticket.

He became finance minister in June 2010, succeeding Naoto Kan when the latter, then an advocate of higher taxes to cover the swelling welfare costs of the rapidly aging population, assumed the prime ministership.

A man of few words, Noda refused to declare his candidacy to succeed Kan even after the prime minister, in June as a concession to his foes, signaled he would step down in the not-too-distant future. Noda finally announced his candidacy Friday.

Michihiko Kano

Kyodo

Farm minister Michihiko Kano, who is running in the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election, is a veteran politician seen as a moderate within the party.

Kano, 69, is not affiliated with any of the ruling party’s internal groups, allowing him to stay above the fray amid the bitter confrontation between supporters of departing Prime Minister Naoto Kan and DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa.

The farm minister’s supporters consider the 11-term Lower House veteran as a figure who can unify the party’s rival factions.

Analysts point to his long political career and ties to opposition lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito as his strengths, but say his lack of connections among young and middle-ranking DPJ members may undermine his campaign.

Kano was a member of the LDP and served as farm minister for the then ruling party over 20 years ago.

After leaving the LDP in 1994 to pursue political reform, Kano joined Shinshinto and lost a closely fought battle against Ozawa in the party’s 1997 leadership race. After the then major opposition party disbanded the same year, Kano founded Kokumin no Koe (Voice of the People) in January 1998, which then combined with two other parties to form Minseito (Good Governance Party) later that month. Minseito was one of the four parties that evolved into the DPJ in April 1998.

Kano hails from a Yamagata Prefecture constituency.

Candidates’ positions on the issues that will define race

The following are the positions on major issues of the five candidates running in the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election Monday.

Tax for reconstruction of disaster-hit areas:

Noda supports a future tax hike.

Kaieda, Mabuchi and Kano prefer more bond issuance.

Maehara is cautious about raising tax for now due to nation’s sluggish economy, and is calling for greater use of private funds.

Cooperation with key opposition parties:

Maehara is keen to form a grand coalition.

Kaieda, Mabuchi and Kano do not favor the idea.

Noda is open to the plan.

Foreign policy:

All five consider the Japan-U.S. alliance as the cornerstone of foreign policy.

Kaieda has close ties with China, while Maehara has connections with the U.S.

Maehara and Noda have voiced concern over China’s military buildup.

Kaieda and Kano are cautious about joining talks on a U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership regional free-trade pact.

Maehara and Noda are in favor of joining TPP negotiations.

Nuclear energy:

All five aim to reduce the nation’s dependence on nuclear power. Maehara opposes building new nuclear plants.

Kaieda says some idled nuclear reactors could be restarted this year.

Mabuchi says government’s role must be bigger for containing nuclear crisis

Review of DPJ’s 2009 election manifesto:

Kaieda says the DPJ must stick to the manifesto as much as possible.

Noda and Maehara are flexible over making changes.

Ichiro Ozawa’s membership suspension:

Kaieda, Mabuchi and Kano have hinted they will review the matter.

Maehara would uphold the suspension.

Noda has a neutral stance.