Ostensibly, Mr. Shozaburo Nakamura was let go as justice minister because a censure motion in the Upper House looked imminent and New Komeito was adding its weight to the opposition demand that Mr. Nakamura resign, or else. Fundamentally, however, Mr. Nakamura is a casualty of his own loose tongue, questionable ethics and the political frailty of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s Cabinet.
The justice minister became a figure of controversy almost as soon as he assumed office last July. He reportedly summoned the public prosecutor general to his office and told him he was “strictly under the command of the minister appointed by the prime minister” — a remark generally considered to be an infringement on the independent tradition of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Then came Mr. Nakamura’s highly publicized remark criticizing the Constitution at a New Year’s party attended by senior Justice officials. Although he later retracted his call for a revision of the Constitution, the opposition parties had heard enough to call for his head. Their attempt failed because LDP bigwigs did not find his gaffes offensive enough.
But the stage was set for closer media scrutiny of the justice minister. Reports soon surfaced that Mr. Nakamura had suggested a Justice Ministry probe into a rival resort-development project close to a hotel he owns on an outlying island in Okinawa last September. The obvious conflict of interest roused suspicion that he considered the Justice Ministry to be his private fiefdom.
The final straw came when it was revealed that the justice minister had authorized the entry of American movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger into Japan without a passport and allegedly kept the hand-written deposition by the movie star, presumably as an autograph, without sending it back for official record keeping.
That episode was the straw that finished Mr. Nakamura off, but not until New Komeito found it expedient to side with the other opposition parties over the fate of the justice minister. The high-profile case and Mr. Obuchi’s visible reluctance to let Mr. Nakamura go gave New Komeito the perfect opportunity to demonstrate its sway over the government. Without a majority in the House of Councilors, Mr. Obuchi was not in a position to quarrel with New Komeito, the party with the swing vote in the upper chamber.
Nine months are not too short a tenure in the revolving-door tradition of Liberal Democratic Party Cabinet politics. Thus, the wonder is not that Mr. Nakamura was finally forced to go, but how on earth a politician like him was given the politically sensitive justice portfolio in the first place. The sad truth is that the prime minister had very little say over the matter, since Mr. Nakamura was the choice of his faction. Officially, Mr. Obuchi serves as head of the LDP, but his writ within the party does not go much beyond what he controls as faction leader. After all, the LDP is little more than a loose amalgamation of factions, each loyal to a political boss. The top LDP executive posts are controlled, directly or indirectly, by faction bosses, and it is these party bigwigs who divvy up the Cabinet positions and have the final say on who gets what Cabinet post in a new LDP government.
Neither professional qualification nor political integrity seems to count for much. Rather, seniority and ability to contribute to faction coffers apparently are the most important criteria for winning high office. Without any legal mechanism for vetting politicians for ministerial posts, the government has been reduced to coping with a regular outbreak of scandals that reinforce the voters’ distrust of politics and politicians and hurt the nation’s international image.
By cutting Mr. Nakamura loose, Mr. Obuchi obviously hopes to keep his good standing with New Komeito and pre-empt further interruption of Diet deliberations over the defense-related bills and other important legislation programs. As he has done over the handout of vouchers in the name of fiscal stimulus, Mr. Obuchi has shown that he is malleable in the hands of New Komeito and its swing votes.
Mr. Nakamura’s resignation may have removed one source of uncertainty in Mr. Obuchi’s management of Diet politics, but it does not eliminate the root cause of political scandal inherent in the LDP’s faction-oriented Cabinet makeup. If the prime minister can only choose his Cabinet appointees primarily on the basis of factional considerations and seniority, he will have to name similar rascals to Cabinet posts again and again. This will certainly debilitate the LDP as the main conservative party of this country.
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