Japan's prime minister faces showdown with chief party rival

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 11:02 PM

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, on the job for just 85 days, could soon be knocked from power by his chief rival, Ichiro Ozawa, who is seeking to regain political prestige that Kan had helped to undermine.

On Wednesday, Kan and Ozawa kicked off their campaigns for the presidency of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, releasing separate policy statements. DPJ lawmakers and local party supporters are scheduled to vote Sept. 14, settling a power struggle that analysts have called both destructive and unavoidable - and capable of breaking up a party that only a year ago represented Japan's hopes for reform.

Because the DPJ controls the powerful lower house, its president becomes prime minister. If Ozawa wins, he will become Japan's third leader within a year. His possible comeback runs counter to public opinion, with polls favoring Kan 4 to 1: Ozawa faces possible indictment in connection with a fundraising scandal and was deposed three months ago as the DPJ's No. 2. But experts say it is possible that he will win the vote among DPJ lawmakers and local party supporters - testimony to his skills as a backroom dealer who trades favors for loyalty.

"He is the least popular politician in Japan, bar none," said Jeff Kingston, a Japan expert at Temple University in Tokyo. "There is nobody people loathe more. He's known for backroom-fixing politics; he's last century's man, and this is his last roll of the dice. His motivations are purely selfish. Nothing he's doing here benefits the country."

The Kan-Ozawa contest serves as a reminder of Japan's search for a decisive leader. Japan has had five prime ministers in the past four years. Each talked about a massive debt, an aging population and a sluggish economy. None has found a way to combat those problems.

Kan's three months in office have been most notable for a proposed consumption-tax increase and a related DPJ upper house election defeat, which has prompted political gridlock.Kan's possibly boldest decision came in his first days on the job, when he said publicly that the scandal-tainted Ozawa should keep his distance from the party.

In August 2009, the DPJ steamrolled the Liberal Democratic Party, ending a half-century of almost unbroken one-party rule in Japan and delivering hope for a government characterized by transparency, not corruption. The party's first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, held the job for nine months, undone in part by his unrealized promise to relocate a U.S. Marine air station off Okinawa. When Hatoyama resigned June 2, Ozawa - Hatoyama's closest adviser - stepped down as secretary general.

The showdown between Kan, 63, and Ozawa, 68, further underscores the policy divide within the DPJ. Kan has developed a pragmatic approach toward the United States, backing off from Hatoyama's assertion that Japan needs greater independence from Washington. Ozawa is pushing for policies that more resemble Hatoyama's. He said he would seek fresh talks with Washington in an attempt to reopen debate about whether the Futenma air station belongs on Okinawa.He also pledged to intervene in the surge of the yen, proposing a $23.7 billion stimulus package - nearly twice the size of a package proposed this week by Kan - to energize the Japanese economy.

Experts and U.S. officials in Tokyo suggest that Ozawa will find little appetite, especially within Asia, for readdressing the location of Futenma. North Korea's torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March has heightened security concerns about Pyongyang. As North Korea has drawn closer to China, "the rest of the region has signaled they want strong U.S. engagement in Japan," said Michael Green, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As a result, Green said, Ozawa's stance is a "real problem for the Obama administration."

Though lower-level local party members also have a say in a weighted voting system, the party's 412 parliamentary members have the largest sway. Ozawa, according to analysts, commands loyalty from 150 members, having masterminded many of their election campaigns. A faction loyal to Hatoyama includes another 60 members. Last week, Hatoyama expressed support for Kan. Two days later, he decided to back Ozawa.

"That's the traditional way of analyzing it - how will these factions line up?" said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But even the 'Ozawa 150' - a lot of them are freshmen, brand new. Everybody assumes they're hard followers. But the public is against Ozawa. Would they follow him off the cliff?"

Guessing the shape of the DPJ, post-election, has fast become one of Japan's favorite parlor games. But analysts suggest that an eventual split, or splintering, is likely. "Whatever happens this election, I suspect there is still going to be more alignment," Kingston said.


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