Azuma Koshiishi will probably continue to rule the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan from behind the scenes although his current position as the Upper House vice president yields little, if any, prestige or influence, lamented a party insider who supported Goshi Hosono, a losing candidate in the party presidential election on Jan. 18.

In the first balloting of that election, former party secretary general Hosono won with 298 points against the runner-up, ex-deputy prime minister and ex-DPJ chief Katsuya Okada, who garnered 294 points. This raised hopes that winds of change would blow through the party under Hosono’s leadership.

In the run-off vote, however, former Lower House vice speaker Hirotaka Akamatsu and his followers from the former Japan Socialist Party, who had initially voted for the third candidate, former health and welfare minister Akira Nagatsuma, opted to support Okada. He thus defeated Hosono by 13 points and returned to the top party post.

The party insider’s lament reflected his sense of fatigue in the aftermath of vigorous but fruitless efforts made by Hosono to win Koshiishi’s support.

A predominant view is that behind the left-leaning liberal group led by Akamatsu is Koshiishi, also an ex-Socialist, who is a “don” of the Japan Teachers’ Union (Nikkyoso) and has a wide communication channel with the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

Indeed, the list of those who supported Nagatsuma’s candidacy included many Upper House members close to Koshiishi, like Mieko Kamimoto, Masayoshi Nataniya and Shunichi Mizuoka, all hailing from the teachers’ union, as well as Kumiko Aihara, formerly with the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers’ Union (Jichiro).

But a question has been raised about Koshiishi by certain quarters within the party. The question is: “Which candidate did Koshiishi — who always bets on a winning horse — vote for, Okada or Hosono?” The fact is that he has kept mum on this point.

This contrasts with former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who stated in his blog a day after the party election that he had voted for Okada for the latter’s “stability and reliability,” despite Kan’s ideological closeness to Nagatsuma on matters like abolition of nuclear power plants.

In this situation, Koshiishi’s rule over the DPJ Upper House caucus drags on although he seceded from the party after being elected Upper House vice president and, at the age of 78, he will not run in the next election, which is scheduled for the summer of 2016.

Kensei Mizote, who heads the Upper House caucus of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, once said Koshiishi is “incoherent and schizophrenic” and can be compared to a “nue,” a mythical creature that is said to have the face of a monkey, the torso of a raccoon dog, the limbs of a tiger and the tail of a snake. The DPJ, he said, is under the control of a nue-like mysterious person.

Nobody within the DPJ seems to know what real power Koshiishi possesses or what track record he has in policy matters. When Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ was prime minister, Koshiishi was given the all-important party post of secretary general with expectations that he would reestablish intra-party harmony by using his close ties with Ichiro Ozawa, then a DPJ heavyweight who was opposed to Noda. Yet, Koshiishi failed not only to prevent Ozawa from breaking away from the party but also to forestall the splitting up of the party. Yet Koshiishi still occupies a high post while Ozawa has lost much of his political clout and now heads a small group with only five Diet seats.

Some people say Koshiishi is fully aware of the strength an organization can summon. Through his long experience of working full time for the labor union Nikkyoso, he may have learned that by securing a certain number of supporters within an organization and by siding with a winner, he can continue to retain a casting vote. But such a thing has nothing to do with people.

Thus he has probably thought that by building a stronghold within Nikkyoso, he would be able to bring Jichiro to his side and to have an influence over the whole Rengo and that if he can steer Japan’s largest labor organization, he would be able to dominate the DPJ Upper House caucus and ultimately the entire DPJ.

When announcing his candidacy in the party presidential election on Dec. 19, Hosono told reporters that he was confident of establishing a smooth relationship with Rengo’s Shizuoka chapter, which is located in his constituency, since he is on good terms with it. He said this despite the fact that he supports the idea of realigning political parties and had once proposed that the DPJ merge with the Japan Innovation Party, which has a negative stance toward the labor unions of public servants.

Although Hosono is still young at 43, he won’t be able to get people to believe that the DPJ will change if he continues to rely on labor unions. Many observers suspect that Koshiishi has put pressure on Hosono to maintain close ties with labor unions for fear that should the DPJ start distancing itself from them, Koshiishi’s own influence may be weakened.

Since both the two other candidates — Okada and Nagatsuma — support the idea of rebuilding their party on its own without seeking a realignment with other political parties, the momentum for the DPJ merging with the Japan Innovation Party quickly disappeared at the point when Hosono made the remark. After that, all three men took a negative view on the Innovation Party’s favorite call for combining Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka to form the administrative entity of Osaka-to patterned after Tokyo — an idea detested by Jichiro. On the other hand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on the LDP side expressed a favorable view of it.

Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka and a senior adviser to the Japan Innovation Party, told reporters on Jan. 19 that he would give his support to the Abe administration if the DPJ remained unchanged and that if the Japanese political system is to be ruled by two major political parties, the DPJ will have to undergo drastic changes. He added that no reform can be expected as long as the party continues to rely on labor unions in elections. Hashimoto also said he would fully support Abe’s call for amending the Constitution.

Thus an ironic situation has emerged in which there will be no major realignment of political parties and the strength of the LDP under Abe will remain firm for some time to come as long as Koshiishi controls the DPJ from behind the scenes.

According to a DPJ insider, former Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and some of his colleagues within the party’s Upper House caucus are against the behind-the-scenes rule by Koshiishi and that the only thing they can rely on to end Koshiishi’s nue-like political method is Okada’s rigid, fundamentalist political method.

Okada himself said that he himself will have to change in his speech just prior to the Jan. 18 voting in the DPJ presidential election, hinting that he will become more flexible. But it is doubtful that he will be able to change overnight.

When serving as deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe, who had behind-the-door negotiations with Okada over a bill to send Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to the Indian Ocean for anti-terrorism operations during the Afghanistan War, confided that Okada was a person with rigid legalistic thinking, not a politician. A big question is whether Okada’s unchangeableness will be able to change the DPJ.

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

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