Interior Affairs Minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi is that rare politician who doesn’t hesitate to say he’ll eventually be prime minister. He has apparently become more confident than ever after receiving support and encouragement from two of the most influential figures in the Japanese media.

In mid-January, Haraguchi had dinner with Tsuneo Watanabe, editor in chief of the nation’s largest circulation newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, and Seiichiro Ujiie, representative director of the Yomiuri-affiliated Nippon Television Network Corporation. A few days later at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Haraguchi praised Watanabe and Ujiie as “charismatic journalists” who have fought courageously in defense of freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, the Asahi Shimbun, another newspaper with a nationwide circulation and a Yomiuri rival, is betting on Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada as the next head of government. It is quite possible, therefore, that Haraguchi, with the Yomiuri’s backing, and Okada will be pitted against each other for the highest political office.

Why does Haraguchi loom as a strong candidate even though he doesn’t have a broad base of support within the Democratic Party of Japan and does not belong to any intraparty groups (although he seems close to former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata)?

The answer may lie in his avid admiration for Ichiro Ozawa, the party’s all-powerful secretary general, who is often regarded as the kingmaker on the Japanese political landscape and leader of the largest intraparty group.

To Haraguchi, Ozawa has the insight and intuitiveness comparable to that of Konosuke Matsushita, the legendary founder of Panasonic Corp., which until last year was known as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

The intimacy between Haraguchi and Ozawa is illustrated in a conversation that reportedly took place when Ozawa was forced to step down from the helm of the DPJ last May after his fund management body was accused of receiving illegal donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co. Ozawa’s phone call to Haraguchi to thank him for his support made Haraguchi burst into tears. Even today, no other member of the Hatoyama Cabinet meets with Ozawa more often than Haraguchi.

Nobody within the Ozawa group has the name value or the experience needed to become the next generation leader. Haraguchi seems ahead of other aspirants because of his loyalty to Ozawa, a comparatively young age (50) for a politician and his unconventionality — demonstrated by the publication of poems on his home page and his becoming the first Cabinet minister to use Twitter.

One factor to consider is that Ozawa’s grip on the party has grown much stronger today and the top DPJ leader is promised the prime minister post.

Haraguchi has boasted that the days of the Finance Ministry ruling the nation are over and that the power center is being shifted to his Interior Affairs Ministry. Many bureaucrats praise him for not speaking emotionally against bureaucrats as Health and Welfare Minister Akira Nagatsuma has done, for not being as superficial as Foreign Minister Okada is, and for not being as arrogant as Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Seishi Maehara is.

Haraguchi is not free from criticism. Some say he has a “small mind.” For example, when a major newspaper leaked a story Jan. 16 that he was about to replace his administrative vice minister, he was quite upset. He first denied the report, but replaced the top bureaucrat as reported. Some observers worry about entrusting state power to someone like Haraguchi.

Another perceived shortcoming is that he lacks a clear ideological direction. After Hatoyama formed his Cabinet in September, Haraguchi was the first minister to fly to Washington, to sell himself as a “pro-American conservative.”

In the United States, however, he had been regarded, along with national strategy minister Yoshito Sengoku, as having links to a radical leftist group for his slogans of “creating a world free from wars” and “fighting against power.” At the same time, he paints himself as a right-leaning nationalist not unlike the samurai who carried out the Meiji Restoration. The divergent views of him have led many to wonder whether he is a nationalist or a leftist.

He also seems careless about state power. His proposal to create a Japanese version of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission could lead to tighter government rules on mass media.

Every now and then, Haraguchi expresses disagreement with Ozawa’s proposals. Whenever he does so, he is suspected of having the ulterior motive of protecting himself in the event of Ozawa’s fall. Haraguchi also calculates that the appearance of his distancing himself from Ozawa helps broaden his support base within the party while making it easier for Ozawa, who seeks to control Haraguchi, to move behind the scenes.

Haraguchi, who majored in psychology at the University of Tokyo, says no human can manage more than seven different tasks at one time; therefore, as interior affairs minister, he limits himself to that number. Yet, he thinks he can serve as prime minister, whose job would require much greater multitasking abilities.

His aspiration is rooted in his observation that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is unqualified for the post. If so, a post-Hatoyama race would involve choosing “the lesser of two evils”

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

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