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Monday, Sept. 21, 2009

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

'Alien' prime minister, new-look Cabinet bring change to old politics


Politics is not the kind of stuff you normally stay up to watch on the telly long into the night. Not unless scandals, drunkenness and other juicy activities are involved, of course.

But on Wednesday night, things were just a little bit different. On that day, Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister and appointed his Cabinet members. One by one, the appointees came on stage to meet the press in their new capacity.

The procedure itself was not that different from the way it used to work in the LDP years. What was different was that the ministers had not been briefed by their officials before going on stage.

True to his word that politicians rather than civil servants shall make and lead policy in his government, the new prime minister did not allow the briefings to happen. As a result, the ministers had to do their own homework and speak their own minds in their own words. This really made for rather enjoyable viewing. The customary urge to flip to another channel the moment politicians came on did not grip me on this occasion.

Two strong impressions emerged from that night.

One was the clear difference between this team and the long series of Cabinets that came and went under LDP rule.

Apart from the fact that they were for the most part indistinguishable from one another, the LDP Cabinets were invariably filled with people who had gotten their jobs for all the wrong reasons.

Reward for duties performed in the interest of victory was one reason. Another was seniority: It usually became time for somebody to land a ministerial appointment before it got too late to be plausible.

Yet another was the need to keep potential enemies out of the Cabinet. An equally important consideration, one suspects, may have been to bring potential enemies into the inner circle so they could be kept closer under the PM's thumb and not get up to mischief in the outside world.

This time round, the appointments appear to have been made by and large on the basis of suitability for office. Experience, knowledge and recent mandates seemed to dictate who got which brief.

No doubt there were some intricate power struggles with Ichiro Ozawa, who has moved on from acting DPJ president to party secretary general in balancing the various internal forces vying for dominance in the party. The prince of darkness still has some power to scare and bully yet. That said, the appointments look far less like a job lot than in times of old.

The second strong impression derives from the first. Clearly, there are people within the new Cabinet who relish this method of job allocation and some who do not.

Those who do are somewhat inclined to verbal diarrhea. Those who do not become tongue-tied and resort to reading out what they have written down about orders given to them by the prime minister. Both tendencies are potentially dangerous.

The former will lead to people promising too much. The latter will lead to people doing too little. Either way, difficulties will arise.

Despite all the likely pitfalls, the new political way looks to be off to a reasonably good start. It is thoroughly good fun, anyway. Politics may have been the art of the possible for Bismarck, but this new lot will have to go for the impossible if they intend to make a meaningful difference.

The new prime minister surely isn't known as "the alien" for nothing. Hopefully, we will see him make possible that which is impossible for the mere earthlings in this political universe.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.


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