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Japan's new cabinet: Escape from Ozawa?

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10 June 2010 09:23

Rikki Kersten is a professor of politics at the Australian National University.

Japan's new cabinet is designed around the desire to change voter perceptions of two issues: the influence of DPJ power broker Ozawa Ichiro on government, and politician-led policy development. If only things can look different enough by mid-July, the DPJ might still pull off a credible result in the looming half upper house election. But reality can only be delayed for so long. In the end, substance will out.

The new cabinet line-up is brimful of politicians who do not owe their political lives to Ozawa's electoral genius. Ozawa himself is banished from the front line, so things do indeed look different. But the fact remains that 150 members of the DPJ are obligated to Ozawa, and that it was to a great degree Ozawa's strategic brain that enabled the DPJ to romp home last August.

In retiring to the shadows, Ozawa seems to be resuming his familiar role of 'shadow shogun'. He has never been popular, and putting him in a leading role was never a great idea. For the past couple of decades Ozawa has been motivated by the desire to remake – indeed, smash and reconstruct – traditional Japanese political structures. The fact that he did so based on years of training under the influence of the great LDP heavyweights is ironic. It is also his greatest flaw. Ordinary voters are simply not able to suspend belief long enough to associate Ozawa with 'new politics'.

And that is what the electoral landslide of last August was all about, at least for the voters. Now the politicians under new Prime Minister Naoto Kan are playing catch-up. Kan (with the delicious slogan 'Yes we Kan!') is trying to make it appear that the new cabinet represents an 'escape from Ozawa', but it may yet turn out to be a mere exercise in apparent distancing.

This brings us to the second perception issue: political competence. Can an administration centred on the Prime Minister's office also deliver and implement credible policy? Put another way: can politics work in Japan if the power-responsibility nexus is placed in the hands of elected politicians instead of bureaucrats? Can the national interest triumph over the pork barrel? Or the media cycle?

While much play has been given in Japan's media to the Ozawa factor, it is the second factor that will make or break the DPJ experiment in Japanese politics. It is only when 'escape from Ozawa' becomes new politics in substance that Japanese politics will be transformed.

Photo by Flickr user olemiswebs, used under a Creative Commons license.

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