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Two brothers competing on Japan’s political ladder

One of the major topics of speculation among political observers nowadays is what course of action former internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama will take following his revolt against Prime Minister Taro Aso. He will have to make up his mind soon now that the date of the next general election has just been set for the end of August.

Since submitting his resignation June 12, he has consistently denied that he would leave the ruling Liberal Democratic Party or would consider forming his own political group. Very few, if any, political insiders take his words at face value.

Although Hatoyama had long been known as Aso’s staunch ally and right-hand man, a bitter feud developed between the two earlier this year when Hatoyama opposed the reappointment of Yoshifumi Nishikawa as the chief executive officer of Japan Post Holdings Co. Hatoyama complained that Nishikawa was not qualified to remain at the helm because Nishikawa was planning to sell off the company’s assets to a private enterprise at an unreasonably low price. Such an act, Hatoyama maintained, was unjust and betrayed the citizens of Japan.

After Aso forced Hatoyama to submit his resignation, Aso’s approval rating started to plummet, showing that public opinion was on Hatoyama’s side.

Initially, Hatoyama relied on Aso and Tsuneo Watanabe, the head of the nation’s largest circulation vernacular Yomiuri Shimbun, to support his bid to fire Nishikawa. As recently as May, he confided to his close associates that he had the support of the prime minister and that “someone was looking for” Nishikawa’s replacement. Watanabe is said to have told Hatoyama on May 27 that a way had been cleared to name Taizo Nishimuro, chairman of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, as the new head of the postal services company.

This news infuriated former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and former internal affairs minister Heizo Takenaka, who were the principal architects of the postal privatization scheme, and that sounded the death knell for Watanabe’s idea.

Hatoyama then made up his mind that he would appear at the general stockholders’ meeting of Japan Post on June 29, exercise his veto power against the reappointment of Nishikawa and then submit his resignation. Aso did not let him take such action and instead deprived him of his Cabinet post. Hatoyama was disappointed and angry.

Many hailed Hatoyama as a man of principle pursuing justice. But Yoshihide Suga, vice chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s election campaign committee and a member of Aso’s brain trust, has a different interpretation: He says Hatoyama has distanced himself from Aso out of his own political ambitions, convinced that the Aso administration is on the verge of collapse.

Hatoyama is undoubtedly a political thoroughbred; his grandfather Ichiro was prime minister, his father Iichiro was foreign minister, and his elder brother Yukio has been the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan since Ichiro Ozawa stepped down in May.

Since his election to the Lower House for the first time in 1976 as an independent supported by the New Liberal Club headed by Yohei Kono, current speaker of the Lower House, Hatoyama has hopped from one political party to another, including during the tumultuous years of party reorganization, and switched constituencies twice before returning to the LDP in 2003. His supporters attribute these changes to his honesty and adaptability to changing circumstances while his critics call him a “populist” in constant search of the limelight.

Even when he was in elementary school, he was quoted as saying he would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and become prime minister. It was perhaps this early determination that prompted him to turn down attractive job offers after graduating from the University of Tokyo’s law school with a top academic record and to become a secretary to Kakuei Tanaka, who became prime minister in 1972.

In stark contrast, his big brother Yukio was not at all interested in politics while he studied engineering at the University of Tokyo. After returning from the United States, where he received a Ph.D. at Stanford University, however, he suddenly decided to pursue a political career. He was elected to the Lower House in 1986, 10 years after Kunio had entered politics. After some setbacks, Yukio climbed the political ladder and was elected to head the DPJ in May. If his party wins the next general election, as many predict it will, he is certain to replace Aso as prime minister.

Providing both Yukio and Kunio with moral and financial support is their mother, Yasuko Hatoyama, 86. The widowed wife of former Foreign Minister Iichiro Hatoyama and the daughter of the late Shojiro Ishibashi, founder of Bridgestone Corp., she is said to have poured huge sums of money she inherited from her father to help her two sons pursue their political ambitions.

Some political insiders think the very root of Kunio’s unconventional actions lies in his sense of rivalry with and feelings of inferiority toward Yukio. One reason he became so stubborn in opposing the reappointment of the postal service chief, they say, is that he had to show a strong presence in the wake of the DPJ election that placed his big brother at the helm of the leading opposition party.

One senior leader of the ruling LDP said recently that when the current Diet session ends July 28, Kunio and a handful of followers will leave the party and organize their own political group with an eye toward playing a key role in reorganizing political parties after the general election. Trouble is, though, he does not have a broad base of support.

Many opinion polls suggest that the DPJ headed by Yukio has a good chance of wining a majority in the 480-seat Lower House in the upcoming election, which Prime Minister Aso has set for Aug. 30. With the Upper House already under control of the opposition camp headed by the DPJ, it would be all the more difficult for a splinter party to play a significant role even if Kunio organized one.

Observers say that’s why Kunio has refrained from an open revolt against the LDP. He does not have much time left, though, before he has to make up his mind.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scene.