David Cameron, the leader of the British opposition Conservative Party, is the envy of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is in desperate need to find someone to replace or succeed Taro Aso, whose popularity remains low despite a political scandal involving the Democratic Party of Japan — the arrest of DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa’s chief secretary.
Even though many LDP members of the Lower House do not want to have to fight the next general election (due to take place no later than September) with Aso at the helm, only a few dare openly say so because they cannot find a suitable replacement.
According to one participant in a March 16 meeting attended by influential members of the various intraparty factions, there was a consensus that the party would not be able to win the next election without a new leader, regardless of what new policies Aso may come up with.
Conventional wisdom may say that the new party boss should be found among the four persons who ran against Aso in the party’s presidential election last year. Nobuaki Ishihara, 51, the party’s deputy secretary general, appears to be most eager to win the top post. Son of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, he is well known, but only a handful of those belonging to the same faction as he does have endorsed him, apparently because he is inexperienced and has not gone through hardships. He is remembered for having a tough time persuading bureaucrats to agree to the privatization of the Japan Highway Public Corporation while he was transport minister.
Yuriko Koike, 56, former defense minister, was once rumored as having a shot at becoming the nation’s first female prime minister. She has been losing steam rapidly since last year’s party presidential election, however, partly because of her past record of jumping from one political party to another but also because of the upcoming retirement of her mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Another former defense minister, Shiberu Ishiba, 52, does not seem to have established any close personal relations with other party leaders. Nor is he supported within his own faction.
Among the four politicians who lost to Aso in last year’s LDP presidential election, Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano is regarded by many as the most qualified to succeed Aso. However, at age 70 and in ill health, he may be able to become a stopgap prime minister at best.
Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, 64, appears eager to throw his hat into the ring, but his lieutenants are advising against it because two successive prime ministers — Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda — both hailing from his own faction ended up resigning after serving the post for only about a year.
If none of these relatively big names is suited to lead the LDP to an election victory, could one be found among junior and less-known figures? On top of such a list is Koichi Hagiuda, 44-year-old vice education minister. In the Japanese political landscape in which many prominent figures today have inherited their constituencies from their fathers and grandfathers, Hagiuda is unique in having climbed the ladder all on his own — from secretary to a lawmaker to local assemblyman, and finally to Lower House member. He and Shoji Nishida, a 50-year-old member of the Upper House, belong to the faction headed by Machimura and both are regarded within that group as reliable and capable conservatives. Their drawback, however, is lack of experience.
Another youngster receiving the limelight is Masazumi Gotoda, 39, whose grand-uncle is the late Deputy Prime Minister Masaharu Gotoda. As a liberal, he is close to Finance Minister Yosano, but he is often accused of not showing respect to senior members of the party.
Other potential candidates include Yasufumi Tanahashi, 46-year-old ex-bureaucrat of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, who is well versed in policy matters, and former Defense Minister Masayoshi Hayashi, 48, who studied at the University of Tokyo and Harvard Graduate School and worked for Mitsui & Co., a major trading firm. Neither of them seems to have sufficient charisma, however.
Potential female candidates to lead the LDP include Seiko Noda, former posts and telecommunications minister, and Yuko Obuchi, incumbent state minister in charge of coping with issues related to the declining birthrate and gender equality. While the reputation of Noda, 48, has plummeted after a weekly magazine reported a scandal surrounding her, Obuchi, 35, is on the rise not only as the daughter of the late former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi but for her ability to perform duties reliably. She still has a lot to learn, however, and has been known to rely on bureaucrats to answer questions in the Diet. She is also about to have her first baby.
Why is it that the LDP has become so short of human resources? A leader of the People’s New Party, who left the LDP after opposing the postal privatization scheme pushed by Koizumi, seems to have the answer, as he says: “Ichiro Ozawa and Katsuya Okada (both of whom are leaders of the No. 1 opposition DPJ) left the LDP 16 years ago to push political reform. Three years ago, I and my colleagues said goodbye to the LDP because we were opposed to the privatization of postal services. Today’s LDP is left only with those having no political ambitions and looking only for high positions. A majority of today’s LDP lawmakers have either inherited their electoral turfs from their fathers or have followed Koizumi’s coattails.”
All these have led some of the prominent business leaders to lament that the LDP may have to look for an outsider to be its leader. One such figure may be Gov. Toru Hashimoto of Osaka Prefecture. Only one year into his term, however, he is not yet in a position to give up his current post. Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru of Miyazaki Prefecture is a popular figure. But he is a comedian, after all, and his administrative skills are not remarkable.
One day before too long, the LDP may get a savior to lead it to an election victory. But that will not be before the party has lost in the general election, fallen into an opposition status and completely rid itself of the existing structure.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scene.